Rear Admiral Willis A. Lee Jr. Revisited

TALKING TO MYSELF - 2 Aug 2016: Sunday's Herald-Leader/Kentucky.com featured a front page story about Vice Admiral Willis A. Lee Jr. Since he is not only an Owen County native, but was born at the rural crossroads of Natlee, where I grew up, I have received a number of messages from correspondents. All wanted to make sure that I had seen the article, and several asked if I knew where he was born or where his grandfather's distillery was located. I can answer yes to all those questions, and let me add that it is a heady experience to have people ASK me to talk about Natlee :-) Usually, I collar folks and say, Listen Here! Let me tell you how it used to be!


My first book, YOU CAN GO ANYWHERE drew its title from an essay I wrote about Nat Lee. Daddy called the junction of KY 607 and KY 2018 at Natlee the crossroads of the world. Because, he would remind me, you could start there and go anywhere. Certainly, Willis (aka Mose) Lee did.

Although showing its age, the house where the admiral was born in 1888 still stands at Natlee. Traveling from the bridge over Eagle Creek, the house sits high on the righthand (north) side of what is today KY Rt. 607 and only yards from the intersection of 607 and KY 2018. (Note that 2018 is aka Natlee-Slatin Road on the south side of 607 and as Swope-Natlee Road on the north side that leads to our farm.) The two-story, clapboard house is similar in design to one on the adjacent lot which is closer to the bridge and intersection, and where the admiral's well-known grandfather Nat Lee once lived.

The admiral's birthplace has been occupied by many families over the past 128 years. In my childhood, I often visited our close family friends, Agee and Hattie Hunter and their son Gary, who lived there. When I was in high school, it was the home of the Donald True family. I am unsure if the house is currently occupied, nor do I know who owns the property.

When KY 607 was built in the early 1950s, replacing the old turnpike, it was pulled toward the north, further from a small branch that paralleled the old road and that flows into nearby Eagle Creek. Thus, Nat Lee's distillery, which once stood on the same side of the road as the houses, but up the pike four or five hundred yards, would now be located between the branch and the new road, on the opposite side of 607 from the two houses. The distillery, however, had burned in the early years of the 20th Century decades before 607 was built. To my knowledge, there is no evidence of the distillery's foundation.

Nat Lee's mill, however, stood on Eagle Creek near the present-day intersection of 607/2018. It faced onto what is now KY 2018/Natlee-Slaytin Road before the old Pleasant View Church Road intersects 2018. Some portions of the mill's foundation remain in place.

From my files, I retrieved this blog post I wrote in 2013. It includes several links that may be of interest to those researching Admiral Lee.

"On this Veterans Day . . . I want to talk about Vice Admiral Willis Augustus Lee Jr., aka as "Mose" or "Ching" Lee, the highest ranking Kentuckian in the Navy during WWII. He was born at Natlee, the speck on the map where I grew up, and proves my father's point that it is indeed the crossroads of the world because you can start from there and go anywhere. "Mose" Lee led a remarkable life. After graduating from tiny Owenton High School, he attended the U. S. Naval Academy, in itself a remarkable achievement. A country boy who grew up hunting, he became part of the Naval Academy's award winning shooting team during his time there between 1904 - 1908, and later participated on Navy's Rifle team. While records are inconsistent on medals he may have personally won, all agree that he participated in the 1920 Olympic Games on the U. S. Rifle team that won five gold metals. See here:


His military achievements in WWI and WWII are legion, but he is perhaps best remembered by historians as the "hero of Gaudalcanal." In November, 1942, the task force under his command defeated a much more powerful, larger Japanese force in a decisive victory in the Pacific theater, much needed at that early point in the war. An intellectual man, he was considered one of the Navy's premier experts on radar and its use. His service earned the Navy Cross, the Legion of Merit, the Distinguished Service Medal, and a gold star (which some sources say was in lieu of a second DSM.) Vice Admiral Lee, however, did not live to see the official end of the war. He died of a heart attack on 25 August, 1945, three days before the Allied Powers occupied Japan and nine days before Japan's official surrender ceremony. He was buried in Arlington National Cemetery with honors. The destroyer, Willis A. Lee, was launched in 1952. For more information about Lee see here: http://www.history.navy.mil/pho…/pers-us/uspers-l/wa-lee.htm http://w...

and here: http://www.history.navy.mil/danfs/w9/willis_a_lee.htm

and here: http://www.arlingtoncemetery.net/walee.htm and here:http://pwencycl.kgbudge.com/L/e/Lee_Willis.htm

The photos attached here include an 1880/83 map of Natlee and its environs, and a photo of Rear Admiral Willis A. Lee's grave marker at Arlington (©Arlington National Cemetery Website/photo by M. R. Patterson)

©Georgia Green Stamper