Willis A. Lee’s civilian existence ended on 9 July 1904. Up to then he and Oscar Smith, a Pennsylvania teenager, had been temporary boarders in Annapolis. They stayed at Miss Emma Atwell’s house on Prince George Street, opposite Carvel Hall Hotel. (For many years the hotel provided housing for midshipmen’s dates when they came to town for dances and other social events.) Smith and Lee took their oaths as midshipmen together that July day.1
When Lee arrived at the Academy, most midshipmen lived in the New Quarters. “New” was a relative term in this case, since the structure had been completed in 1869. It was a four-story red-brick building with an illuminated cylindrical clock tower rising above it. In 1901 construction began on a much more modern gray-granite building, Bancroft Hall, in the then-popular Beaux Arts style. The designer was noted architect Ernest Flagg, who produced a building that had dormers, a mansard roof, a center section with a rotunda, and two wings of rooms for midshipmen. The first occupants, including Lee’s plebe class, moved into a wing of Bancroft in 1904. That original structure, completed in 1906, was designed for subsequent expansion and now has eight wings. When Lee was there, the student body numbered fewer than 1,000. Now it is more than 4,000.2
One thing Oscar Smith prized about his relationship with the Kentuckian was that the Christmas boxes Lee received from home made his room a popular visiting spot. Years afterward, Smith wrote, “I still savor the delicious taste of the country hams that were always found among the gifts. . . . In those days there was no Christmas leave for Midshipmen and the Christmas boxes were treasured . . . by many a homesick boy in Bancroft Hall.”3
Marc A. Mitscher from Oklahoma was a midshipman who entered the academy as a plebe in 1904. Another “mid” from that state, Peter Cassius Marcellus Cade Jr., had bilged out the year before for failing academically. The upperclassmen started ragging Mitscher as a surrogate for Cade. Mitscher had to repeat the name of the departed mid whenever asked. The strange upshot was that Mitscher thus acquired the lifetime nickname “Pete.” Mitscher struggled academically, and he also was held culpable in a hazing scandal. In November 1905, Midshipman James R. Branch died in a fight among classmates. Investigation revealed that 200 mids had been involved in hazing. Mitscher was compelled to resign, both for his part in the hazing and for the numerous demerits he had accumulated. Even so, the young man was permitted to return to Annapolis and graduated in 1910, two years after Lee. Their paths would cross frequently 40 years later in the Pacific.4
Lloyd C. Stark from Missouri was another plebe classmate. He graduated in 1908 and remained in the Navy until he resigned in 1911. He went home to join the family apple business and later was in combat as an Army major in World War I. He entered politics in 1928 and served as governor of his home state from 1937 to 1941. In 1940 he ran for the U.S. Senate and lost to Harry S. Truman. After his tenure as governor, he returned to work in the family nursery.5
Stark’s time as a plebe is of interest because he left behind a diary of September and October 1904. Doubtless he took part in many of the same activities as did Lee. Among them were sailboat drill, steam-launch drill, and time on board the USS Chesapeake, a wooden-hulled, three-masted bark with auxiliary steam power; she was renamed the Severn in 1905. According to Stark, the plebes rowed racing cutters and performed infantry drill and bayonet practice in the armory. Naturally, there was small-arms marksmanship practice as well. Further exercise included boxing, gymnastics, fencing, and swimming. All this was prelude to academic studies in the fall. At one point Stark recorded his weight as 137 pounds.6 Photos of Lee from the period indicate that he, too, was skinny.
Nicknames were de rigueur at the academy for many years, and the Kentucky native soon became “Wah Lee,” on the basis of his initials, W. A. He also acquired another nickname that stuck for the rest of his life. John Earle, a fellow plebe, explained, “Lee was given the name ‘Chink’ by his classmates early in Plebe summer because, vaguely, he looked a bit like a Chinaman. About average in size, he had a round face, eyes that were slightly slanted and a skin yellowish in tone.”7 As the years passed, the nickname was modified to the less offensive “Ching,” though many of his confreres stuck with the original version.
