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Passing of a Great American, CDR William Vogt, USNR (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 that I inform you of the passing of a great American, Commander William “Bill” Vogt, U.S. Naval Reserve (Retired) on February 29, 2020 at age 107. Bill enlisted as a Yeoman in the U.S. Naval Reserve in 1940, and served as an Intelligence Officer in World War II and the Cold War, retiring in 1969 as the Executive Officer of the 11th Naval District in San Diego. At the time of his passing, he was believed to be the oldest living Intelligence Officer and possibly the oldest living U.S. military officer.

Bill graduated from San Diego State University in 1935, and found work during the Great Depression in one of President Franklin Roosevelt’s “Alphabet” agencies. In 1940, a friend and former professor (who was also a recruiter for Naval Intelligence) advised him that “war was coming” and that he should joined the reserves and get a commission. Bill did so, but at the time, no commissions were available, so he enlisted in the U.S. Naval Reserve with a rank of Yeoman First Class. He was out goose-hunting when he heard about Pearl Harbor and received his call-up notice the next day.

Bill’s first assignment was to the District Intelligence Office covering the west coast of California, where he spent a significant amount of time on a small boat searching Santa Catalina and other islands off the California coast for signs of Japanese submarine activity in response to sighting reports (a Japanese submarine had shelled an oil field near Santa Barbara in February 1942). He also witnessed an anti-aircraft barrage over Los Angeles against what turned out to be a non-existent air raid. He also made forays to Tijuana, Mexico, where through agreement with the Mexican government, he and another intelligence officer would steam open government mail from Nazi Germany, read it, re-seal it, and make a report.

Bill then attended the Naval Intelligence School in Tucson, Ariz., receiving his commission as an ensign on July 6, 1942 and graduating in December 1942. He was then sent to Washington, D.C. for advanced intelligence training. While rushing around a corner in Naval Headquarters he literally collided with Admiral Ernest J. King (Chief of Naval Operations/Commander-in-Chief U.S. Fleet (CNO/COMINCH)) and received a stern Admiral King dressing down.

Following additional Intelligence training in New York City, Bill was ordered to Adak, Alaska where he served for the remainder of the war at Finger Bay. Here he provided intelligence to U.S. Navy commanders operating in Aleutian waters, including long-range air strikes against Japanese bases in the northern Kuril Islands. He was also engaged in the planning for the occupation of Hokkaido, Japan. He was promoted to Lieutenant in October 1944. 

Cold Bay, Alaska (near Adak) was also a significant facility in the U.S. lend-lease program to the Soviet Union, to include the transshipment of cargos and hand-over of vessels being provided to the Soviets in 1945, code-named Project Hula, which was deliberately conducted in an isolated location to maintain secrecy. (The Japanese never attempted to disrupt this activity for fear of bringing the Soviet Union into the war against Japan – The Soviets remained “neutral” until August 1945.) During this period, Bill had cause to visit a number of Soviet ships, which he described as “dirty” (an observation frequently made of Soviet ships over many years). Bill did note that upon the Japanese surrender, the “Vodka Party” hosted by Soviet Admiral Popov, was one for the ages.

At the end of the war, there was a pell-mell rush to demobilize and return to the States, with no well-organized plan to do it, at least from the Aleutians. Bill gave up a highly prized seat on the U.S. Navy version of a B-24 (PB4Y-2) to a younger married officer, and unfortunately the plane crashed near Juneau, Alaska, with the loss of everyone on board.

After the war, Bill returned to civilian life in Seattle, got married and had kids, but stayed in the Reserves. He was recalled to active duty upon the outbreak of the Korean War, originally to report to Commander-in-Chief, Pacific Fleet (CINCPACFLT) to assist with the planning of the landings for Inchon, South Korea. However, he requested a delay to get personal affairs in order, and was sent back to Adak instead, where he served as the Intelligence Briefer to Admiral Clifton Sprague (of WWII “Taffy 3” Battle off Samar” fame) on his last tour of duty. Bill was promoted to Lieutenant Commander in 1951.

