Meet the Kentucky Olympian you’ve never heard of who won 7 medals in one summer

Sara Elliott, senior curator of the Kentucky Historical Society, holds a gold medal Kentuckian Willis A. Lee won in the 1920 Summer Olympics in Belgium.
Sara Elliott, senior curator of the Kentucky Historical Society, holds a gold medal Kentuckian Willis A. Lee won in the 1920 Summer Olympics in Belgium.

The eight Olympic medals are wrapped in plastic, placed in a flat box with a lid and tucked away in the cavernous storage area on the second floor of the Kentucky History Center — all a little reminiscent of the final resting place of the ark in the movie “Raiders of the Lost Ark.”

They belonged to one of Kentucky’s most outstanding athletes and military heroes whose name has been shrouded in obscurity — Willis A. Lee of Owen County.

Mostly forgotten today as the world gets ready for the 2016 Summer Olympics Games in Rio de Janeiro Aug. 5-21, Lee’s name was on the tongues of participants and attendees of the 1920 Summer Olympic Games in Antwerp, Belgium.

As a young naval officer who wore thick glasses after black powder blew up in his face as a boy, Lee was a member of the American Rifle Team that year.

At the games, his team won nine gold, two silver and two bronze medals. Lee personally won five gold medals, one silver and one bronze. His seven personal medals are at the history center, along with a participatory medal.

60 The number of years Willis A. Lee of Owen County shared the record for the most medals received by an individual at a single Olympic games.

In the 1920 Games, Lee tied with teammate Lloyd Spooner of Tacoma, Wash., for the most medals any athlete had ever received in a single Games. Their record stood for 60 years until Russian gymnast Alexander Dityatin won eight medals in 1980.

Lee remains the Kentuckian with the most Olympic medals. Trailing him, according to the Kentucky Almanac, are track and field star Ralph Waldo Rose of Louisville, who captured six medals in the 1904, 1908 and 1912 Olympics and Louisville swimmer Mary T. Meagher, who won three Olympic gold medals in 1984 and one bronze in the 1988 Games.

Former Kentucky Historical Society Curator Sara Elliott displays the Olympic medals of Willis A. Lee of Owen County.

Lee’s fame did not stop at the 1920 Olympics. He became a vice admiral of the U.S. Navy during World War II and commanded ships during the Battle of Guadalcanal in November 1942. His name also made headlines 20 years later during the most intense nuclear confrontation face-off this world has ever seen.

It’s a shame the world has not remembered Lee, say those familiar with his amazing life.

There are no state historical markers in Owen County touting his achievements, said Larry Dale Perry, president of the Owen County Historical Society.

“That’s a surprise and disappointment,” said Sara Elliott, senior curator and collections development manager at the Kentucky Historical Society in Frankfort. She adds there are no oral histories of him or his family.

The Louisville-based Kentucky Athletic Hall of Fame, which started honoring outstanding native athletes in 1963, does not include Lee, said spokeswoman Stephanie Smith. “I don’t know if he has ever been nominated. Could be an oversight,” she said.

“Lee avoided publicity,” said Paul Stillwell, a noted naval historian from Arnold, Md., who has been planning for several years to write Lee’s biography.

“He never liked to call attention to himself,” Stillwell said. “He didn’t have much to do with the media. He died at war’s end when heroes were starting to be honored, and he never had the opportunity to write his memoirs.

“Any attempt to tell about his worthwhile life is a good thing.”

A most excellent marksman

Willis Augustus Lee Jr. was born May 11, 1888, in the rural Owen County town of Natlee, not far from the Scott County line. He was the son of Judge Willis Augustus Lee and Susan Arnold and was known as “Mose” Lee to family and friends.

Lee’s grandfather, Nathaniel Lee, operated a distillery in southern Owen County. Also known as Nat Lee, he founded the community of Natlee. His sour mash whiskey won a gold medal over 5,000 other entries in the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair.

Willis A. Lee was a distant relative of Confederate General Robert E. Lee. His great-great grandfather was Charles Lee, attorney general in President George Washington’s second administration and throughout President John Adams’.

In a 1976 pamphlet about the history of Owen County, the late Mariam Sidebottom Houchens said the Lee family moved to Owenton when Mose was a small boy.

He liked the woods and the wild places, and particularly enjoyed shooting with a rifle or shotgun.

Mariam Sidebottom Houchens

“He liked the woods and the wild places, and particularly enjoyed shooting with a rifle or shotgun,” Houchens wrote. “He caught wild animals and tamed them. A local merchant once said that he needed a black snake to chase rats, and Mose brought him one. He had an encounter with a skunk and had to have his clothes burned.”

Stillwell said young Lee was a prankster. “He would shoot at weather vanes, put soap in candy wrappers and let loose snakes at school.”

Stillwell said Lee and a companion once tried to blow up a tin can filled with black powder.

“He got close to it when it wouldn’t fire, looked into the can and then, bang,” said Stillwell

Lee suffered no facial scars but always had to wear thick glasses after that. The injury almost kept him out of the U.S. Naval Academy.

