USS Willis A. Lee
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History of USS Willis A. Lee

Ship's Coordinator: Frank Graham
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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 Caribbean.

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 (FRAM) program.

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