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 Rear Admiral Harold Gilbert “Harry” Rich, U.S. Navy (retired) on January 20, 2020 at age 94. Rear Adm. Rich enlisted in the U.S. Navy right out of high school in 1943, was commissioned in June 1946, and served as a Naval Aviator until his retirement in May 1978 as the Assistant Deputy CNO for Human Resources. During his career, he participated in many key Cold War events, including the Berlin Airlift and numerous hours in P-3’s over the North Atlantic countering Soviet nuclear-armed submarines.
Harold Rich enlisted in the U.S. Naval Reserve on June 15, 1943. Under the V-12 Program, he entered Dartmouth College in October 1943 and a year later reported for pre-flight training at St. Mary’s College of California. In May 1945, he began primary flight training at Naval Air Station (NAS) Ottumwa, Iowa. From September 1945, he continued flight training at Naval Air Stations, Norman, Oklahoma; Corpus Christi, Texas and Pensacola, Fla. He was designated a Naval Aviator and commissioned an ensign in the U.S. Naval Reserve on June 18, 1946. Ensign Rich then continued flight training at NAS Hutchinson, Kansas and Whiting Field, Fla. In December 1946 he reported for his first operational assignment with Air Transport Squadron EIGHT during which he was awarded an Air Medal for completing over 100 flights (127 to be exact) during the Berlin Airlift (Operation Vittles) flying food and supplies to West Berlin civilians during the Soviet blockade. During this period, he augmented into the U.S. Navy.
In May 1949, Ensign Rich reported to the Potomac River Naval Command (a college training program at George Washington University) and was promoted to Lieutenant (junior grade) the next month. He then continued his education at the General Line School at Monterey, finishing in January 1951. He then served as a Flight Officer at Air Development Squadron FOUR (VX-4) which in March 1952 was re-designated Airborne Early Warning Squadron TWO (VW-2) the first AEW squadron in the Navy, operating from NAS Patuxent River, flying NATO AEW and hurricane hunter missions in the PB-1W (a Navy variant of the B-17 Flying Fortress). In July 1953, Lieutenant Rich reported to NAS Corpus Christi as Overhaul and Repair Production Planning Assistant. In May 1954, he shifted to the staff of the Chief of Naval Air Advanced Training at Corpus Christi as Aircraft Engine Officer. In August 1956, he reported to Patrol Squadron TWENTY-THREE as Assistant Administrative Officer and Flight Officer, flying the jet-assisted P2V-7 Neptune on detachments to Lajes, Azores and Keflavik, Iceland.
In August 1958, Lieutenant Commander Rich attended the U.S. Naval War College, graduating in August 1959, when he reported to the carrier USS Intrepid (CVA 11) as Ordnance Officer, making Mediterranean deployments from Mayport, Fla. This was followed in October 1961 by a tour in the Bureau of Naval Personnel as the ASW/AEW Placement Officer, during which he also earned a Bachelor of Arts in Social Science from the George Washington, University.
Promoted to commander in July 1962, he reported to Patrol Squadron EIGHT in June 1964 as the Executive Officer. He assumed command of the squadron in March 1965, flying in the P-3B Orion on detachments to bases around the North Atlantic countering Soviet submarine deployments to the Western Atlantic, and readying the squadron for its first deployment to the western Pacific to support the Vietnam War. In March 1966, re-reported as Operations Officer aboard USS Wasp (CVS 18) which included two Gemini spacecraft splashdown recovery missions (Gemini 9 and 12.)
Promoted to captain in July 1967, he assumed duty in December 1967 as Chief Staff Officer of Commander Fleet Air Wing THREE, based at NAS Brunswick, Maine, where he was awarded a Navy Commendation Medal (these were a lot harder to get back then) as a member of the USS Scorpion Court of Inquiry and a Meritorious Unit Commendation for participation in Task Unit 80.1. In May 1970, Captain Rich assumed duty as Executive Officer for NAS Brunswick, Maine, before reporting to the National War College in August 1970, where he earned a Master of Science Degree in International Affairs from George Washington University. After graduating, he assumed command of Naval Air Station Bermuda, with additional duty as Commander, Fleet Air, Bermuda.
In June 1973, he was designated a Rear Admiral and assumed command of Patrol Wings, U.S. Atlantic Fleet. Promoted to Rear Admiral in May 1974, he assumed command of Icelandic Defense Force with additional duty as Commander Fleet Air Keflavik. In September 1976, he returned to Washington, D.C. in the Bureau of Naval Personnel, as Assistant Chief for Human Resource Management, with additional duty as the Deputy CNO for Human Resource Management. Rear Adm. Rich retired in May 1978.
Rear Admiral Rich’s awards include, the Legion of Merit, Air Medal (for Berlin Airlift), Navy Commendation Medal (USS Scorpion Board of Inquiry), Meritorious Unit Commendation (ASW Task Group 80.1), American Campaign Medal, World War II Victory Medal, Navy Occupation Service Medal (Europe), Medal for Humane Action, National Defense Service Medal (2).
After retirement, Rear Adm. Rich was active in civic affairs in Harpswell, Maine, serving as a member of the Brunswick Base Closure Task Force, a board member of Cundy’s Harbor Library, founding member of the Board of Directors and the Director Emeritus of the Brunswick Naval Aviation Museum, and President Emeritus of The Friends of Peary’s Eagle Island. In 2018, a street at the former Brunswick NAS was named for him.
Harry Rich jumped at his first chance to serve in the U.S. Navy while the U.S. was engaged in a World War, but by the time he was through Naval Aviation Cadet and flight training the war was over. Instead, in his first tour, he found himself right in the middle of one of the seminal events of the Cold War, the Soviet blockade of West Berlin and the resulting Berlin Airlift. Confined to narrow flight corridors and often harasses by Soviet fighters, U.S. aircraft landed every 30 seconds in West Berlin and brought food and coal that kept the citizens of West Berlin from starving and freezing in the winter of 1948-1949. With the constant risk of being shot down if an aircraft strayed from the corridors, the mission was dangerous enough as 17 American and eight British aircraft crashed, as the airlift continued even in the worst weather. For most of the rest of his career, Harry was focused on airborne anti-submarine warfare, countering the increasing numbers of Soviet submarines deploying to the Western Atlantic, where their nuclear cruise and ballistic missiles represented an existential threat to the United States, with warning time greatly reduced to only a matter of minutes. Harry served our nation with dedication and distinction, and at the height of the Cold War, our nation was safer for his efforts. Our nation, and the citizens of West Berlin, owe him a great debt of gratitude (which the citizens of West Berlin have never forgotten).
Rest in Peace Admiral Rich.