Rear Admiral Willis Augustus Lee has been called, among other things, “one of the best brains in the Navy.” Although his critics and detractors had any number of unkind things to say about him, Admiral Lee had the ability to make quick decisions under the stress of battle and was certainly more technically minded than most officers of his age group.
Lee had been director of fleet training between the wars and had been a major advocate of upgrading and modernizing U.S. warships. His special interest was in radar and the use of radar at sea. It was said that Admiral Lee “knew more about radar than the radar operators.” This knowledge, as well as his faith in the still largely untried and mysterious device, would prove to be indispensable on the night of November 14-15, 1942, in the waters north of Guadalcanal.
Admiral Lee and a six-ship task force had been sent to Guadalcanal by Vice Admiral William F. Halsey, overall commander of the South Pacific area, to block another Japanese effort to put Henderson Field out of operation. A task group of cruisers and destroyers under Admiral Daniel J. Callaghan had prevented Japanese cruisers and battleships from bombarding the airfield on November 13. The ensuing battle, the first phase of the Naval Battle of Guadalcanal, left Admiral Callaghan dead and six of his ships sunk. The survivors of this group were in no condition to stop another Japanese task force. Admiral Lee was given the job of stopping the latest enemy bombardment force with two battleships, Washington and South Dakota, along with four screening destroyers, a unit that had been designated Task Force 64.
During the afternoon of November 14, a Japanese reconnaissance aircraft discovered Task Force 64 steaming on a northerly course about 100 miles south of Guadalcanal. The pilot incorrectly identified Washington and South Dakota as cruisers accompanied by destroyers. At about the same time, a Japanese force under Vice Admiral Nobutake Kondo was discovered steaming south toward Guadalcanal. The American submarine Flying Fish came across Kondo’s force at about 4:30 pm and fired several torpedoes at the cruiser Atago. All of the torpedoes missed, but Flying Fish sent a plain language report regarding Admiral Kondo’s task group to Fourth Fleet intelligence. Admiral Kondo’s group consisted of the battleship Kirishimawith an escort of four cruisers and nine destroyers.
Thanks to the information from Flying Fish, Admiral Lee knew that he would be up against a large Japanese force. His own task force was approaching Guadalcanal’s western shoreline when he received the report. His six-ship column was led by four destroyers—Walke, Benham, Preston, and Gwin, in that order—followed by the battleships Washington, which was Admiral Lee’s flagship, and South Dakota. Admiral Halsey had given Lee permission to maneuver and position his ships as he saw fit. Admiral Lee decided to situate his task force just off the northwestern coast of Guadalcanal between Cape Esperance and Savo Island, where it would be able to intercept any Japanese force coming from the northwest.
Lee’s important advantage, gained by having been alerted that a Japanese force was approaching, was offset by the problem of never having worked with any of the accompanying ships in his task force before. The four destroyers were from four different divisions and had no division commander. The only reason that these particular destroyers had been assigned to Task Force 64 was that they had more fuel than any others in the area. And the two battleships had never operated together before, either. The six warships had only sailed together for the past 36 hours, during their run to Guadalcanal. To prevent any accidents during their first operational sortie, Lee ordered an interval of 5,000 yards between the destroyers and the two battleships. A collision in the restricted waters of Guadalcanal was the last thing he needed.
At about 9 pm on November 14, Lee ordered a 90-degree change of course, which would put his task force past Savo Island and into Ironbottom Sound. Before the war, that stretch of water was known as Savo Sound; that was the name given on all the charts. But sailors decided that so many ships had been sunk in this narrow strait since the invasion of Guadalcanal in August that its bottom must be lined with iron.
Admiral Lee knew that the enemy was on his way, but he badly needed more recent, and more specific, intelligence. His task force had departed the naval base at Espiritu Santo, New Hebrides, in such haste that it had not been given a radio call sign. When Lee tried to contact Guadalcanal—call sign “Cactus” —for any up-to-date information, he signed the communiqué with his last name. In response, he received the curt reply, “We do not recognize you!” The admiral decided to try again with another signal: “Cactus this is Lee. Tell your big boss Ching Lee is here and wants the latest information.” The “big boss” in question was General Alexander Vandegrift, commander of the 1st Marine Division and a friend of Lee’s since their Naval Academy days. “Ching Lee” was the admiral’s nickname when he was at the Academy (class of 1908).
Before General Vandegrift could be located, radio operators aboard Washington picked up some frightening talk between three nearby torpedo boats regarding Lee’s two battleships: “There go two big ones, but I don’t know whose they are!” The admiral thought it imperative to send some sort of message as quickly as possible, something containing some personal information that his friend Vandegrift would know, before the three PT boats fired their torpedoes at him. He decided to send another “Ching Lee” communiqué, which he knew Vandegrift would recognize immediately.
There are at least three versions of Lee’s signal to Vandegrift. The first, sent in a rhymed couplet, is the most colourful: “This is Chung Ching Lee—you mustn’t fire fish at me!” The second is an interchange between the admiral and the PT boats. “This is Lee,” he broadcast. “Who’s Lee?” came the response. “Tell your boss this is Ching Lee.” The PT boat’s response to this is not on record. Version number three is the most straightforward: “Refer your big boss about Ching Lee; Chinese, catchee? Call off your boys!”
The admiral’s colorful messages achieved at least one of their goals: they convinced the PT boats that the two “big ones” were not Japanese, and no fish were fired at Chung Ching Lee. But his requests did not supply him with any additional information regarding Admiral Kondo’s approaching force. Sometime after 10:30, “Cactus” responded, “The boss has no additional information.” For all of his lively radio messages with Guadalcanal, Lee was no better informed than he had been before.
While Lee was busy communicating with “Cactus,” Kondo split his 14 ships into three separate units. The light cruiser Nagara headed a six-destroyer column made up of Shirayuki, Hatsuyuki, Samidare, Inazuma, Asagumo, and Teruzuki. A column of three destroyers, Uranami, Shikinami, and Ayanami, along with the light cruiser Sendai, was sent off on a course that would take it east of Savo Island. The main bombardment group, which had been assigned to attack Henderson Field, consisted of the battleship Kirishima and the heavy cruisers Atago, which was Admiral Kondo’s flagship, and her sister Takao. Four troop transports, along with a screen of nine destroyers, were also approaching Guadalcanal. According to Kondo’s plan, the transports would land reinforcements for the Japanese garrison on Guadalcanal while Kirishima and the bombardment group shelled Henderson Field. The other two groups of cruisers and destroyers would deal with any American warships that came out to interfere with either the bombardment group or the landing of reinforcements. It was a plan that looked good on paper.
Sendai made first contact with Lee’s force at 10:10. Her radio reported, “Two enemy cruisers and four destroyers” northeast of Savo, heading toward Ironbottom Sound. Sendai and Shikinami changed course to pursue Admiral Lee’s force, and Admiral Kondo issued an immediate order to attack the American ships. Nagara and four of her escorting destroyers were also sent toward Ironbottom Sound at full speed. While his cruisers and destroyers were taking on the enemy, Kondo would bring Kirishima and his two heavy cruisers to the vicinity of Henderson Field to carry out their bombardment assignment.