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Passing of Admiral Sylvester R. Foley, USN (Ret.)

By: Samuel J. Cox Rear Adm., USN (retired) Director of Naval History, Curator for the Navy Director, Naval History and Heritage Command

It is with deep regret I inform you of the passing of Admiral Sylvester Robert “Bob” Foley, Jr., U.S. Navy (Retired) on December 31, 2019 at age 91.  Admiral Foley entered the U.S. Naval Academy in 1946 and served as an aviator, including Vietnam combat, and command of USS Midway and SEVENTH Fleet, until his retirement on October 1, 1985 as Commander-in-Chief, U.S. Pacific Fleet. Admiral Foley earned a Distinguished Flying Cross, Bronze Star with Combat V and two Navy Commendation Medals with Combat V as commander of an Attack Squadron and Attack Air Wing over North Vietnam.

Admiral Sylvester R. Foley Jr.

Bob Foley’s father served as a Navy Hospital Corpsman during World War I and then with the Fleet Marines in the Pacific in Guam and the Philippines.  Midshipman Foley entered the U.S. Naval Academy on June 27, 1946. He graduated and was commissioned an ensign on June 2, 1950. Ensign Foley then reported for flight training at NAS Pensacola, then NAS Corpus Christi where he was designated a Naval Aviator (HTA) on January 23, 1952. He then continued training at NAS Kingsville, was promoted to Lieutenant (junior grade) in June 1952, followed by instruction at Fleet All Weather Training Unit, Atlantic, NAS Key West. In August 1952, Lieutenant Foley reported to his first operational assignment, Composite Squadron FOUR at NAS Atlantic City, deploying to the Western Pacific and Korea as an F2H-2N Banshee night fighter pilot and to the Mediterranean as an F2H-2B special weapons (two small atomic bombs) pilot in detachments aboard multiple carriers. In July 1956, Lieutenant Foley returned to the Naval Academy as an instructor in the Navigation and Seamanship Department.

In June 1959, Lt. Foley reported to Attack Squadron FORTY-FOUR (VA-44) for refresher training, and then to Attack Squadron THIRTY-SIX (VA-36) in December 1959, flying the A4D-2N/A-4C Skyhawk, embarked on USS Saratoga (CVA 60) alternating six months in the Mediterranean and six months off Florida, including operations on the vicinity of Cuba in reaction to the Bay of Pigs crisis, or in availability, until a serious fire aboard Saratoga in the Mediterranean in January 1961 ended the rotation. In July 1961, Lieutenant Commander Foley attended the Naval War College. In June 1962 to reported to Commander-in-Chief, U.S. Naval Forces Europe as the Aviation Readiness and Training Officer, among other things completing basic airborne training with the U.S. Army Special Forces.

Admiral Sylvester Foley, commander in chief of the Pacific Fleet, is greeted by officers from the facility upon his arrival.

In April 1965, Lt. Cmdr. Foley reported as Executive Officer of Attack Squadron 106, based at NAS Cecil Field, flying the A-4C/A-4E Skyhawk, and in July was promoted to commander. In June 1966, Commander Foley assumed command of VA-106. VA-106 was assigned to Attack Carrier Air Wing (CVW-17) embarked on USS Forrestal (CVA 59) from June 6 to September 15, 1967 flying combat missions over North Vietnam. During the fire on Forrestal on July 29, 1967, VA-106 suffered 10 killed (of the 134 who died in the fire) and 62 injured. Following his first Vietnam combat tour he attended the Air War College, graduating with distinction in May 1968, and also earned a Master’s Degree in International Affairs from the George Washington University.

In May 1968, Commander Foley assumed command of Carrier Attack Air Wing ELEVEN (CVW-11) embarked on USS Kitty Hawk (CVA 63) deploying from November 1968 to June 1969 for his second Vietnam combat deployment. Cmdr. Foley was awarded a Distinguished Flying Cross for a leading a mission over North Vietnam on May 2, 1969, and for disregarding heavy anti-aircraft fire, low fuel state and approaching darkness to provide strafing cover for a downed pilot until that pilot was rescued by helicopter.  Kitty Hawk and CVW-11 were awarded a Naval Unit Commendation for this deployment. In October 1969, Cmdr. Foley reported to the Office of the CNO (Assistant for Attack Analysis, Air Weapons, Analysis Staff/Tactical Plans Officer, Aviation Plans Branch) and he was promoted to captain in November 1970.

Admiral Sylvester R. Foley Jr., commander-in-chief of the Pacific Fleet, speaks at a ceremony honoring the Unknown Serviceman of the Vietnam Era. The serviceman’s casket will be transported aboard the frigate USS Brewton (FF 1086) to Alameda, California, and then transferred to Arlington National Cemetery for interment at the Tomb of the Unknowns.

