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 Ted Charles Steele, Jr., U.S. Navy (Retired) on October 11, 2020 at age 88. Rear Adm. Steele entered the U.S. Navy as an ROTC midshipman in 1951 and he served as a Naval Aviator until his retirement in 1987 as the Commander U.S. Forces Caribbean. His tours included a Vietnam combat tour as XO/CO of fighter squadron VF-213, Operations Officer on USS Coral Sea for Operation Pocket Money (aerial minelaying operation off Haiphong Vietnam) as well as command of USS Ogden (LPD 5), USS Belleau Wood (LHA 3), the Naval Safety Center, and Tactical Wings Atlantic.
Ted Steel entered the Navy during the Korean War on September 20, 1951 as a midshipman in the Naval Reserve Officer Training Corps (NROTC) program while earning a degree in journalism at the University of North Carolina. He was commissioned an ensign on June 4, 1954 reporting to the Naval Aviation Basic Training Course at NAS Pensacola, followed by additional flight instruction at Naval Auxiliary Air Station Chase Field, Beeville, Texas. On December 4, 1955 Ensign Steele was promoted to lieutenant (junior grade) and was then designated a Naval Aviator Heavier-than- Air (HTA) on December 19, 1955. Lt.j.g. Steele then reported to Fighter Squadron SEVEN-THREE (VF-73) “Jesters” at Quonset Point, R.I., initially flying the F9F-6 Cougar (swept wing version of the F9F Panther jet fighter) before transitioning to the FJ-3 Fury (navalized version of F-86 Sabre) deploying to the Mediterranean in 1957 aboard attack carrier Randolph (CVA 15) following her conversion to angle-deck configuration. He then reported to Fighter-Squadron FOUR ONE (VF-41) “Black Aces” at NAS Oceana flying the F2H-3 Banshee and transitioning to the F3H-2 Demon in a series of short operational periods aboard attack carriers Intrepid (CVA 11) and Hornet (CVA 12) where he was promoted to lieutenant in June 1958.
In March 1959, Lt. Steele was assigned to Basic Training Group NINE at NAS Pensacola, Fla. as a basic jet carrier qualification instructor. In September 1961 he continued flight instructor duties in Training Squadron FOUR (VT-4) at NAS Pensacola. In March 1962, Lt. Steele reported to Naval Air Technical Training Center, Glynco, Ga. for several months of instruction before reporting in June 1962 to attack carrier Franklin D. Roosevelt (CVA 42) as the Carrier Controlled Approach Officer, deploying twice to the Mediterranean, where he was promoted to lieutenant commander in May 1964.
In July 1964, Lt. Cmdr. Steele reported to Attack Squadron FOUR-THREE (VA-43) for duty under instruction flying the A-4C Skyhawk. In September 1964, he then reported to the F-4 Phantom II replacement air group in Fighter Squadron ONE ZERO ONE (VF-101). He commenced his operational assignment as Maintenance Officer and Operations Officer for FIGHTER SQUADRON ONE ZERO TWO (VF-102) based at NAS Oceana Va., flying the F-4B Phantom II for the workups of new attack carrier America (CVA 66) and a Mediterranean deployment. In January 1967, Lt. Cmdr. Steele attended the Armed Forces Staff College. He returned to flying duty in June 1967 as the Assistant Officer-in-Charge of the VF-101 Oceana Detachment flying the F-4 Phantom II and finishing the last two months of his tour as the Officer-in-Charge.
In May 1968, Lt. Cmdr. Steele reported to NAS Miramar as Executive Officer for FIGHTER SQUADRON TWO ONE THREE (VF-213) “Black Lions,” where he was promoted to commander in July 1967 before deploying to the Gulf of Tonkin in December 1968 for Vietnam combat operations embarked on attack carrier Kitty Hawk (CVA 3) flying the F-4B Phantom II. During the deployment, Cmdr. Steele fleeted up to Commanding Officer. VF-213 only lost one aircraft in combat during the deployment; both pilot and radar intercept officer were rescued. Kitty Hawk and her Air Wing were awarded a Navy Unit Commendation. In June 1970, Cmdr. Steele attended the senior course at the Naval War College, Newport R.I., graduating in 1971 and concurrently earning a Masters Degree in International Affairs from the George Washington University.
In July 1971, Cmdr. Steel reported to attack carrier Coral Sea (CVA 43) as Air Operations and Operations Officer during a particularly tumultuous time that include a serious fire and anti-Vietnam War crew unrest (over 1,000 Coral Sea sailors joined the “Stop Our Ship” movement and others participated in anti-war demonstrations). Although two carrier deployments were delayed during this period by sabotage by their own crew, Coral Sea deployed on schedule to the Gulf of Tonkin and launched the first minelaying strikes to close the North Vietnamese major port of Haiphong (Operation Pocket Money) timed to coincide with an announcement by President Nixon. The minelaying operation was in reaction to the major conventional assault into South Vietnam known as the Easter Offensive. Strikes by Coral Sea and other U.S. carriers played a significant role in blunting the offensive. Coral Sea was awarded a Navy Unit Commendation. Cmdr. Steele’s last operational catapult shot coincided with his departure in November 1973 after a second Gulf of Tonkin deployment on Coral Sea.
