Battleship Commander

The Life of Vice Admiral Willis A. Lee Jr.

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This is the first-ever biography of Vice Admiral Willis A. Lee Jr., who served a key role during World War II in the Pacific. Recognizing the achievements and legacy of one of the war’s top combat admirals has been long overdue until now.  

Battleship Commander explores Lee’s life from boyhood in Kentucky through his eventual service as commander of the fast battleships from 1942 to 1945. Paul Stillwell draws on more than 150 first-person accounts from those who knew and served with Lee from boyhood until the time of his death. Said to be down to earth, modest, forgiving, friendly, and with a wry sense of humor, Lee eschewed the media and, to the extent possible, left administrative details to others. Stillwell relates the sequential building of a successful career, illustrating Admiral Lee’s focus on operational, tactical, and strategic concerns. During his service in the Navy Department from 1939 to 1942, Lee prepared the U.S. Navy for war at sea, and was involved in inspecting designs for battleships, cruisers, aircraft carriers, and destroyers. He sent observers to Britain to report on Royal Navy operations during the war against Germany and made plans to send an action team to mainland China to observe conditions for possible later Allied landings there. Putting his focus on the need to equip U.S. warships with radar and antiaircraft guns, Lee was one of the few flag officers of his generation who understood the tactical advantage of radar, especially during night battles.  

In 1942 Willis Lee became commander of the first division of fast battleships to operate in the Pacific. During that service, he commanded Task Force 64, which achieved a tide-turning victory in a night battle near Guadalcanal in November 1942. Lee missed two major opportunities for surface actions against the Japanese. In June 1944, in the Marianas campaign, he declined to engage because his ships were not trained adequately to operate together in surface battles. In October 1944, Admiral William Halsey’s bungled decisions denied Lee’s ships an opportunity for combat.  

Continuing his career of service near the end of the war, Lee, in the summer of 1945, directed anti-kamikaze research efforts in Casco Bay, Maine. While Lee’s wartime successes and failures make for compelling reading, what is here in this biography is a balanced look at the man and officer.  

About the Author

Editorial Reviews

“Paul Stillwell writings on any World War II naval subject produced is an absolute must read for anyone interested in the field. His life of Willis Lee is one of the most anticipated books of the season and will deserve the close attention of anybody who cares about the U.S. Navy in the Pacific during World War II and its flowering as a war-winner. His work lives and breathes as a testament to the professionalism and rigors of naval operational arts and the spectacular ends which they can be put.” –James D. Hornfischer, author of Neptune's Inferno and The Fleet at Flood Tide

