With the recent death of Adm. Thomas Moorer at 91, America lost a military leader, strategist and hero the likes of which our society rarely sees.
Moorer’s military career was one of the most remarkable and distinguished of our time, his meteoric rise though the ranks presaged by his being named valedictorian of his high school class in Mount Willing, Ala., at age 15. At 17 he received an appointment to the U. S. Naval Academy from which he was graduated in 1933, a star academically and on the football field.
A highly decorated pilot in World War II he was rapidly promoted, serving as assistant chief of Naval Operations to the legendary Adm. Arleigh Burke in the 1950s. In 1957, he was promoted to rear admiral at age 45, the youngest man selected for that rank at that time.
Moorer later served as commander of both the Atlantic and Pacific fleets (the only officer to do so) and in 1967 was named chief of Naval Operations and in 1970 was appointed by President Nixon to the chairmanship of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Despite the prestige and responsibility attached to the CNO and chairman’s positions, Adm. Moorer found these jobs frustrating in many respects.
As chief of Naval Operations and later chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff during the Johnson and Nixon Administrations, Moorer pressed hard to modernize the U.S. Navy, which was then composed mainly of aging, World War II-era ships.
His entreaties went largely unheeded by Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara and his whiz kids, however.
The same was true of his advocacy of massive and decisive application of force in the Vietnam war–a tactic he felt certain would win the war. When this approach was finally implemented by President Nixon in 1972–including the mining of Haiphong Harbor which Adm. Moorer had long pressed for–it decimated the North Vietnamese forces and brought Hanoi to the bargaining table.
As Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman of in the Nixon Administration, Adm. Moorer also clashed repeatedly with Henry Kissinger over Kissinger’s policy of d√?∆? ¬©tente with the Soviet Union and, especially, his advocacy of the ill-advised Strategic Arms Limitation talks. Instead, Moorer advocated a muscular policy of economic pressure and military superiority as the only way to check Soviet expansion and ultimately reverse it. This strategy was to be vindicated 20 years later in the policies of the Reagan Administration which brought about the collapse of the Soviet empire.
Thomas Moorer retired from the military in 1974, but was hardly inactive in the next 30 years. Instead, he maintained an active interest and involvement in policy issues and politics, opposing the ratification of the Panama Canal treaty, and campaigning for causes such as military preparedness and the development of a missile defense system and for candidates such as Ronald Reagan. Military, conservative, patriotic and civic organizations found in him a selfless and tireless friend and champion.
As president of Radio America and the World War II Veterans Committee, I got to know Adm. Moorer well over the past 10 years and came to value his many admirable personal qualities.
He was intensely interested in the youth of America and concerned that they develop an informed patriotism and knowledge of history. I remember calling him in late October of last year to confirm his participation in the World War II Veterans Committee conference due to convene 10 days later.
“Are the young people going to be theyah?,” he asked in his distinctive Alabama drawl.
Informed that there would be two hundred high school and college students present, the admiral said, “That’s very important,” adding that he most certainly would be there.
The Adm. Moorer explained that he was now using a wheelchair but that his son would make sure that he got there.
He was a superb raconteur and young and old alike were captivated by his “sea stories.”
Newly assigned to Pearl Harbor when the Japanese attacked, he was one of the few pilots to get his plane off the ground, flying all night and all day in search of the Japanese fleet.
Later sent to the south Pacific to aid in the defense of Australia, he found his PBY aircraft had been attacked by nine Japanese fighters and sent plunging towards the ocean. Lt. Moorer, though wounded, managed to land the plane in the sea however, and a Philippine freighter rescued the crew.
He anticipated another attack, which shortly ensued, as the ship was hit by Japanese dive bombers. Lt. Moorer and his men escaped the sinking ship in two lifeboats equipped with sails and set out for Australia. At night they came upon a deserted island and the next day wrote SOS–WATER, MEDICINE in huge letters in the sand.
An Australian Army pilot flew over and dipped his wings acknowledging the plea for help and returned later and dropped several glass jugs of water, which shattered on impact.
“I was mad as hell,” Adm. Moorer recalled, “until I remembered that the Australians don’t drink water. They drink beer. The pilot just didn’t know any better.”
The next day an Australian destroyer rescued Moorer and his crew and dropped them off in Darwin, Australia.
“We went ashore,” the admiral said, “and the town was completely deserted. Every man, woman and child had fled into the bush,” thinking a Japanese invasion was imminent.
“I had been to Darwin,” Moorer noted, “and I knew where the hotel was and so we all walked over. We were barefoot, ragged clothes, unshaven, but there were steaks in the ice box and whisky on the bar and so we had a fine old time.”
As this story indicates, the admiral had a great sense of humor.
Having served under MacArthur at war’s end, he reflected on the general’s penchant for large staffs.
“If you asked MacArthur what time was sunset on that day, he would press a button and the colonel in charge of tracking sunsets would enter the room and give you the precise time, ” Moorer said.
During that service Moorer also got to know many of the senior Japanese military leaders against whom he had fought.
Years later, he recalled an occasion when Commander Mitsuo Fuchida, the leader of the aircraft strike force that attacked Pearl Harbor, visited him in Washington.
Moorer asked Fuchida what he was doing. Fuchida explained that he was now a Methodist missionary and was traveling around to the schools in Japan teaching the students about Christianity.
To which Moorer replied, “You’d better not let the Supreme Court catch you doing that in this country. They’ll lock you up.”
Speaking at our 2002 conference Adm.Moorer reflected on the effects of advancing age, noting, “I’m 90 years old. I can’t walk; I can’t see and I can’t hear. But other than that, I have a hell of a good time.”
Clearly a major reason for his positive outlook on life was his family. He and his wife Carrie were married for 69 years and he rarely spoke without making an affectionate comment about her.
On one occasion he said, “They say that a good wife can make a man happy or successful. Well my wife has made me both happy and successful.”
On February 24, Mrs. Moorer will receive the tri-cornered American flag at the formal funeral service to be held at Arlington National Cemetery.
There, with full military honors, the nation will pay tribute to a great American, wishing him, in the words of the old Navy farewell, “fair winds and a following sea.”