In November 1973, Cmdr. Steele reported to the Office of Joint Chiefs of Staff as a Staff Operations Officer during a hectic period including increased U.S. Navy deployments to the Indian Ocean, the evacuations of Vietnam and Cambodia and the SS Mayaguez Crisis. He was promoted to captain in July 1975.
In February 1976, Capt. Steele assumed command of amphibious transport dock Ogden (LPD 5) while she was deployed to the Western Pacific before returning to the West Coast where she served as a platform for amphibious landing training by U.S. Army units at Camp Pendleton in the summer of 1977. Capt. Steele relinquished command in the Bay of Acapulco in January 1978 when he proceeded to the Senior Officer Ship Material Readiness Course at the Naval Reactors facility in Idaho Falls. In May 1978, Capt. Steele reported to the shipyard at Pascagoula, Miss. as Pre-commissioning Commanding Officer for landing helicopter assault ship Belleau Wood (LHA) commissioning her in September 1978 and taking her through shakedown, and transfer to San Diego and amphibious exercises in the Pacific, before going into Long Beach shipyard in 1979 for a one year engine overhaul. In July 1980, Capt. Steele reported to the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations as the Director of Fleet Operations and Readiness and Navy Command Center Division (OP-64).
In June 1981, Capt. Steele was designated a rear admiral for duty in a billet commensurate with the rank and the same month assumed command of the Naval Safety Center at NAS Norfolk, immediately after the crash of an EA-6B on the flight deck of carrier Nimitz (CVN 68) which killed 14, resulting in a major safety investigation. He was promoted to rear admiral on August 1, 1982. In July 1983, Rear Adm. Steel assumed command of Tactical Wings Atlantic. In July 1985, Rear Adm. Steele assumed command of U.S. Forces Caribbean, a sub-unified command under U.S. Atlantic Command before Caribbean waters were reassigned to U.S. Southern Command. Rear Adm. Steele retired on August 1, 1987.
Rear Adm. Steele’s awards include the Legion of Merit (2), Bronze Star, Meritorious Service Medal, Air Medal with numeral 6, Navy Unit Citation (2), Navy Commendation Medal with Combat “V,” Armed Forces Expeditionary Medal, National Defense Service Medal (2), Vietnam Service Medal with three bronze stars, a medal I can’t find on any chart, the Republic of Vietnam Armed Forces Honor Medal First Class, the Republic of Vietnam Gallantry Cross Citation, and Republic of Vietnam Campaign Medal with device. I don’t have good data on his awards, but he likely received a Defense Superior Service Medal for his last tour as Commander U.S. Forces Caribbean. The Bronze Star (without Combat “V”) is probably from his tour on Coral Sea and the Navy Commendation Medal with Combat “V” from his Vietnam combat tour as VF-213 Commanding Officer.
I don’t have much information on what Rear Adm. Steele did after he retired other than he was a member of the Association of Naval Aviation, the Tailhook Association, the Norfolk Yacht Club and Army-Navy Country Club. Military funeral services were held at Miramar National Cemetery on November 24, 2020 with Rear Adm. Eric Ruttenberg, USN representing the U.S. Navy.
Ted Steele joined the U.S. Navy while the increasingly unpopular war in Korea was ongoing. Despite the fact that accidents claimed more U.S. Navy jet aircraft than combat, he chose to go into jet aviation in the very dangerous 1950’s when jet and pilot attrition aboard carriers reached levels that would be considered appalling today. Nevertheless, he thrived in this cutting edge environment and took his experience and lessons-learned and trained hundreds of new pilots in safe carrier landings. He clearly did everything he could to stay in the cockpit or on a carrier. Except for brief stints at the Armed Forces Staff College and Naval War College, his first non-flying shore tours weren’t until he was a senior commander and captain, and even those were crisis action jobs. He superbly led his squadron with minimal loss during Vietnam combat in 1968-69 against ever more deadly Vietnamese surface-to-air missile defenses that were claiming a very high percentage of Squadron CO/XO’s who, like Ted Steele, led from the front. Despite the anti-Vietnam atmosphere, he did his duty superbly as Air Ops on carrier Coral Sea during the operations that put a stop to the North Vietnamese offensive in 1972. Instead of the carrier command he was probably hoping for, he was assigned as commissioning CO for the LHA Belleau Wood when those vessels were deemed to require an aviator in command; he no doubt set the tone of excellence in that ship for the rest of her service life. The crash of the EA-6B on Nimitz in 1981 came on the heels of a rash of A-6 and other accidents, and as Commander of the Naval Safety Center he would have been at the center of subsequent investigations and implementation of corrective measures; in fact the crash proved to be a watershed event leading to improved carrier aviation safety, as well as to the Navy’s zero-tolerance on drug use. As Commander of TACWINGS LANT he would have been responsible for implementing those safety measures as well as incorporating lessons from the 1983 Lebanon strikes and ensuring the readiness of Navy aircraft that subsequently performed well in the Libya strikes of 1986. Ted was the epitome of a Navy jet aviator, flying in 20 different aircraft models and amassing over 1,000 traps on every attack carrier operational at the time. Although still dangerous, Naval Aviation is far more safe today thanks to the efforts of Rear Adm. Steele, and his legacy lives on in the Fleet today. The Navy and the nation owe him a deep debt of gratitude for his exemplary service.
Rest in Peace Admiral Steele.