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Posted on Jan 22, 2022 in Books and Movies, Front Page Features

The Straight Shooter of Savo Island – The Life of Vice Admiral Willis Lee Jr. Book Review.

The Straight Shooter of Savo Island – The Life of Vice Admiral Willis Lee Jr. Book Review.

Ray Garbee

Battleship Commander: The Life of Vice Admiral Willis A. Lee Jr.  Author: Paul Stillwell. Publisher: Naval Institute Press Price $ 37.95

The battle of Midway rightfully gets a lot of attention, but the Guadalcanal campaign marked the shift in momentum in the Pacific War. No longer just blocking Japanese attacks, at Guadalcanal the Allies began the series of offensives that would lead to victory in the Pacific. But Guadalcanal was far from a certain outcome and the series of naval battles in the waters of the Solomon Islands were pivotal in securing the island. In this environment, Vice Admiral Willis A Lee, Jr played a key role commanding United States Navy ships in action against the Japanese in November of 1942. He’d remain in command of elements of the fast battleship force until June, 1945. Against the plethora of well-known naval leaders like Nimitz, Halsey, Spruance, and Burke, Vice Admiral Lee blended into background, focused on accomplishing his assigned mission.

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Willis “Ching” Lee’s life has never been documented in the same way that biographers have covered Nimitz, Burke and even Thomas Hart. Paul Stillwell has corrected this oversight in his recent biography Battleship Commander: The life of Vice Admiral Willis A Lee, Jr. An accomplished n naval historian, Stillwell’s book is the result of decades of research into the life of a career navy man who was in the right place at the right time in November, 1942.

Battleship Commander is a narrative of Willis Lee’s life from his birth in Kentucky through a navy career that lasted through the Second World War. Stillwell paints a picture of a reserved, smart and capable man who early in life discovered his passion for gunnery and then made it his life’s work.

A crack shot with both pistols and rifles from a young age, “Ching” Lee won numerous awards as a member of the US Navy rifle team, as well as later with the 1920 US Olympic team. This proficiency translated over to naval gunnery in his career. Paired with his dexterity with a firearm, Lee possessed a razor-sharp mind for both mathematics and tactics – key attributes for a career with the guns of the Navy.

Vice Admiral Willis A. Lee, Jr.

Stillwell does an admirable job exploring Lee’s career prior to Pearl Harbor, but the focus of the work is on Admiral Lee’s activities during the Pacific War. The book recounts Lee’s performance in the major actions of his career – Savo Island, the Marianas and Leyte Gulf.  While Savo was the battle that cemented Lee’s place in history, the subsequent actions during the Marianas and Leyte Gulf reveal a leader with sharp analytical mind in weighing the cost/benefit analysis of surface engagement.

The book contains a nicely detailed set of maps depicted the action off Savo Island. The cartographer did excellent work.

The battle of Samar is of particular interest with Stillwell documenting that Lee recognized the risk the approaching Japanese posed the assault force, but was unable to interpose his ships between the Japanese and the assault force. It reminds me of General Buford’s monologue (portrayed by Sam Elliot) from the movie Gettysburg,

“…as if tomorrow has already happened and there’s nothin’ you can do about it. The way you sometimes feel before an ill-considered attack, knowin’ it’ll fail, but you cannot stop it. You must even take part, and help it fail.…”

The Battle of Samar stands as both a shining victory and a bitter failure for the U.S. Navy. Stillwell explores Lee’s role in the events and presents the perspectives of other participants surrounding the decision that led to the missed opportunity for the battleship action between the fleets.

Throughout the narrative Stillwell presents a portrait of a leader who is a blend of traditional naval hierarchy coupled with an example of servant leadership. These traits reflect that nature of Lee’s character of a reserved man, with a deep love of reading paired with the drive to deliver results and to improve his team’s performance through experience and learning.

Vice Admiral Lee aboard USS New Jersey

Lee excelled within his ‘lane’ and was recognized for his skills. His career reflects the transitional period between the big gun battlewagons of the First World War and the rise of carrier aviation. Just as he neared the pinnacle of fleet command, aviation leaders rose to dominate the ranks. That’s not to imply that Willis Lee was a dinosaur unable to cope with technological change.

Paul Stillwell is no stranger to naval history or biography. His years of experience pay off in how the narrative is structured and presented the chronology of Lee’s life reflects the character of the man. But even with the details presented, the reader can feel detached from a sense of really ‘knowing’ the man. In a sense, that narrative reflects the aloof nature of Vice Admiral Lee presented to the world.

At a broader level this book shows the importance of staying current with technological advances. Much as William Halsey recognizing the airplane as the future, Lee recognized the potential for radar to transform his profession. It’s a lesson that is still very relevant today. We all need to look at the new technologies and envision how they’ll transform the way we do things today. What you learned in your youth may not be as valued later in your career.

Battleship Commander is a long overdue book that Illuminates the life of W.A. “Ching” Lee Jr. This book will appeal to students of naval history with its perspective on the battles of Savo Island and Leyte Gulf, but also for its insights into how the relationships between officers shape the decisions and performance of the task forces and fleets. It’s a good study in leadership. The work is an excellent example showing that there is more than one way to lead and succeed within an organization. Lee’s life demonstrates how elements of servant leadership help an organization succeed. Stillwell’s book has earned a spot on the bookshelf next to Potter’s biographies of Nimitz and Halsey.

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