APL Colloquium

June 2, 2023

Colloquium Topic: Scientist in Uniform: Vice Admiral Willis A. Lee, Jr.

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.

Colloquium Speaker: Paul Stillwell

Paul Stillwell is a free-lance historian.  He has a bachelor’s degree in history (1966) from Drury College, Springfield, Missouri, and a master’s degree in journalism (1978) from the University of Missouri. In 1962 he enlisted in the Naval Reserve.  He was commissioned an ensign in 1966 and officially retired in 1992 with the rank of commander.  He was on active duty from 1966 to 1969; he served in the tank landing ship Washoe County (LST-1165), 1966-69, in the Western Pacific, including Vietnam.  From May to October 1969, he served in the battleship New Jersey (BB-62), which operated during that period in the Eastern and Mid-Pacific.  In early 1988 the Navy recalled him to active duty for a month and sent him to the Persian Gulf as a historian to document the U.S. Navy’s role during the Iran-Iraq War.

In late 2004 Stillwell completed a 30-year tenure with the U.S. Naval Institute in Annapolis, Maryland.  From 1974 through 1981 he was with the monthly Proceedings magazine, working successively as departments editor, managing editor, and senior editor.  From 1981 to 1987 he was editor of the annual Naval Review issue of Proceedings, and from 1987 to 1992 he served as first editor-in-chief of Naval History magazine.  For 23 years he wrote a column for each issue of Naval History.  From 1993 to 2004 Stillwell was director of the Naval Institute’s history division. He has conducted hundreds of oral history interviews.

Stillwell is editor or author of 13 books:

  • Air Raid: Pearl Harbor! (1981)
  • Battleship New Jersey: An Illustrated History (1986)
  • Battleship Arizona: An Illustrated History (1991)
  • The Golden Thirteen: Recollections of the First Black Naval Officers (1993)
  • Sharks of Steel (coauthored with Vice Admiral Robert Kaufman, 1993)
  • Assault on Normandy: First-Person Accounts from the Sea Services (1994)
  • Battleship Missouri: An Illustrated History (1996)
  • Battleships (2001)
  • Carrier War: Aviation Art of World War II (2002)
  • Submarine Stories: Recollections from the Diesel Boats (2007)
  • Aviation Art of World War II (coauthored with James Kitchens and G. E. Patrick Murray, 2008)
  • Trailblazer: the U.S. Navy’s First Black Admiral (coauthored with Vice Admiral Samuel L. Gravely Jr., 2010)
  • Battleship Commander: the Life of Vice Admiral Willis A. Lee Jr. (2021)

The New York Times selected The Golden Thirteen as one of the notable books published in the field of history in 1993.