Second Lieutenant Willis Sherman Lees, III

Willis Lees in 1941, Heidelberg College Aurora yearbook
Willis Lees in 1941, Heidelberg College Aurora yearbook

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Insignia of VMF-223,
Insignia of VMF-223, “Bulldogs”
NAME:
Willis Sherman Lees, III
NICKNAME:
Bill
SERVICE NUMBER:
O-009428
HOME OF RECORD:
Passaic, NJ
NEXT OF KIN:
Father, Mr. Willis Lees II
DATE OF BIRTH:
~1920
ENLISTED:
May 13, 1941
DATE OF DEATH:
October 2, 1942
CAMPAIGN UNIT MOS RATE FATE
Guadalcanal VMF-223 Pilot 2Lt. MIA
CAUSE OF DEATH:
F4F-4 02098 shot down over Guadalcanal by Lt (jg) Kawamata Katsutoshi
INDIVIDUAL DECORATIONS:
Distinguished Flying Cross, Purple Heart
LAST KNOWN RANK:
Captain
STATUS OF REMAINS:
Unknown
MEMORIAL:
Manila American Cemetery and Memorial, Philippines.


Birth and Early Life:
Willis Lees was born in Massachusetts around the year 1920. He grew up in Passaic, New Jersey, and attended Heidelberg College, graduating with the class of 1941; shortly after, Lees left his civilian job as a clerk for the adventurous life of a Naval aviator.

Enlistment and Boot Camp:
Bill Lees joined the Navy on May 13, 1941; he spent three months as a Seaman Second Class at the reserve aviation base in Brooklyn before being transferred down to Jacksonville, Florida, where he would earn his wings and his commission shortly after the war began. He joined the stream of young pilots headed west; some of his classmates were fast-tracked out to the Pacific, where most of them perished with VMF-221 in the skies over Midway.

Lees was sent to Hawaii where he joined VMF-224; the squadron was a mix of fresh pilots and the freshly-made veterans of Midway. He spent several months training with this unit at Barber’s Point, keeping an eye on the news – Hawaii was still very much believed to be under the threat of imminent attack.

Wartime Service:
Lieutenant Lees was assigned to VMF-223 (the Bulldogs) as the pilot of an F4F Wildcat fighter in June, 1942. He spent the next two months training with his new outfit and serving as the group’s assistant engineering officer. In August, his squadron boarded the USS Long Island on August 2 and set sail for the South Pacific.

On August 20, Willis Lees landed on Guadalcanal; his squadron of nineteen F4F-4 Wildcats joined the dive-bombing “Red Devils” of VMSB-232 to become the Cactus Air Force – the only American air power in the Solomons. Flying duties were strictly rotated; the Marines had no reliable way to get more aircraft, to say nothing of replacing their pilots; on their first day in action, both squadrons lost aircraft in crash landings. However, the Bulldogs’ skipper, Major John L. Smith, shot down a Japanese fighter – the first kill for the squadron.

Lees would have to wait until the morning of August 25 to take part in a combat mission; he flew in support of a dive-bomber strike against Japanese shipping. After that, the missions came thick and fast as the Marines defended their home field against the daily Japanese raids which came like clockwork – the noontime hour was soon re-dubbed “Tojo Time.”

On August 30, Bill Lees was flying an intercept on the wing of his squadron leader, Major Smith. They hit a flight of bombers, downing five in their first pass. Lees, possibly aggrieved that he hadn’t yet scored a kill, watched as Smith flamed two big bombers and then led his flight in a fast retreat before any Zero fighters could engage. One enemy plane overshot Bill Lees, who quickly lined up a shot and fatally damaged the Zero. (1)

Following this excitement, life for Lees settled back into a routine. On September 8, while returning from another interception after dark and in a heavy ground fog, he narrowly avoided disaster when he aircraft “cracked up” on landing – although Lees was unhurt, the Wildcat was destroyed. (2)

VMF-223 on Guadalcanal in September, 1942. Lees is third from left in the front row.
VMF-223 on Guadalcanal in September, 1942. Lees is third from left in the front row.

For the remainder of the month, Bill Lees flew routine patrols and intercepted flights of marauding Japanese bombers. He claimed another Zero on September 12, helped Lieutenant Kenneth D. Frazier take down a twin-engined bomber September 14, and bagged a bomber of his own on September 28, coming closer to attaining the coveted rank of ace. (3)

The first day of October was marked by a major event. Early that morning, no less a person than Admiral Chester Nimitz arrived at the headquarters of the Cactus Air Force with his staff and an assortment of small boxes. Three contained Navy Crosses for Marion Carl, John L. Smith, and Robert E. Galer; twelve more held Distinguished Flying Crosses. One of these was destined for Willis Lees, in recognition of his contributions to the fighting over Guadalcanal. The admiral, resplendent in clean khakis, formally presented the decorations to the somewhat bemused and motley-attired pilots of the Cactus Air Force

Nimitz presents Bulldog leader John Lucian Smith with his Navy Cross. Lees was given his DFC in a similar ceremony that same day.
Nimitz presents Bulldog leader John Lucian Smith with his Navy Cross. Lees was given his DFC in a similar ceremony that same day.