In June 1971, Captain Foley assumed command of USS Coronado (LPD 11) deployed to the Mediterranean as the SIXTH Fleet Amphibious Force Flagship. In July 1972, he assumed command of USS Midway (CV 41) while she was participating in multi-carrier combat strike operations in reaction to the North Vietnamese Easter Offensive and the subsequent U.S. mining of Haiphong Harbor and sustained bombing campaign (Operation Linebacker). During this period, Midway aircraft made the last air-to-air kill of the Vietnam War, along with the deepest penetration into North Vietnam of a rescue helicopter. Midway was awarded a Presidential Unit Citation and Capt. Foley a Legion of Merit for what was the longest combat cruise (209 days) in U.S. naval history at that time. His tour concluded when Midway arrived in Yokosuka, Japan as the first Forward Deployed Naval Force carrier. In September 1973, he assumed duty as Chief of Staff for Commander SEVENTH Fleet. In November 1974, Capt. Foley returned to the Pentagon as Deputy Director, Strategic Plans, Policy, Nuclear Systems and NSC Affairs Division in the Office of the CNO. He was promoted to rear admiral on May 1, 1975.

In September 1976, Rear Admiral Foley assumed command of Carrier Group SEVEN, homeported at Alameda. In May 1978, he was designated a vice admiral and assumed command of SEVENT Fleet in Yokosuka, Japan, which included major refugee rescue operations in the South China Sea and operations to counter the Soviet Navy in the Far East. This was followed in May 1980 by another tour in the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations as Deputy CNO, Plans, Policy and Operations. In May 1982, he was designated an admiral as Commander-in-Chief U.S. Pacific Fleet, which included the first deployment of Tomahawk cruise missiles in the Pacific and where he was credited with maintaining the highest levels of combat readiness in four decades, and was awarded his third distinguished service medal. Adm. Foley retired on October 1, 1985.

Admiral Sylvester R. Foley Jr., commander in chief, US Pacific Fleet, speaks during the designation and departure ceremony for the Unknown Serviceman of the Vietnam Era. The Unknown’s flag-draped casket is in the foreground. At the conclusion of the ceremony, the Unknown will be placed aboard the USS Brewton (FF 1086) for transport to Naval Air Station, Alameda, California.

Admiral Foley’s awards included the Distinguished Service Medal (3), Legion of Merit, Distinguished Flying Cross, Bronze Star with Combat V, Meritorious Service Medal, Air Medal with Numeral Seven, Navy Commendation Medal with Combat V (2), Presidential Unit Citation, Navy Unit Commendation, Navy Expeditionary Medal (Cuba), China Service Medal, World War II Victory Medal, Navy Occupation Service Medal (Europe), National Defense Service Medal (2), Korean Service Medal, Vietnam Service Medal with four bronze stars, United Nations Service Medal, Republic of Vietnam Campaign Medal with Device. Foreign decorations included the Distinguished Service Order Second Class by the Republic of Vietnam.

After retiring, Adm. Foley served as Assistant Secretary of Energy for Defense Programs in the Reagan Administration. In 1988 he became President of the Advanced Technology Group at ICF Kaiser Engineers before joining Raytheon in 1991 as Vice President of Marketing, President of Raytheon Japan and Vice President of Asian Marketing. He then served as consultant and was a member of George W. Bush’s energy transition team. In 2003, he was appointed as the University of California’s vice president for laboratory management, with oversight over Los Alamos, Lawrence Livermore, and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratories.  Admiral Foley was named a U.S. Naval Academy Distinguished Graduate in 2012.

Admiral Foley’s daughter Maureen was in the first class of women to graduate from the U.S. Naval Academy in 1980.

We have lost another of our great Vietnam War veterans, who answered our country’s call, three times, with extraordinary courage, even when much of our nation didn’t appreciate their sacrifice; over sixty squadron XO/CO and air wing commanders were lost in the dangerous skies over Vietnam, the price of leadership from the front. Numerous accounts describe his dedication to his men, exemplified by his Distinguished Flying Cross, where he refused to give up on one of his downed aviators despite great personal risk. He served in critical leadership positions at the height of the Cold War, and as Commander of the SEVENTH Fleet and Commander-in-Chief, U.S. Pacific Fleet led and directed some of the most audacious operations in close proximity to the Soviet Union as part of the Maritime Strategy, contributing significantly to bringing about the end of the Cold War and an existential threat to our way of life. Admiral Foley was both a true warrior and a caring leader of sailors. His contribution to our nation is immeasurable.  He will be truly missed, but his legacy will live on.

Rest in Peace Admiral Foley.