Lee spent part of the 1905 summer training cruise on board the USS Nevada (BM-8), which he joined on 3 June. She was a shallow-draft, low-freeboard monitor with a main armament of two 12-inch guns. On 15 July he transferred to the Hartford. She was an old sailing vessel, a steam sloop-of-war. She had been Admiral David G. Farragut’s flagship during the Civil War Battle of Mobile Bay in 1864. During one stop of the summer, Earle Buckingham and Lee were on liberty together in Rockland, Maine, and they passed a laundry with a sign that said, “Wah Lee.” Buckingham and another midshipman persuaded Lee to ask the laundryman how to render the name in a Chinese character. Thereafter Lee used the character as an alternate signature.8
During three and a half of his four years at the Naval Academy, Lee roomed with Edmund Randall Norton. The roommate marveled at Lee’s ability to get by with little studying. Norton himself worked hard and stood second in the 201-man graduating class of 1908. Even though he had a great mind, Lee applied himself on only those things that really mattered to him. Norton observed that the two main categories that appealed to Lee were rifle shooting and freehand drawing.9
John Earle marveled at Lee’s ability for intense concentration. He remembered that Lee could read a lesson assignment once and retain everything of importance. Earle wrote of Lee, “He never seemed to be in the least burdened by our studies, as were so many of us. On walking into Chink’s room one seldom found him at his books . . . He was particularly good at math, our hardest subject, and spent many hours trying to make dumb classmates see how simple math really was.” Earle observed that Lee appeared to have a limited social life. He did not recall Lee being conspicuous at dances, adding, “I am sure he was much more interested in firearms than girls.”10
Another classmate, Worrall Carter, was destined to have a substantial role in logistic support for the fleet in World War II. Years later, Carter recalled Lee’s drawings. Even though Lee and his future wife would have no children of their own, Lee was fond of children and drew sketches to entertain them. As Carter remembered, “My own children had a great fancy for him.”11
Just after the class of 1907 graduated, Lee began his final summer of training. During the cruise, Lee and classmate Walter Heiberg were assigned to the monitor Nevada. Other ships in the training squadron were definitely second line: the monitors USS Arkansas (BM-7) and Florida (BM-9) and the cruiser Olympia (C-6). The latter had been Commodore George Dewey’s flagship during the Battle of Manila Bay nine years earlier. The squadron was at Hampton Roads, Virginia, for ten days in June to visit the Jamestown Exposition. The exposition lasted throughout much of the year. This world’s fair commemorated the 300th anniversary of the founding of Jamestown as the first permanent English settlement in what eventually became the United States.
During their ship’s visit, Lee and Heiberg were often on the exposition’s midway. The pair closed down several shooting galleries that hung silver dollars from strings. At a price of ten cents per shot, the marksmen won the dollars whenever their bullets snapped the strings. They were so successful that, according to classmate John E. Meredith, “This was long the subject of conversation in the Wardrooms of the fleets.” As Meredith pointed out, the feat was mentioned in Heiberg’s entry in the 1908 Naval Academy yearbook.12
John E. Iseman, a classmate, wrote, “When in company with [classmate Andrew Denney], we were looking over the shooting galleries on the Midway. Whenever we stopped, the proprietor begged ‘Ching’ to help himself to any of the prizes, but refrain from shooting up the place.”13 At the end of the 1906–7 academic year, the school awarded prizes for “general excellence in target practice.” The recipients were Willis Lee, gold medal; his friend Andrew Denney, silver medal; and his exposition partner, Walt Heiberg, bronze medal.14P
From Virginia the Nevada proceeded to New England. While the ship was in New London, Connecticut, Lee received orders to report to the Academy rifle team in Annapolis. When he was detached from the ship on 12 July, momentous events lay ahead. After undergoing practice at the Naval Academy, on 5 August he joined other marksmen for the National Rifle Association–sponsored national matches.15 The site was Camp Perry, named in honor of Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry, who won a signal victory in the Battle of Lake Erie during the War of 1812. The camp was a National Guard training facility in northern Ohio—on the shore of Lake Erie. It was the first year the matches were held there, the result of efforts by the state’s adjutant general, Brigadier General Ammon B. Critchfield, who sought to improve the marksmanship of Ohio soldiers. Shooters fired toward the open water of the lake; in between, an earthen berm held the targets.