Upon the signing of the armistice to end the Korean War, Bill returned to the District Intelligence Office in the Seattle area, during a period of significant labor unrest by the Longshoreman’s Union. During this period, Bill was contacted by Roy Cohn (lawyer and staffer for Senator Joseph McCarthy) to conduct domestic spying in support of McCarthy’s anti-Communist hearings. Viewing the request as illegal, Bill refused to turn over files on the Longshoreman’s Union.

Bill was promoted to Commander in April 1956 while serving a tour in the Pentagon. In 1957, he was ordered to Guam to work on the staff of the Marianas United Nations High Commissioner (a U.S. Navy admiral, who would end up in jail for jade smuggling from China). His duties included working with the CIA in training Taiwanese agents to conduct clandestine flights and operations into Communist China. Also during this time, a number of Indonesian rebels arrived by boat in Guam. The U.S. State Department negotiated a deal with the Indonesian Government (Sukarno Regime) to return the rebels, with a guarantee of safe passage and fair trial.  In his discussion with the Indonesian G2 representative, Bill came to distrust their motives and recommended against returning the Indonesian rebels, but was overruled. The Indonesians were executed as soon as they were out of U.S. jurisdiction waters.

While on Guam, Bill also led an operation to effect the surrender of what was believed at the time to be the last two Japanese Army holdouts, who had been hiding in the jungles of Guam since the U.S. landings in 1944 (and apparently subsisting pretty well on the garbage from the U.S. Navy communications station. In the first years after the war, Guamanian para-military militias had very aggressively hunted down and killed any Japanese they could find hiding in the jungle). At one point, on May 23, 1960, Bill found himself alone in a jungle clearing as one Japanese (Sergeant Masashi Ito) appeared on the other side of the clearing, and although neither was able to speak the other’s language, Bill was able to convince the Japanese that he was not a threat, and by gesture was able to get the Japanese to surrender. (One other Japanese soldier came out of hiding on Guam in 1972.)

Returning to Washington in 1960, Bill served as an Intelligence Watch Officer on the OPNAV Staff in the Pentagon during the Bay of Pigs and Cuban Missile Crisis, working for the Director of Naval Intelligence Rear Admiral Vernon Lowrance, briefing senior Navy and Defense officials, including Secretary of Defense McNamara, using portable grease-board plots. During this period, he also recalled a very bright young officer, Bobby Ray Inman, who would go on to be the first Naval Intelligence four-star. He was also responsible for setting up a link to bring National Security Agency (NSA) signals intelligence information into the CNO Intelligence Plot (the NSA “Gray Line.”) Later in the 1960’s he served as the Special Security Officer (SSO) for OPNAV, during a somewhat contentious (and failed) attempt to consolidate all the Service SSO’s into a single agency (it failed because the Navy did the job with six people and the Air Force did it with 40). Bill’s last tour was in the San Diego Naval District, where he was involved in the debriefing of the crew of the USS Pueblo after their return from 11 months of captivity in North Korea in 1969.  

I had the privilege to interview Bill Vogt in San Diego in August 2019. He was a true gentleman of great wit and wisdom. His memory was sharp and he was incredibly well-informed and engaged on the current issues of the day. He still lived in his own home and could still get around pretty well.

Bill volunteered to serve our nation even before World War II came to us at Pearl Harbor. He served our nation with great dedication and professionalism wherever he was sent. Although he never augmented into the U.S. Navy, he kept finding reasons and assignments to stay, and he served on active duty for almost 30 years, including important Intelligence assignments during some of the most critical events of the Cold War in the early 1960’s. He epitomized a “life well-lived.” He was a true patriot, who served our nation with great honor and integrity, and he will be missed.

In his last days, he wanted to be remembered for serving our nation, and for remaining faithful to the Constitution he swore an oath to uphold.

Rest in Peace Bill,