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Passing of Admiral William Dee Smith, 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 William Dee “Bill” Smith, U.S. Navy (Retired) on September 9, 2020 at age 87. Adm. Smith entered the U.S. Naval Academy in 1951 and served as a Submarine Officer until his retirement in 1993 as the U.S. Representative to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) Military Committee in Brussels, Belgium. His commands included USS Henry L. Stimson (SSBN 655 GOLD) Submarine Squadron FOURTEEN, and Submarine Group EIGHT/Allied Submarines Mediterranean.  

Bill Smith entered the U.S. Naval Academy during the Korean War on July 2, 1951 with the class of 1955, where he was captain of the cross country team and ran track as well. He graduated with a Bachelor of Science in Naval Science and was commissioned an ensign on June 3,1955. His first duty assignment was as Damage Control Assistant and Engineer aboard escort destroyer Bache (DDE 470) operating from the U.S. east coast for exercises in the Caribbean and deployment to the Mediterranean. For a short period, he was also assigned to destroyer escort Delong (DE 686) before returning to Bache. In December 1957, after the required two years in surface ships, he reported to Naval Submarine School, New London. In June 1958, Lieutenant (junior grade) Smith reported as Supply Officer for diesel attack submarine Hardhead (SS 365) operating as part of Submarine Development Group TWO from New London to research and test doctrine and equipment, a period during which Hardhead earned four-consecutive Battle “E” awards.  Selected for the Navy Nuclear Power Program, in December 1960, Lieutenant Smith reported to the Atomic Energy Commission, Schenectady Naval Reactors Office and Naval Nuclear Power Training Unit, West Milton Site, Schenectady, N.Y. for duty under instruction. He then served in the pre-commissioning crew as Electrical and Reactor Control Officer of fast attack nuclear submarine Tinosa (SSN 606).

In December 1963, Lt. Smith reported to the Gold crew as Assistant Engineering Officer of fleet ballistic missile submarine George Washington (SSBN 598) operating from New London and made one deterrent patrol. In March 1964 he reported to the Blue crew as Engineering Officer of Abraham Lincoln (SSBN 602) conducting strategic nuclear missile deterrent patrols out of Holy Loch, Scotland, making three deterrent patrols. He was promoted to lieutenant commander in July 1964.

In September 1965, Lt. Cmdr. Smith reported to the Naval Guided Missile School, Dam Neck, VA for duty under instruction. In November 1965, he then reported as pre-commissioning Executive Officer for fleet ballistic missile submarine Will Rogers (SSBN 659). In January 1966, he reported as Executive Officer for Daniel Boone (SSBN 629) the first U.S. ballistic missile submarine assigned to the Pacific Fleet, operating from Pearl Harbor. He made five patrols on Daniel Boone, which earned a Navy Unit Commendation during this period. In June 1968, he reported to the staff of Commander Submarines Pacific as Fleet Ballistic Missile Plans and Targeting Officer, and was promoted to commander on July 1, 1969.

In March 1971, Cmdr. Smith assumed command of Henry L. Stimson (SSBN 655) Gold crew, during her shift of operations from Charleston SC, to Rota, Spain. In August 1974, Cmdr. Smith returned to Pearl Harbor serving as Deputy and Senior Member of the Nuclear Propulsion Examination Board for Commander-in-Chief, U.S. Pacific Fleet. He was promoted to captain on July 1, 1975.

In August 1976, Capt. Smith reported to the Bureau of Naval Personnel, Submarine/Nuclear Power Distribution Control Division. In October 1978, he assumed command of Submarine Squadron FOURTEEN in command of fleet ballistic missile submarines conducting deterrent patrols from Holy Loch, Scotland. On March 1, 1980, he was designated a rear admiral for duty in a billet commensurate with the grade.

In July 1980, Rear Adm. Smith reported to the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) as Director of the Naval Communications Division (Op-941). He was promoted to rear admiral on March 1, 1981. In August 1983, Rear Adm. Smith assumed command of Submarine group EIGHT/Allied Submarines Mediterranean in Naples, Italy responsible for U.S. nuclear fast attack and ballistic missile submarines operating in the Mediterranean and assigned NATO Allied submarines. In February 1985, he returned to the Pentagon as Director of Budget and Reports in the Fiscal Management Division/Comptroller of the Navy (OP-92) in the Office of the CNO. In July 1987, Rear Adm. Smith assumed duty as the Deputy CNO for Logistics (OP-04) and was designated a vice admiral in September 1987 for duty in a billet commensurate with that grade.

In September 1987, Vice Adm. Smith assumed duty as the Director, Navy Program Planning (Op-08) in the Office if the CNO. He was promoted to admiral on February 22, 1991 just after being assigned as the U.S. Representative to the NATO Military Committee in Brussels, Belgium. Adm. Smith retired on December 1, 1993.

Adm. Smith’s awards include the Defense Distinguished Service Medal, Distinguished Service Medal (2), Legion of Merit (4), Meritorious Service Medal (2), Navy Commendation Medal, Joint Meritorious Unit Award, Navy Unit Commendation, Meritorious Unit Commendation (2), National Defense Service Medal (3), Sea Service Deployment Ribbon, and Navy and Marine Corps Overseas Service Ribbon.

After his retirement from active duty, Adm. Smith formed a consulting company, Heisler Corporation, and became a full time senior fellow at the Center for Naval Analysis and the National Defense University. He served as Chairman of the Board of Directors of the Naval Submarine League, Navy Mutual Aid, and the Board of Advisors for Applied Research Laboratory at Penn State University, the Naval Studies Board at the National Academy of Sciences and served as a Capstone Fellow at the National Defense University. U.S. space policy was a particular interest of his, and he served on a number of defense panels on the subject. He was named a Distinguished Submariner by the Naval Submarine League and was an Emeritus Board of Director for the Naval Submarine League.

Admiral Smith’s greatest accomplishment was probably never having to fire a nuclear ballistic missile from one of his submarines. The ability of U.S. ballistic missile submarines to remain undetected made them the most survivable leg of the strategic deterrent “Triad” during the Cold War. The Soviets knew that because of the U.S. submarines they could not find, no surprise nuclear attack on the U.S. would go unanswered by a devastating counter-strike that they could not stop. To have command of a submarine with more destructive firepower than all of World War II was an awesome responsibility requiring the utmost in judgment and leadership, but these submarines were the ultimate guarantee against a nuclear exchange and were a significant factor in ultimately bringing about an end to the hair-trigger threat of the Cold War. In an irony of history, Adm. Smith was the U.S. representative to the NATO Military Committee during a period of profound change for the NATO Alliance that included the establishment of formal NATO relations with the Russian Republic following the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War. Admiral Smith’s career path could likely serve as a detailer’s template for the ideal path for a submarine officer to reach flag rank, coupled with the necessary sacrifice by family resulting from very long times at sea. But, it wasn’t the jobs that made him a four-star; it was his incredible performance and leadership in those jobs that serves as an example to all. His dedication to our Navy and our Nation continued long after his retirement as he continued to mentor future generations of Navy (and Joint) leaders. His influence has been profound and the Navy is grateful for his service and sacrifice.

Rest in Peace Admiral Smith.