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Echoes of greatness

The forgotten legacy of Vice Admiral Willis A. Lee Jr. 


BY GEORGIA GREEN STAMPER

Sweet Owen Contributor


VICE ADMIRAL WILLIS A. LEE JR., born in the Natlee community of Owen County, won multiple medals in the 1920 Olympics. His pioneering contributions to the U.S. Navy have led scholars to regard him as a genius. — Public Domain Photo

A skip down the hill from my family’s farm in Owen County, the four-room house at Natlee where Vice Admiral Willis A. Lee, Jr. was born in 1888 still stands, though barely. Abandoned, its history forgotten, the next strong wind may topple it. 

Time also has taken a toll on Natlee’s 19th-century ambitions. The mill that anchored the region, the distillery, post office, general stores, school, church, the neat corridor of houses—all are gone. Natlee doesn’t warrant a highway sign today.

Yet Natlee was once a prototype of the American Dream, and that it produced a man who played an essential role in preserving our right to pursue happiness as free people should not surprise even the most sophisticated. Indeed, the Admiral’s story rightly begins with his family’s quest for the American Dream on the Kentucky frontier. 

The Admiral’s great-great-grandfather, William Lee, was living in what would later become Franklin County, Kentucky, as early as 1787 and probably earlier. After years of research, I am unable to verify much more. I am convinced he was not the son of Washington’s attorney general, Charles Lee, as Owen County historian Houchens claimed, nor can I find any other close relationship to General Robert E. Lee. 

However, the Admiral’s nieces say their older family members harbored a grudge against Daniel Boone over a long-ago broken land deal. Could it be that William Lee was connected in some way to Charles and John Lee, who were with Boone at Boonesboro in 1775? Certainly, the Admiral—an Olympic marksman—would have felt a kinship, blood or not, with men who stood with Boone and survived on the frontier with their rifles. 

William’s son, Joseph—born in Kentucky before statehood—made his way to Eagle Creek in Owen County, where he found fertile, affordable land and enough waterpower to run a gristmill. There, the family prospered, and Lee’s mill became the center of the developing area. The mill passed to a son, Nat—who added a commercially successful distillery—and in time, the crossroads became known as Natlee (Nat’ly). 

Nat fathered 18 living children, among them the Admiral’s father, Willis A. Lee, Sr., who pushed opportunity further and became a country lawyer. When Lee Sr. was elected county judge in 1895, he moved his young family, including the seven-year-old future Admiral, from Natlee to the county seat 15 miles away at Owenton (population 1,014 in 1900). Lee Sr. would serve several terms as county judge and a stint in the state legislature. 

In Owenton, the Lee family lived in a bigger house than at Natlee, but it still sat on an unpaved street and lacked indoor plumbing. There, the boy—who would become a man many called a genius—led an unremarkable childhood. The stories that survive speak only of typical boyish pranks and his love of prowling Owen County farmland with his rifle, hunting. 

Yet he undoubtedly benefited from his family’s upward mobility over the previous four generations in Kentucky. In 1900, many American children did not finish the eighth grade, and fewer than 10 percent graduated from high school. The future Admiral, however, received a classical education in elementary school at a private Owenton academy. When he graduated early from Owenton High School, Congressman South Trimble appointed him to the Naval Academy. At the age of 16 and two months, this Natlee native who’d never seen the ocean became the second youngest member of the 1904 entering class at Annapolis. 

And so, the future Admiral, accompanied by his father, boarded the train at the tiny depot

THE BOYHOOD HOME of Vice Admiral Willis A. Lee Jr. still stands in Natlee today. Although abandoned and deteriorated, it serves as a reminder of the humble beginnings of a man whose extraordinary contributions to the U.S. Navy helped shape history. — Photo by Ernie Stamper

at nearby Sparta to take the long ride to Maryland. More than a century later, the metaphoric distance still remains vast between sparsely populated, rural, land-locked Owen County and the Naval Academy—one of America’s crown jewels. I can only imagine how the campus must have looked to the future admiral on his arrival, especially magnificent Bancroft Hall, the new state-of-the-art quarters where he would live. 

