Born: August 23, 1913
Hometown: Los Angeles, CA
Class: USMCC Cadet Officer – 1940
Service: Merchant Marine
Position / Rank: Second Mate
Date / Place of death: September 18, 1944 / 02-52S,
Date / Place of burial: September 18, 1944 / Lost at
Sea 02-52S, 101-12E
Walter H. Lee is believed by his relatives to be the first Chinese-American licensed
officer in the U.S. Merchant Marine. Walter started out in the merchant marine in 1933
as an Ordinary Seaman aboard the SS Golden Peak of the Oceanic and Oriental
Navigation Company sailing to the Far East. On September 14, 1934 he received his
U.S. Coast Guard certificate as Able Bodied Seaman. He continued sailing aboard the
SS Golden Peak in this capacity for the next two years. By March 3, 1936 he had been
promoted to Deck Cadet aboard the SS Golden Star. After just one year of study and
training aboard the Golden Star, Walter earned his license as Third Mate from the U.S.
Coast Guard on April 6, 1937.
It is unknown in what capacity Walter sailed during the two years after he received his
Third Mate’s License. However, he began sailing as a Cadet Officer (Deck) aboard the
SS Sawokla on May 20, 1939. After a year sailing as Cadet Officer he signed on as
Junior Third Mate aboard the SS Sea Witch on June 30, 1940. He signed off as Third
Mate on May 5, 1941. Six weeks later, on June 17, 1941 he signed on as Third Mate
aboard the MS American Leader. With the exception of the month he took off in the fall
of 1941 to sit for his Second Mate’s license examination, Walter H. Lee served
continuously aboard the American Leader thereafter.
On April 13, 1942 at the port of New York two Kings Point Cadet-Midshipmen joined the
ship, Joseph DiCicco (Engine) and Gordon Tyne (Deck). According to the account of
Captain George Duffy, then the ship’s Third Mate, the ship was carrying a general cargo
of war supplies including boots, barbed wire and vehicles along with a deck cargo of
nine twin engine bombers bound for Russia via Persian Gulf ports. The ship was also
loaded with several thousand tons of steel ingots for India. The American Leader was
armed with a handful of antiquated weapons manned by nine Navy Sailors.
After discharging its cargo the American Leader loaded a cargo of rugs, chemicals and
other raw materials in India before sailing for Columbo, Ceylon (Sri Lanka) to load baled
rubber and liquid latex. Upon completion of loading the ship sailed for Cape Town,
South Africa, arriving there on September 7, 1942. From Cape Town the ship was
ordered to continue westward, without escort, toward the Straits of Magellan.
At about 1930 on September 10th, while Walter Lee was standing his bridge watch as
Second Mate, the American Leader ran afoul of the German Navy commerce raider
Michel. During the brief, one sided, engagement ten crew members, including Cadet-
Midshipmen Gordon Tyne and Joseph DiCicco, were killed, two lifeboats were
destroyed and Walter Lee was wounded in the leg. The forty-eight survivors (39 crew
and 9 Armed Guard) became Prisoners of War , joining a growing group from the
Michel’s earlier victims. Despite receiving medical care aboard the Michel, Walter Lee’s
wounded leg never healed properly.
Two months’ later the Michel’s Commanding Officer turned his Prisoners or War over to
Japanese authorities in Batavia, Java (present day Djakarta, Indonesia). According to
accounts of the survivors, most of the American Leader’s survivors were put to work by
the Japanese building a railroad in the jungle. Because of his leg injury, Walter Lee was
not considered fit enough for the work parties and remained in camp. According to
documents in his U.S. Coast Guard record, a short wave radio message from Walter
Hay Lee was received by U.S. authorities in early 1943 by June his Prisoner of War
status had been officially confirmed.
In September 1944 Walter Lee and several other American Leader survivors were killed
in the sinking of the Prisoner of War transport Junyo Maru when it was torpedoed by
HMS Tradewind. Other American Leader survivors were killed in the sinking of the
Tomahaku Maru. Of the 58 men aboard the American Leader when it sailed from Cape
Town, only 28 made it home after the end of the war.
In 2006 a moving memoir of Walter H. Lee was written by his nephew, Christopher Lee,
the son of Walter’s younger sister Edna.1 In his memoir Christopher Lee recounts visits
ro the Lee family by some of Walter’s shipmates in which they told them about Walter’s
days as a Prisoner of War. Christopher Lee notes that the survivors of the Junyo Maru
told the family that;
“As the prisoners were swimming towards shore, Walter was trying to help
someone else. The sailors said that Walter was always helping someone.
He was just that type of person. They waited for him, but Walter said, ‘ I’m
fine, you go on ahead.’ When they looked back he was gone.”
On Sunday June 4, 2000 a Dutch Navy squadron visiting Indonesia conducted a
memorial service to the Prisoners of War who perished in the sinking of the Junyo Maru.
A memorial wreath with the names of deceased inscribed on it, including those of
Walter Hay Lee and his shipmates from the MS American Leader, was dropped on the
ocean at the location of the sinking.
Walter Hay Lee was posthumously awarded the Mariners Medal, Combat Bar with star,
Atlantic War Zone Bar, American Defense Bar, the Victory Medal, and the Presidential
Walter was the youngest of Thing “Leo” (known as “Goongsie to the family) Lee and
Chan She Lee’s two sons and the third of their four children. Mr. Lee was a successful
businessman who owned a clothing store, Leland’s Mens Furnishing, as well as a cigar
store. Thing Lee’s ownership of these stores was very important to the family as under
the laws of the time only Chinese men who owned business could bring wives over from
China. Although his brother and sisters went to local high schools, Walter attended
Polytechnic High where he majored in Engineering. However, he began sailing as an
Ordinary Seaman before he graduated.
Christopher Lee wrote the following about what Walter was like,
“Edna recalls that when Walter came home on leave, he would use a car
for a date and to go out with his friends. He and George shared a car, but
George was always more “relaxed” about upkeep. Edna remembers
Walter muttering and fuming: ‘That George! All he does is drive the car.
He never washes or cleans it. He just doesn’t take care of things!’ And
he’d get a bucket of water, go out and wash the car with spit, polish and
vigor. Whether it was life at sea of just the difference in the brother’s
personalities is hard to say. Probably both.”
1″An Officer and a Chinaman: A War Hero I Never Met”; Topography of War, Asian American Essays, Asian American Writer’s Workshop, 2006