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Willis Lee

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Willis Augustus "Ching" Lee (1888-1945) was a United States Navy admiral who specialized in gunnery, and commanded the Battle Force of the Pacific Fleet during World War Two in the Pacific, TF 34 when under the United States Third Fleet and William Halsey, and TF 54 when under United States Fifth Fleet and Raymond Spruance.

He served as Assistant Chief of Staff to the Commander in Chief, United States Fleet to February 1942. He was appointed Commander, Task Force, Southwest Pacific, in February 1942. [1]

Guadalcanal

His most distinguished action was in the Second Naval Battle of Guadalcanal, commanding a battleship division with supporting ships. His flagship, USS Washington (BB-56), did the major damage after USS South Dakota was put out of action. When American PT boats moved to attack the unidentified battleships, he radioed, ""This is Ching Chong China Lee! Chinese, catchee? Refer your boss about Ching Lee. Call off your boys!" [2] Rather than use secure communications, he identified himself by his Naval Academy nickname, a complex story involving confusion at a Chinese laundry.

Raids

On the Spring of 1944 he and Admiral Marc A. Mitscher directed attacks on Truk Islands and the Japanese strongholds in the Carolines, then, in the fall, at Formosa and the Ryukyus.

Leyte Gulf

During the Battle of Leyte Gulf, he was to have commanded Task Force 34 of heavy ships, should that have been formed as a unit. Admiral Halsey had only established contingency plans for doing so, but Admirals Chester W. Nimitz and Thomas Kinkaid believed it was in being. Halsey had issued a battle plan, which he did not consider an order, saying that a surface gunfire force "will be formed as TF 34 under VADM Lee, Commander Battle Line. TF 34 will engage decisively at long ranges." It was his intention to have this treated as a warning order for the action if a surface engagement offered. As confirmation, he pointed out his subsequent radio message, "If the enemy sorties [through San Bernadino], TF 34 will be formed when directed by me."[3]

During the Action off Samar, Halsey received a series of messages from Kinkaid, apparently starting at 0900, read OUR [escort carriers]] BEING ATTACKED BY 4 [battleships] 8 CRUISERS PLUS OTHERS. REQUEST LEE [commanding TF 34] COVER LEYTE AT TOP SPEED. REQUEST FAST CARRIERS MAKE IMMEDIATE STRIKE. "I had already sent McCain. There was nothing else I could do, except become angrier."

At 0922, Halsey said he received what he believed to be Sprague's sixth message was actually his third, sent at 0725 but received by Halsey himself at 0922. It read [Taffy 3] UNDER ATTACK BY CRUISERS AND [battleships] 0700 [position given]. REQUEST IMMEDIATE AIR STRIKE. ALSO REQUEST BY HEAVY SHIPS. MY [old battleships — Oldendorf's force] LOW IN AMMUNITION. Halsey asked himself why Kinkaid had not mentioned the ammunition problem, and then recognized this message had been delayed. Halsey responded I AM STILL ENGAGING ENEMY CARRIERS [at the Battle of Cape Engano]. MCCAIN WITH 5 CARRIERS 4 HEAVY CRUISERS HAS BEEN ORDERED ASSIST YOU IMMEDIATELY. Halsey gave his present position to show that his main force was too far away to help Seventh Fleet.

Halsey then received two near-simultaneous messages at 1000, one from Kinkaid, significantly sent unencrypted, the mark of extreme urgency. It read WHERE IS LEE. SEND LEE[4] Halsey was concerned that the Japanese might intercept this message, and they indeed did. "Tokyo Rose", the Japanese propagandist, broadcast later "Kinkaid halloing for help showed his great anxiety." On learning of the broadcast, Kinkaid commented "She didn't know how true that was!"[5]

Death

In May 1945, he was sent to the Atlantic to command a special unit researching defenses against the Kamikaze threat. While serving in that position on 25 August 1945, he died suddenly after suffering a heart attack.

References

  1. Lee, Willis Augustus, Arlington Cemetery Website
  2. David H. Lippman, The Fork in the Road, Historic WWII: USS Washington (BB-56)
  3. William F. Halsey and J. Bryan III (1947), Admiral Halsey's Story, McGraw-Hill, p. 214
  4. Halsey, p. 220
  5. Samuel Eliot Morison (1970), History of United States Naval Operations in World War II, vol. Volume XII: Leyte, June 1944-January 1945, Atlantic Monthly/Little, Brown, p. 296