As he took part in the competition, Midshipman Lee had a ragamuffin appearance, far from the standard he was supposed to display at Annapolis. He was clad in a sailor-type wrinkled white uniform that bore his last name on the chest, a nondescript hat, and a cartridge belt. What he accomplished in one day was astounding: He won individual national championships in both rifle and pistol. Lee was the only American ever to win in both categories the same year. In the individual rifle category—as opposed to team competition—he was one of 684 contestants. He performed rapid fire at 200 and 300 yards, and slow fire was at 600, 800, and 1,000 yards. Even though he missed two targets at the maximum range, he eked out the victory over Lieutenant W. H. Clopton Jr., a cavalry officer, 318 to 316.
With the pistol, he shot slow fire, timed fire, and rapid fire at ranges that ran from 15 to 75 yards. In that case he beat out his nearest competitor 238 to 237.16 His classmate Thomas C. Kinkaid talked with Lee after the triumphs at Camp Perry. Lee told him that he had finished the rifle competition early, so he entered the pistol matches “just to kill time.” Clearly, he accomplished more than that.17
William Ward “Poco” Smith was also on the Naval Academy team. Smith wrote of Lee, “As an expert rifleman and pistolman, he might have been called a ‘Nut’ on this form of sport.” On one occasion when they were shooting together, they were engaged in rapid-fire mode with bolt-action rifles—five shots in 20 seconds. Then Lee pulled what Smith termed a “stunt” during a match to determine who would make the team the following day. While Lee was shooting at a target 200 yards away, a dog ran across the field, halfway between the firing line and the target.
Smith reported, “Ching’s rifle left the target as he sent his five shots at the dog. But nothing could keep him
off the team.” Because of his vision problems, Lee used different pairs of glasses while firing at different ranges. Once, while firing at 1,000 yards at Camp Perry, Lee confided, “Poco, at this range I cannot see the bull’s eye. The entire target looks the size of a postage stamp.” Smith observed that Lee aimed at the postage stamp—and hit the bull’s eye.18
Classmate Eugene Wilson was also a member of the rifle team. He emphasized that successful shooting by the Navy men was the result of effective teamwork. Members shot in pairs and coached each other. The rifleman firing the shot was responsible for the correct elevation of the piece, while his partner provided help on deflection—that is, coaching on horizontal aiming. He did so by observing the way wind moved the flags on the range, heat waves, clouds, and other factors that would affect the flight of the bullet during its trajectory to the target.19
Years later, John Earle, a fellow member of the rifle team, wrote to Lee’s widow, “Lying prone in the boiling sun on the rifle range, through binoculars I would spot Chink’s shots for him as he fired at long ranges. Then he, in turn, would do the same for me.” He recalled that Lee often paused to wipe the sweat from his eyes and polish the lenses of the shooting glasses he wore. He also attested, as have many, that Lee was not flustered. As evidence of Lee’s skill, Earle wrote, “I have seen him shoot chippy birds out of a bush with a Colt’s .38—one, two, three, four—just as fast as he could pull the trigger.”20
One of Lee’s lifelong traits was his becoming sense of modesty. During his first-class year, he was in the same company with Midshipman William Kurfess, who was a plebe at the time. Kurfess explained that weekly personnel inspections were standard operating procedure. Midshipmen wore their full-dress uniforms, including medals. Lee did not comply, so the inspecting officer asked him where his medals were. Lee made an excuse—that they were being repaired or something else. The inspector finally lost patience and told Lee that if he did not show up with medals at the following week’s event, he would be put on report. “The next Sunday,” remembered Kurfess, “Lee did appear in formation with his chest so covered with medals that it was difficult to see his jacket.”21