Although some of the Marines hoped for a Japanese raid (to demonstrate their skills for the Admiral) bad weather kept the enemy from the field. (4) None of the Bulldogs flew that day; as they settled in for the night, the infamous harassing bomber “Washing Machine Charlie” made his first appearance, circling over the field with his weirdly unbalanced engine before dropping small bombs in two separate raids. He caused no damage, but Bill Lees got little rest before dawn.

Date Of Loss:
Bill Lees  watched the dawn patrol lift off around 0600; as the Bulldogs fell in for morning chow, seven Army fighters took off for strikes beyond the perimeter. The day proceeded as routine – and as the clock drew nearer to Tojo Time, the Marine pilots either sat waiting in their cockpits, or kept within dashing distance of their fighters.

Sure enough, Allied radar picked up a flight of fast planes closing in on Henderson Field at 1230. Thirty-six American fighters and seven Dauntless bombers were quickly scrambled, and “at 1300 about 30 Zeros and some bombers were engaged over the field.” (5)

Major Smith led his flight of thirteen Marines up to 25,000 feet; as they emerged from cloud cover they were shocked to see a much larger force of Zeros another 2,000 feet above them. Surprised, Smith tried to lead his flight back into the clouds, but the Japanese pounced. One, Lieutenant (j.g.) Kawamata Katsutoshi of the 2nd chutai got Wildcat #19 in his sights and let loose a burst. The Wildcat smoked; the canopy opened and Willis Lees leapt from the stricken aircraft, pulling desperately at his parachute. (6)

The squadron’s Second Division saw the survivors of Smith’s group diving through the clouds, pursued by eager Zeros; one saw “wrecked” Wildcat 19 falling out of control amidst a storm of tracers. (7) It vanished into the haze below, as did its pilot. Bill Lees was never seen again.

One year and one day after he went missing, Lees was declared dead. He was posthumously promoted to the rank of Captain and awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross.

Next Of Kin:
Father, Mr. Willis Lees, Sr.

Status Of Remains:
Unknown

Memorial:
Manila American Cemetery and Memorial, Philippines.
_____
NOTES:
(1) John B. Lundstrom, The First Team and the Guadalcanal Campaign (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1994), 224.
(2) War Diary, MAG-23 Forward Echelon, page 26.
(3) Ibid, page 26-54.
(4) Lundstrom, 294.
(5) War Diary, 62.
(6) Lundstrom, 295.
(7) Squadron Number 19 was BuNo 02098.

6 thoughts on “Second Lieutenant Willis Sherman Lees, III

    1. I agree completely, Mustang.Koji. My great uncle, Lt. Commander Edmund Billings was lost with the cruiser USS Quincy at the battle of Guadalcanal, and I know there are many in my family (myself included) who wish he had been brought home – as it is, we have only a few pictures and stories, and his name on a wall in Manila – quite far from us on the US east coast.

      Especially heartbreaking are the cases where an ID could have been possible, but someone fouled up or didn’t feel like doing the work. The three Marines in the Pending Cases section are basically a dead cert; their families are dying out – Cpl. Ragsdale’s wife remarried and had a family after the war, but she kept trying to find his grave until the day she died in 2007. Or the case of Robert Budd and Tom Phillips, also dead on Guadalcanal – the Army team sent to locate their graves decided to file a bogus report and go on a drinking binge in a nearby town.

      The more research that is done, the more cases like this come to light – but also, the more time goes by, making it much harder to locate a site. Already 70 years have come and gone… seven decades too long.

      I appreciate your support of MissingMarines, and thanks for the re-blog!

      Cheers,
      Geoffrey

      1. I am sorry for your own family’s void, Geoffrey. Between your great Uncle Billings, my dearly departed neighbors “Old Man Jack” and “Mr. Johnson”, that makes three – three young men who saw it all.

        In addition, while my father served in the US 8th Army’s Military Intelligence Service during the Occupation, his younger brother (also born in Seattle as my father) was killed on Leyte while wearing a sergeant’s uniform of the Japanese Imperial Army. Like your Great Uncle, my Uncle Suetaro’s body was never found either.

        Thank you for sharing your family’s involvement, Geoffrey.

  1. Thank you both for the original post and the re-blog. Telling these stories and sharing the sacrifices of such brave men keep the memories of them alive long after they have passed into history.

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