He joined the academy in 1904 after being educated in the local schools and being nominated by the county’s congressman. He was not a top student but he had a knack for mathematics.

Lee was 16 years and two months when he was admitted as a plebe, the second youngest in his class.

At the academy, Lee tried out for its rifle team. He became a star. In the summer of 1907, he distinguished himself at the national shooting matches at Camp Perry, Ohio, by taking firsts for both individual rifle and pistol competition. At that time, he was the only marksman ever to do that, and became an overnight sensation of the rifle shooting world.

The Naval Academy engraved his name on a trophy as its outstanding midshipman in gunnery. The National Rifle Association also lauded his ability to hold a rifle and noted how keen his vision was behind thick glasses.

As Lee progressed in the Navy, he kept his marksman skills sharp.

As a lieutenant junior grade on the battleship USS New Hampshire, he participated in the landing of forces in the occupation of Vera Cruz, Mexico, in 1914.

In December 1915, Lee became an ordnance inspector for the Union Tool Company in Chicago. It made guns for the Navy.

During World War I, he continued inspecting munitions plants and near the war’s end was assigned to destroyer forces at Brest, France, and was advanced to lieutenant commander.

In July 1919, Lee married Mabelle Allen of Rock Island, Ill. They never had any children. The Owen County Public Library has several love letters Lee wrote his wife while he was away.

For most of 1919 until June 1920, Lee was executive officer of a ship and a submarine division in the Atlantic Fleet.

That summer, he made his mark in Olympics history, capturing gold medals for shooting small-bore rifles, free rifles and military rifles from various distances and positions.

Fame in the Navy

Between 1919 and 1939, Lee served 13 years at sea, commanding several destroyers.

By the time the U.S. entered World War II in December 1941, Lee had been promoted to rear admiral.

In February 1942, he was assigned to the Pacific Theatre, where he led a task force of American battleships to victory over a larger Japanese force near Guadalcanal in November 1942. Lee’s victory ended the last major Japanese effort to force Americans to give up the strategic island.

Lee was awarded the Navy Cross for his actions in the battle. It is the second highest military medal for valor, second only to the Medal of Honor.

Lee’s family donated his Navy Cross to the Kentucky Military Museum but it went missing in the 1980s. Elliott, the curator, said it may have been stolen during a break-in.

In 1944, Lee was promoted to vice admiral and placed in charge of the Pacific Fleet’s battleships, but in May 1945, Lee was pulled out of war to help develop a strategy against kamikaze tactics with a special naval force operating out of Casco Bay, Maine.

Stillwell said Lee suffered from insomnia and was dispirited that he was not in battle at the end of the war. He and his wife were distraught when his aide Gil Aertsen, who had become a surrogate son, left their town.

On his way to his office on Aug. 25, 1945, at his flagship Wyoming, anchored in Casco Bay, Lee was fatally stricken with a heart attack. He was 57.

Three days after his death, Lee was buried with full military honors in Arlington National Cemetery. Five days later, Japan surrendered.

One more footnote in history

In January 1952, in Quincy, Mass., the Navy honored the late Lee by naming a $29.5 million destroyer leader the USS Willis A. Lee.

The ship had a distinguished career of operations around the world with the U.S. Atlantic Fleet. In the early 1960s, it had the routine duty of evaluating submarine sonar in the mid-Atlantic to the Caribbean.

In October 1962, the United States and Soviet Russia stood at the brink of a possible nuclear confrontation over Soviet missiles in Cuba.

President Kennedy ordered a naval blockade and the Willis A. Lee operated on the Cuban “quarantine line” for 10 days until the confrontation was resolved.

The ship then resumed her sonar evaluations, based in Newport, R.I. It was placed out of commission in December 1969 and sold to a New York City minerals company to serve as a tow ship. Its final voyage was in June 1973 before being scrapped.

All the drama associated with Willis A. Lee’s name — the 1920 Summer Olympics, the World War II naval battles and the Cuban Missile Crisis — came to an end.

In 2012, the Kentucky History Center temporarily put on public display Lee’s medals to mark that year’s Summer Olympics in London.

They were then returned to storage.

Jack Brammer: (502) 227-1198, @BGPolitics

Willis Lee’s Olympic medals

The Kentucky Historical Society has eight medals from the 1920 Olympics in Antwerp, Belgium that were awarded to Willis A. Lee of Owen County. For the 1920 Olympics, the gold medals were not made out of gold but instead were made of vermeil — a combination of sterling silver, gold and other precious metals.

▪ Participatory medal in the events of shooting rifles and pistols.

▪ Bronze medal for the men’s running target, single shot.

▪ Silver medal for the men’s military rifle, standing at 300 meters.

▪ Gold medal for men’s small-bore rifle, standing at 50 meters.

▪ Gold medal for men’s free rifle, three positions at 300 meters.

▪ Gold medal for men’s military rifle, prone at 300 meters.

▪ Gold medal for men’s military rifle, prone at 600 meters.

▪ Gold meda for men’s military rifle, prone at 300 meters and 600 meters.

Source: Kentucky Historical Society