Poor eyesight dogged Lee throughout his naval career. He wore thick glasses and was always concerned about passing the vision portion of the annual physical. His classmate Thomas Kinkaid wrote that Lee memorized two lines of the eye chart that was no closer than 20 feet from a midshipman being tested. More than 50 years after they had been at the Naval Academy together, Kinkaid wrote that he still recalled the sequence of two vital lines: “FLOTDEXC” and “CLVFOTZE.” Once, when Lee and Kinkaid were walking together, Lee’s vision was so poor that he was unable to recognize his roommate from across the street. As for personality, Kinkaid remembered Lee as unruffled and imperturbable and added, “I don’t ever remember seeing him angry (nor anyone else angry at him).”22
Eugene Wilson of the rifle team knew Lee well. Like Kinkaid, he shared his midshipman recollections more than 50 years after the fact. Wilson recalled that Lee habitually failed the regular eye exam. The procedure called for a retest of those who flunked. By virtue of his name’s place in the alphabet, Wilson took the regular exam near the end of the line. He was thus able to let Lee know which chart was in use that day. Lee could then recite the day’s sequence of letters during the retest that followed right after the regular one. Remarkably, after all the intervening years, Wilson in 1962 recalled one line of letters that matched Kinkaid’s memory: “FLOTDEXC ” (Reaching ahead to discuss Lee’s 1942 achievement at Guadalcanal, Wilson added, “When I heard the news of Chink Lee off Savo Island, I found justification for the little deceit we had perpetrated on the physical exams at Annapolis.”23
In May 1908, not surprisingly, the Bureau of Medicine and Surgery reported that a physical examination of Midshipman Lee revealed that he had defective vision, a potentially disqualifying condition. His right eye tested at 11/20 and his left eye at 10/20. Nonetheless, the Navy’s surgeon general recommended that he “be allowed to graduate with his class, subject to re-examination two years hence to determine his physical fitness for the service.” The office of the Secretary of the Navy concurred in the decision.24
On 5 June 1908 Lee and his classmates graduated, after four years of study, drills, training cruises, and a generally confined life within the walls of the Naval Academy. Of the 201 graduates, Lee stood a middling 106 and was among the youngest. He had turned 20 less than a month earlier. His only younger classmates were Harry M. Hitchcock, born 7 June 1888, and Lee Pettit Warren, born on 20 June. Hitchcock was the youngest midshipman, admitted at the age of 16 years, eight days. Lee, who did not finish high school, was also among the youngest admitted at just under 16 years, two months. The level of attrition had been considerable in the years since he arrived: 82 of his original classmates did not make it to graduation.25
1. Oscar Smith Jr., letter to Evan Smith, 27 March 1962.
2. Jack Sweetman, The U.S. Naval Academy: An Illustrated History (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1979) 87–88, 142–44; Oscar Smith Jr., letter to Evan Smith, 9 May 1962.
3. Smith, 9 May 1962 letter.
4. Theodore Taylor, The Magnificent Mitscher (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1991), 20–22.
5. “Gov. Lloyd Crowe Stark,” National Governors Association.
6. Lloyd C. Stark diary, 1904.
7. John H. Earle, letter to Evan Smith, 25 March 1962.
8. Earle Buckingham, letter to Evan Smith, 25 August 1962. Earle, letter.
9. Edmund R. Norton, letter to Evan Smith, undated.
10. Earle, letter.
11. Worrall R. Carter, letter to Evan Smith, 30 March 1962.
12. John E. Meredith, letter to Evan Smith, 6 April 1962.
13. John E. Iseman Jr., letter to Evan Smith, 30 March 1962.
14. Annual Register of the Naval Academy, 1 October 1907, 187.
15. Lee service record.
16. Arms and the Man, 5 September 1907, 516–18.
17. Thomas C. Kinkaid, letter to Evan Smith, 9 April 1962.
18. William Ward Smith, letter to Evan Smith, 26 May 1962.
19. Eugene E. Wilson, letter to Evan Smith, 13 March 1962.
20. John H. Earle, letter to Mabelle Lee, 29 August 1945.
21. William F. Kurfess, letter to Evan Smith, 28 May 1962.
22. Kinkaid, letter.
23. Eugene E. Wilson, letter to Evan Smith, 23 March 1962.
24. Lee service record.
25. Naval Academy, Register of Alumni, 1908.