“Behind an outward façade of country manners and a notably untidy uniform,Vice Admiral Willis Augustus ('Ching') Lee wielded an acute intelligence and a preternatural ability to work a complex tactical plot in his head. A world class-marksman whether aiming a pistol or 16-inch guns–he relaxed by checking firing table math in publications. In November 1942, he gained immortality as the victor in one of the most desperate battles in U.S. Navy history that decided the struggle for Guadalcanal. With relentless research, deep immersion in the Navy of World War II and an agile pen, Paul Stillwell’s superb biography installs Lee as one of the greatest admirals in U.S. history.” —Richard B. Frank, author of Downfall: The End of the Imperial Japanese Empire
“A fascinating description of a true naval hero of the Second World War, whose combat experiences in fast battleships and early understanding of radar became part of the DNA of the surface Navy. Paul Stillwell brings a lifetime of experience as a naval historian to bear in this well written and timely biography.” —Adm. James Stavridis, 16th Supreme Allied Commander of NATO and author of The Sailor's Bookshelf: Fifty Books to Know the Sea
“What an extraordinary achievement by Paul Stillwell in bringing alive this wonderfully told and compelling story of a truly important hero of World War II. From Lee's early years as a young hellion to the pivotal naval battle he won at Guadalcanal, this is a book to savor. Filled with fascinating anecdotes, it shows us the path to greatness and the cost of war on a man and his family.” —Robert J. Mrazek, award-winning author of The Indomitable Florence Finch: The Untold Story of a War Widow Turned Resistance Fighter and Savior of American POWs
“Finally, a biography of Admiral Lee. Paul Stillwell has made a great contribution to the historical record. Through personal interviews and letters, he gives us insight into the U.S. Navy’s foremost battleship commander. Lee’s many talents, great effectiveness, and quiet humility are all detailed in this thoroughly researched and engaging account.” —Trent Hone, author of Learning War: The Evolution of Fighting Doctrine in the U.S. Navy, 1898-1945 and co-author of Battle Line: The United States Navy, 1919-1939
“Compelling reading ... [and] a balanced look at the man and officer.” —Virtual Mirage
“In Battleship Commander, Paul Stillwell brings to life one of the U.S. Navy’s most unusual admirals of WWII. Shunning the spotlight, Willis A. Lee Jr. fashioned a quiet leadership style that produced momentous results. Stillwell has sketched a rich portrait of a unique admiral who doesn’t fit the stereotype of an admiral.” —Elliot Carlson, author of Joe Rochefort's War: The Odyssey of the Codebreaker Who Outwitted Yamamoto at Midway
“Admiral Willis Lee fought and won arguably the most important naval battle of the pivotal Guadalcanal campaign. Paul Stillwell’s superb biography gives us an intimate look at a uniquely human commander, and one of the most gifted surface warfare officers the U.S. Navy has ever produced.” —Jon Parshall, co-author of Shattered Sword: The Untold Story of the Battle of Midway
Battleship Commander by Paul Stillwell is one of those books that you start it and just can’t put down until it’s finished – then you pick it back up and read it again!.... If you want an insight into Admiral Lee’s interactions with Naval personnel – his peers and superiors as well as subordinates – this will work for you.” —Guns, Food, and More
“Admiral Lee deserves to be more widely known than he is today, and this book is a fitting tribute to his naval career. The author takes us from Lee's humble beginning in Natlee, Kentucky, to his tragic death aboard a navy small boat transporting him to his office on Great Diamond island near Portland, Maine. Between these two events lies a tale of a professional sailor who did his job well and deserves recognition for his skilled service.” —WWII History
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.” —Armchair General
Battleship Commander not only demonstrates Lee’s importance to American naval professionalism in his own day, but also his legacy of leadership for today’s Navy…. The biography is top notch.” —The Strategy Bridge
“Paul Stillwell has filled one of the remaining voids in the bibliographic study of America’s World War II naval leadership with his well-written narrative of Vice Adm. Willis A. 'Ching' Lee…. This study in leadership is highly [recommended] to all SWOs.” —Naval Historical Foundation
“This is a very professionally and personally researched and delightfully written biography of one of America’s least known but most effective naval leaders of the Pacific part of World War II. The book should, very deservedly, make Admiral Lee much better known and appreciated.” —Baird Maritime
“Former naval officer Paul Stillwell has earned a deserved place as ‘Mr. Battleship’ in history circles. And if ‘long-awaited’ ever described a biography, Battleship Commander must retire the trophy. Stillwell began researching the Lee story more than 40 years ago, and the results show. He combines an enormous amount of research and interviews ... in a text of fluid prose and often gripping narrative.” —American Rifleman
“Stillwell has dived deeply into the life of a modest but brilliant operational commander, respected by all ranks. The author’s impressive collection of memories of Lee from those who knew him vary from considered professional assessments of his leadership qualities to folksy anecdotes which not only illustrate his humanity but gives the reader an insight into the world of the 1920s and 30s and the vast U.S. Navy of the war years. A fine biography of a fine man.” —Australian Naval Institute
“While Lee’s wartime successes and failures make for compelling reading, what is here in this biography is a balanced look at the man and officer.” —Virtual Mirage
Battleship Commander is a deeply researched and fascinating look at the naval war in the Pacific. While many books have been written about other leaders like Admirals Nimitz, Spruance, Halsey and Mitscher, and there are many fine accounts of the campaigns there, until now the important contribution of Willis A. Lee has been largely neglected. Perhaps that is due in part to Lee’s own modesty – indeed, he always shunned the spotlight. Stillwell’s welcome examination of this key player gives a very important perspective on a complicated and multifaceted war that continues to reveal new insights.” —StrategyPage
Battleship Commander: The Life of Vice Admiral Willis A Lee Jr. by Paul Stillwell and published by USNI is such a joy to read. The author clearly presents how VADM Lee’s marksmanship, advanced mathematical skills, cleverness, and wit in his childhood years later benefitted the U.S. Navy in wartime Pacific. This book would be a perfect reference for future navy commanders as it reveals how Lee could generate a cohesive and happy crew. Lee was very much appreciated by ADM Nimitz for his brilliant mind, and his ability to transfer theory into practice, but most of all for his humility and non-pompous nature.” —The Maritime Review
Battleship Commander is a fair, balanced view of Lee’s life and highlights his superb reputation as a marksman, ship handler, and loyal shipmate. In summary, the author concentrates on Lee’s lasting accomplishments in improving the Navy’s readiness in the areas of shipboard radar, fire control systems, anti-air gunnery, proximity fuses for 5-inch projectiles, and perhaps most important, the development of the CIC concept. VADM Lee is indeed worthy of the title “Battleship Commander,” given his recognized leadership during three years of intense fighting at sea in WWII. I recommend this book, filled with vignettes from family, friends, and shipmates, to learn more about the battleship admiral who spent three years in the Pacific during WWII, and whose total focus was on the readiness of the U.S. Navy.” —Hampton Roads Naval Museum
Battleship Commander is well-researched, and well-written. The descriptions of the battles Lee fought are fast-paced and exciting. It is a highly informative account of a man whose naval career has been long underappreciated.” —Nautical Research Journal
—Winner of the John Lyman Book Award in the category of “Naval and Maritime Biography and Autobiography”
Paul Stillwell has written a detailed account of the life and career of a typical US naval officer in the first half of the twentieth century. His attention to his subject's education, training, service, and life in general is so meticulous that readers will walk away feeling they have known Lee personally. While other historians may provide additional insights into Lee's tactical decision-making and contributions to the Navy's technical progress, Battleship Commander will remain the definitive biography of Admiral Willis A. Lee. — Michigan War Studies Review
"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." — International Journal of Naval History
"Stillwell obviously admires Lee, whose ‘folksy’ manner and often dishevelled appearance hid a brilliant and analytical mind, and whose major contribution to the US Navy was in developing gunnery and tactics. This book is recommended to everyone with an interest in the Pacific war, and the role of an influential but little-known admiral in forming the fleet that fought it." —Warship

More Info

Drachinifel: Admiral Willis 'Ching' Lee - The Ultimate Sharpshooter 

This feature length video covers Admiral Lee's life and career, using Battleship Commander as the primary source. 




Talking Battleships with Paul Stillwell: New Jersey Veteran, Author, and Naval Historian



USS New Jersey: Paul Stillwell and his book Battleship Commander

Paul Stillwell discusses his time aboard BB-62, and the life and career of Adm. Willis Lee.


WWII at Sea