History of USS Willis A. Lee
The ship was named for Willis Augustus Lee, Jr.-born on 11 May
1888 in Natlee, KY. He graduated from the Naval Academy in 1908.
His first shipboard assignment was aboard the USS
Idaho (BB 64(,
from October 1908 to May 1909.
Lee served aboard many different ships during his navy career.
He was an expert marksman and participated in many rifle matches
during his career as a member of the United States Navy rifle team.
Lee also commanded several task forces during the second world
war. One significant engagement involved a taskforce that intercepted
and defeated a Japanese naval force that was attempting to recapture
positions on Guadalcanal. Several other important battles, which
were determining factors in the outcome of the United States' Pacific
theater successes' were under Lee's command.
Unfortunately Vice Admiral Lee did not live to see the final surrender
of Japan. On 25 August 1945, 10 days after "V-J" day,
he succumbed to a fatal heart attack while in his launch, returning
to his flagship, Wyoming (AG 17), off the coast of Maine.
He was buried, with honors, at Arlington National Cemetery.
The keel of USS Willis A. Lee (DD 929) was laid down
on 1 November 1949 at Quincy, Mass., by the Shipbuilding Division
of the Bethlehem Steel Company. She was reclassified a destroyer
leader, DL 4, on 9 February 1951, launched on 26 January 1952,
sponsored by Mrs. Fitzhugh L. Palmer, Jr.-niece of Vice Admiral
Lee, and commissioned at the Boston Naval Shipyard on 5 October
1954, with Comdr. F. H. Schneider in command.
Her displacement was 4,730 tons. She had a length of 493 feet,
a beam width of 50 feet and a draft of 14 feet. She was capable
of a speed of 30 knots. Her full compliment was 403 officers and
enlisted men. Her armament included two 5 inch and four 3 inch gunmounts,
eight 20mm antiaircraft machineguns, two ASROC (Weapon "Alfa"),
and one depth charge tract. She was of the Mitscher class.
Following her shakedown at Guantanamo Bay, Willis
A. Lee returned
to her homeport, Newport, R.I., and began a career of operations
with the U.S. Atlantic Fleet. She was deployed to the Mediterranean
for the first time in July of 1955, cruising with the 6th Fleet,
the first ship of her type to operate with that force. Upon the
conclusion of her first tour with the 6th Fleet later that year,
Willis A. Lee returned to the east coast and operated off the eastern
seaboard in air defense exercises.
In February 1956 Willis A. Lee—reclassified as a frigate in 1955—sailed
southward to the Dominican Republic, where she represented the United
States in American Day festivities at Cindad Trujillo, the capital
city of that West Indian nation. The frigate then spent considerable
time at the Boston Naval Shipyard before resuming active operations.
In November, while participating in antisubmarine warfare (ASW)
exercises Willis A. Lee assisted the distressed fishing vessel Agda,
off Montauk Point, Long Island, fighting and extinguishing a blazing
oil fire and thus saving several lives.
In February 1957, the ship carried His Majesty, King Ibn Saud,
of Saudi Arabia, to New York City during his official visit to
the United States. Later that month, she sailed to Washington,
D.C., to participate in ceremonies honoring the birthday of George
Washington. That spring, Willis A. Lee played "movie
star," when she
was filmed by the Louis de Rochemont studios for a part in the
cinerama production "Windjammer" while she operated
on ASW exercises in the North Atlantic. She subsequently participated
in the International Naval Review held that summer at Hampton
Roads, VA, before becoming part of a large combined NATO fleet
that conducted intensive ASW and air defense exercises in the
North Atlantic that autumn. During those maneuvers, Willis
A. Lee crossed the Arctic Circle for the first time on 20 September.
Over the next two years, Willis A. Lee was twice deployed to the
Mediterranean for operations with the 6th Fleet, separating those
tours with local operations out of Newport and in the Caribbean
and off the coast of Florida, primarily on ASW and air defense exercises.
In the summer of 1959, she participated in Operation "Inland
Sea" as flagship for Rear Admiral E. B. Taylor, Commander,
Task Force 47, on a cruise on the Great Lakes. During that historic
voyage, she transited the newly opened St. Lawrence Seaway and visited
the ports of Chicago, Ill. Milwaukee, Wis., Detroit, Mich.; Erie,
Pa., and Cleveland, Ohio. That autumn, Willis A. Lee returned to
her schedule of maneuvers and exercises in the North Atlantic.
Willis A. Lee, with Commander, Destroyer Force, Atlantic Fleet,
embarked, conducted an inspection cruise-commencing in February
1960-of Atlantic Fleet ports and installations that took the ship
to San Juan, Puerto Rico, St. Thomas, Virgin Islands, and Cindad
Trujillo. Upon the conclusion of that cruise, the warship took part
in Operation "Springboard", an annual exercise in the
In the summer of 1960, Willis A. Lee conducted a midshipmen's training
cruise while participating in more fleet exercises. She subsequently
visited Montreal Canada, and New York City before she took part
in various refueling-at-sea and replenishment exercises as part
of LANTFLEX (Atlantic Fleet Exercise) 2-60.
