Ralph W. Cousins, 94; led naval operations in Vietnam

Admiral Ralph W. Cousins Admiral Ralph W. Cousins
By Matt Schudel
Washington Post / August 22, 2009

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WASHINGTON - Ralph W. Cousins, 94, a retired US Navy admiral who directed naval air operations during the Vietnam War and who later became the Navy’s second-highest-ranking officer and the top commander of NATO forces, died Aug. 5 at a hospital in Newport News, Va., of complications following a fall.

Admiral Cousins, a highly decorated Navy aviator who survived the sinking of an aircraft carrier during World War II, had a central role in planning the US naval air campaign against North Vietnam.

From 1967 to 1969, during some of the fiercest fighting of the war, Admiral Cousins was commander of the attack carrier strike force and responsible for all naval aviation operations carried out from aircraft carriers in the Gulf of Tonkin. He developed tactics for combating antiaircraft missiles fired at Navy airplanes and directed the first successful attack on a missile installation in North Vietnam in 1967.

Described in a 1967 New York Times article as a “soft-spoken, clear-eyed man,’’ Admiral Cousins had 30 ships under his command at the time, including five aircraft carriers. He said his primary role was to coordinate bombing orders from the Pentagon and the Navy’s Pacific headquarters in Hawaii.

“They order the strike,’’ he said, “and then my people have to figure out the best way of getting the job done - the number and type of plane we’ll use, the ordnance they’ll carry, the timing, and the rest. We have to coordinate with the Air Force.’’

To Admiral Cousins, each takeoff and landing - launch and recovery, in Navy parlance - signified a successful mission.

“As many times as I’ve seen it,’’ he said, “I never get tired of watching the launchings and the recoveries.’’

In 1970, when he was promoted to the rank of four-star admiral, he became vice chief of naval operations, the Navy’s second-highest office.

After his Navy retirement, he joined Newport News Shipbuilding and Dry Dock, the largest private shipyard in the world. His tenure as president from 1977 to 1979 was marked by labor strife and layoffs of more than 5,000 of the company’s 19,500 workers. He moved to London in 1979 to open the offices of Tenneco Europe, the shipyard’s parent corporation. (The company is now called Northrop Grumman Shipbuilding.)

He had lived in Newport News since his retirement in 1985.

Ralph Wynne Cousins was born in Eldorado, Okla., and grew up in Michigan. He was a 1937 graduate of the US Naval Academy and became a Navy pilot in 1940.

During World War II, he served aboard the USS Lexington, an aircraft carrier that was sunk during the Battle of the Coral Sea in May 1942. In that battle, Admiral Cousins led dive-bombing attacks against a Japanese aircraft carrier, despite heavy antiaircraft fire, and was awarded the Navy Cross, the service’s second-highest award for valor.

The Times article from 1967 noted that the admiral was an exceptionally cultivated man, who kept a dictionary and H.W. Fowler’s “Modern English Usage’’ on his desk when writing memorandums. Even at sea, he had current issues of the New Yorker and the Atlantic Monthly and read mystery novels by Georges Simenon in French.