Promoted to rear admiral in January 1942, Lee subsequently took command of the Pacific Fleet's Battleship Division 6, composed of the recently commissioned fast battleships Washington and South Dakota. At Guadalcanal, he repulsed a superior Japanese force on the night of 14–15 November 1942. Despite losing his destroyer screen, Lee engaged the Japanese. Through the judicious use of radar, he identified and targeted the battleship Kirishima, which fell victim to devastatingly accurate gunfire from the Washington's 16-inch batteries. With Kirishima mortally damaged, the Japanese ships withdrew. Lee's victory, in essence, effectively ended Japan's efforts to dislodge U.S. forces from Guadalcanal and was thus a turning point in the Pacific Theater.
Although promoted to commander of the Pacific Fleet's battleships in 1943, Lee never again engaged the Japanese in a decisive surface battle. Eclipsed by naval airpower, his battlewagons were reduced to providing antiaircraft screens for the fast carrier task forces, for which he nevertheless earned recognition. Selected to develop kamikaze countermeasures in July 1945, Lee, who had been made a vice admiral in March, had just formed his task group when the war ended. He died shortly thereafter, on 25 August 1945.
Although Lee was hero of the fighting at sea, his efforts at the Division of Fleet Training remain his greatest contribution to victory. Improving the equipment of combat ships and spearheading the drive to outfit vessels with radar, "Ching" Lee prepared the U.S. Navy for a two-ocean war.
David R. Snyder
Morison, Samuel Eliot. History of United States Naval Operations in World War II. Vol. 5, The Struggle for Guadalcanal, August 1942–February 1943. Boston: Little, Brown, 1949.; Reynolds, Clark G. Famous American Admirals. New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1978.; Stillwell, Paul. "Lee, Willis Augustus, Jr." In John A. Garraty and Mark C. Carnes, eds., American National Biography, vol. 13, 411–412. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.