After a brief trip to Charleston, S.C., in August, Willis A. Lee
participated in Operation "Sword Thrust," a NATO fleet
exercise in the North Atlantic which combined the efforts of more
than 60 British, French, Norwegian, Canadian, and American war ships.
While carrying out simulated attacks on the European continent during
the course of the maneuvers, Willis A. Lee again crossed the Arctic
Circle. After calling at Le Havre, France, Willis A. Lee returned
to Newport. In November, she entered the Boston Naval Shipyard for
an extensive overhaul, part of the Fleet Rehabilitation and Modernization
During her FRAM overhaul, Willis A. Lee was altered significantly
to enable her to perform her designed role more efficiently. When
she finally left the yard almost a year later, she displayed a distinctly
altered silhouette. She then had a helicopter hangar in place of
the after 3-inch twin gun mount to accommodate the DASH helicopter
system. She had also received topside antisubmarine torpedo armament.
Her two "Weapon Alfa" mounts had been removed. Chief among
the new equipment installed in the ship was a bow-mounted sonar
dome, utilizing revolutionary new concepts in underwater sound-ranging.
Emerging from the shipyard on September 5, 1961, Willis A. Lee
participated in a rescue operation soon thereafter, embarking the
crew from the storm-endangered Texas Tower No. 2, off the coast
of Massachusetts. Willis A. Lee then stood guard over the early
warning tower, fighting off Hurricane "Esther" as she
remained in the vicinity of the abandoned Texas Tower.
Willis A. Lee spent much of her ensuing career involved in sonar
evaluations of her bow-mounted system. She ranged from the mid-Atlantic
to the Caribbean, frequently operating with submarines, and on occasion
visited Bermuda. There were highlights, though, of that normally
routine duty-such as in the autumn of 1962 when the United States
and Soviet Russia stood at the brink of a possible nuclear confrontation
over the issue of Soviet missiles in Cuba. Willis
A. Lee operated
on the Cuban "quarantine line" for 10 days, deploying
in the Caribbean until President Kennedy called off the operation.
She then resumed her sonar evaluations.
After spending January and February of 1963 at the Boston Naval
Shipyard for more alterations and improvements on the experimental
sonar system, Willis A. Lee operated in Haitian waters during March,
conducting further sonar evaluations. She varied that duty with
a brief in-port visit at Port-au-Prince during the troubled political
situation there at that time.
That summer, Willis A. Lee was attached to Destroyer Development
Group DesDevGru 2, a group of ships engaged in experimental work
of various kinds, and finished out the year 1963 in the Boston Naval
Shipyard undergoing extensive boiler repairs.
With the exception of two brief trips to Newport, Willis
A. Lee remained at the Boston Naval Shipyard until 29 April 1964, when
she returned to her homeport to prepare for a southern cruise. Underway
on 6 May for type training in Guantanamo Bay, the frigate conducted
further sonar evaluations later that month en route back to Newport
before returning to her homeport on 26 May. Willis
A. Lee subsequently
conducted three more evaluation cruises before she participated
in Exercise "Steel Pike", the largest peacetime amphibious
exercise in history. During those maneuvers, Willis A. Lee served
as the flagship for Rear Admiral Mason Freeman, Commander, CruiserDestroyer
Flotilla 2. To then round out the year, the frigate conducted another
sonar evaluation cruise, calling twice at Key West during the voyage.
She returned north on 11 December and spent the remainder of the
year under restricted availability at the Bethlehem Steel Shipyard,
East Boston, Mass.
Willis A. Lee resumed sonar testing operations in 1965 and operated
twice in the Bahama area. She subsequently conducted type training
off the Virginia capes and in the Narragansett Bay area before arriving
at the Boston Naval Shipyard on 30 June t o commence a lengthy overhaul
to her engineering plant and modifications to her sonar system.
For the remainder of her career, Willis A.
Lee continued in her
routine of sonar development and testing homeported out of Newport
with occasional periods of yard repairs at Boston. During her final
years, the frigate operated off the Virginia capes, in the Caribbean,
and Narragansett Bay areas, and was deployed to the Mediterranean
for the fourth and last time in November 1966. She returned to Newport
on 20 May 1967-thus completing her first extended deployment.
Placed out of commission in December 1969, Willis
A. Lee was struck
from the Navy list on 15 May 1972. She was sold to the Union Minerals
and Alloys Corp. of New York City, and taken under tow for her final
voyage on 5 June 1973. She was subsequently scrapped.
Submitted by Al Marquis, Historian
Posted: 12 June 2004