BOOK REVIEW – Battleship Commander: The Life of Vice Admiral Willis A. Lee Jr.

Paul Stillwell, Battleship Commander: The Life of Vice Admiral Willis A. Lee Jr. Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2021. 368 pp.

Dr. Corbin Williamson, PhD
United States Air War College

While the most senior U.S. Navy admirals of World War II have been the subjects of biographical studies (King, Nimitz, Halsey, Spruance), mid-ranking admirals have been less well examined. Paul Stillwell seeks to correct that imbalance in this study of the Navy’s best known battleship commander of World War II, Vice Admiral Willis Lee, Jr. Stillwell relies on numerous oral histories and correspondence with members of Lee’s staff since Lee’s death in August 1945 made writing this work a challenge.

Lee grew up in Kentucky and demonstrated a marked intelligence at an early age. He entered the U.S. Naval Academy in July 1904 and soon became known as a crack marksman. The Navy’s line officer corps at the time was made up entirely of Academy graduates, so Lee made connections at Annapolis that stayed with him throughout his career. After graduation, Lee held several assignments related to marksmanship while also serving a tour in the western Pacific on the USS Helena, a gunboat. 

After the United States entered World War I in 1917, Lee sought an assignment in Europe but arrived just after the 1918 armistice ended combat operations. He did participate in the 1920 Olympics in Belgium and won six gold medals in shooting competitions. Later that year he was promoted to lieutenant commander and took command of the destroyer USS Fairfax, stationed on the U.S. east coast. Lee held several commands in the 1920s including multiple destroyer-related assignments. In 1930 he began the first of several tours in the Fleet Training Division in the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations. During this first tour he revised the gunnery and tactical instructions that guided the fleet’s training activities. These training exercises received significant attention as their results could shape an officer’s career prospects.

In 1936 Lee took command of the light cruiser USS Concord. Stillwell uses Lee’s command of the Concord as a window to describe the interwar Navy. Specifically, Stillwell highlights how the Great Depression led many sailors to stay in the Navy for the security in pay the service provided. As a result, competition for senior enlisted jobs was intense which in turn meant senior enlisted sailors tended to be highly qualified and capable in the interwar Navy. During his command of the Concord Lee also began to recommend improvements in the Navy’s light anti-aircraft capabilities. During a further tour in the Fleet Training Division in 1940 and 1941 he helped improve anti-aircraft capabilities throughout the fleet.

Lee is best known for his command of the American battleship squadron that defeated the Japanese at the Second Naval Battle of Guadalcanal on the night of 14-15 November 1942. Stillwell demonstrates that Lee’s background in gunnery, interest in technical developments, and cool demeanor all helped him to successfully lead the U.S. force in the engagement. The battle helped secure American control of the waters around Guadalcanal, though the Japanese were able to withdraw their troops from Guadalcanal in early 1943 by sea.

Lee went on to command the fast battleship force that accompanied American carriers throughout the Central Pacific offensive from late 1943 into 1944. These battleships spent most of their time escorting carriers and providing naval gunfire support. As a result, when given the opportunity to engage the Japanese in a night surface action at the Battle of the Philippine Sea in June 1944, Lee declined. He believed that his battleship force lacked the necessary training as a group to be effective in a night engagement. Stillwell highlights Lee’s good working relationship with the task force’s commanders, especially Vice Admiral Marc Mitscher.

Several months later, the U.S. Navy fought the Battle of Leyte Gulf, the largest naval battle of the Pacific War. Controversially, Admiral William Halsey fell for a Japanese diversion designed to pull away the force covering the American invasion armada from threats from the north. Stillwell describes how Lee twice sent messages to Halsey’s flagship highlighting the threat posed by Halsey’s decision to sail away to the north. However, Halsey’s staff did not act on these warnings and a Japanese force attacked American escort carriers before being driven off. Lee was frustrated at the engagement’s outcome. Leyte Gulf also saw the Japanese begin to employ kamikaze attacks on a large scale. In 1945 Lee was given the job of determining how best to counter the kamikazes and returned to the United States to carry out this task. However, he died in August 1945 in Portland, Maine of a heart attack.

Throughout the work, Stillwell emphasizes how Lee’s staff worked and related to one another. This emphasis reflects the extensive interviews and correspondence Stillwell conducted with those who knew Lee well. This wide-ranging research allows Stillwell to bring Lee to life and gives the reader a clear picture of Lee’s personality. The book is well written and provides a thoughtful portrayal of a lesser-known actor in the Pacific theater in World War II. Battleship Commander is recommended for interested general readers and scholars interested in the naval aspects of World War II.

(Return to December 2022 Table of Contents) 

The views presented in this book review represent those of the author and are not necessarily those of the U.S. government, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Air Force. For biographical studies of senior admirals see Thomas B. Buell, The Quiet Warrior: A Biography of Admiral Raymond A. Spruance (Boston: Little Brown, 1974); E. B. Potter, Nimitz (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1976); Thomas B. Buell, Master of Seapower: A Biography of Fleet Admiral Ernest J. King (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1980); and Thomas Hughes, Admiral Bill Halsey: A Naval Life (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2016).

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