But young Lee settled in quickly and soon distinguished himself on the rifle team. By 1907, competing against more than 1,000 others, he took first place in both individual rifle and pistol competitions at the U.S. National Shooting Matches—the only marksman to ever do both in a single year—and drew accolades from President Teddy Roosevelt. Lee did this in spite of nearsightedness, which rapidly grew worse during his teenage years.

In 1920, Lt. Commander Lee was selected to the U.S. Olympic Rifle Team. He was the only American to shoot in all 15 events—more events than any other Olympian in any sport ever has. He won five gold medals, one silver, and one bronze for the team—a single Olympian record that stood for 60 years and still stands for an American. 

It’s Lee’s remarkable contributions to naval history—our history—however, that compel me to study his life. Oddly, in the decades since World War II, the import of his military achievements received scant attention from historians. Lee’s biographer, David Fuqua, believes that the Admiral’s uncommon modesty, his untimely death, and that he and his wife, Mabelle, had no children to promote his legacy kept Lee from receiving attention equal to that given to others. Only in recent years have scholars begun to revisit the reach of this Natlee native’s brilliance. 

Shortly before the war, Lee, then a captain, was named assistant chief of staff for fleet readiness. Here, he plunged himself into learning and mastering radar, a little-understood new technology. Specifically, he honed the use of radar for direct fire. This pivotal breakthrough enabled U.S. ships to fire at the enemy with accuracy at night. Today, Lee is considered the pioneer of naval radar use. 

Fuqua says the manner in which Lee hand-picked and trained the Readiness staff is almost equally significant. Many went on to become flag officers themselves, and Lee’s intuition about people and detailed attention to training them became legendary. As Rear Admiral Evan White Yancey, who once served under Lee, wrote, “I had a genius watching over me.”

Lee was promoted to the rank of Rear Admiral in 1942. By then, the Japanese were winning the war in the Pacific. American attempts to turn back Admiral Kondo’s “Tokyo Express” had been unsuccessful, and numerous U.S. ships and thousands of men had been lost. Stopping the enemy at the island of Guadalcanal in November 1942 became a near-last-gasp effort to halt Japan’s sweep across the Pacific. 

VICE ADMIRAL WILLIS A. LEE JR., aboard the USS Washington, circa 1942-43. — Public Domain Photo

The complexities of the Guadalcanal battle are difficult to condense into a handful of words. But even a layperson like me can grasp the David versus Goliath gist of Lee’s standoff with Admiral Kondo’s fleet. As the fighting raged through the night, Lee’s battleship, USS Washington, was at last the only American destroyer or battleship left intact and functional. As historian Floyd Houston phrased it, “…at the moment, (Lee’s) Washington was the entire U.S. Pacific Fleet.” Seizing upon a brief Japanese blunder that revealed the location of Admiral Kondo’s flagship, Lee and his men—men he had meticulously trained to use radar to direct fire with uncanny accuracy—attacked and sank the Kirishima. Flummoxed and unaware that only one American vessel remained viable, the Japanese Admiral retreated with his fleet of 14 ships. Had Lee failed at Guadalcanal, some historians think the war in the Pacific would have been lost.

In 1944, Lee was promoted to vice admiral and was second in command to Fleet Admiral William Halsey at Formosa and Ryukyu. Ironically, tragically, Lee died of a heart attack on Aug. 25, 1945—eight days before Japan surrendered. 

Around Natlee, only a few of us are left who know the history of the old Lee house. No marker notes the birthplace of this American hero—not many here have even heard his name. And I’m only a keeper of local stories who realizes that the Admiral’s is too large, too complicated, for the likes of me to adequately tell. I must leave to scholars like Fuqua the work of analyzing Lee’s military brilliance. However, I believe this man hewed from pioneer Kentucky stock may have kept the American Dream afloat for people like me, born at Natlee, too.


This essay originally appeared in the Spring 2024 issue of Kentucky Humanities magazine, published by Kentucky Humanities. You can find the issue in its entirety at kyhumanities.org.


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