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 Ronald Jackson “Ron” Hays, U.S. Navy (Retired) on January 10, 2021 at age 92. Ron Hays entered the U.S. Naval Academy in 1946 and served as a Naval Aviator until his retirement in 1988 as the Commander-in-Chief, U.S. Pacific Command. His commands included Attack Squadron VA-85, Naval Station Roosevelt Roads, Carrier Group FOUR, U.S. Naval Forces Europe, and he also served as the Vice Chief of Naval Operations. He earned over 30 combat awards, including three Silver Stars and seven Distinguished Flying Crosses in 162 combat missions during back-to-back Vietnam deployments as XO/CO of VA-85 embarked on USS Kitty Hawk (CVA 63) in 1965-1967.
Ron Hays took the oath as a midshipman at the U.S. Naval Academy on 28 June 1946, earning a Bachelor of Science in Naval Science (as did all graduating midshipmen at the time) graduating and being commissioned an ensign on June 2, 1950 days before the Korean War broke out. Ensign Hay’s first assignment was Communications Officer on Newport-based destroyer USS Hugh Purvis (DD 709) temporarily operating out of New Orleans providing intensive training for numerous Naval Reservists activated during the war, before heading across the Atlantic for a Mediterranean deployment. Due to the acute shortage of pilots, the two-year surface requirement was relaxed and Ensign Hays detached from Hugh Purvis in June 1951 for flight training at Naval Aviation Basic Training Course, NAS Pensacola. On November 7, 1952 Lieutenant (junior grade) Hays was designated a Naval Aviator (HTA)(heavier than air). Following additional aviation training under Commander Naval Air Force Pacific, Lt.j.g. Hays reported to his first operational squadron in January 1953, Attack Squadron ONE NINE FIVE (VA-195) the “Dambusters” (VA-195 Skyraiders destroyed a North Korean hydroelectric dam using torpedoes in 1952 on their previous deployment). Based at NAS Moffett Field, Lt.j.g. Hays prepared for Korean deployment flying the AD4B (later re-designated A-1) Skyraider, but the Korean War armistice was signed before the squadron deployed again.
In October 1955, Lieutenant Hays attended Flight Safety School at the University of Southern California before reporting in December 1955 to Test Pilot School at Naval Air Test Center, Patuxent River, Md. From August 1956 to January 1959, Lt. Hays served as a project test pilot, a very dangerous occupation at the time, flying virtually every new aircraft coming into the Navy inventory (and some that didn’t). He then reported to the Staff of Commander Carrier Air Group ONE (CVG-1) at NAS Jacksonville, Fla. flying the F-8U Crusader jet fighter and serving as Landing Signal Officer aboard several aircraft carriers. Promoted to lieutenant commander in July 1960, he then attended the Naval War College in Newport R.I., finding time to fly the SNB Twin Beech aircraft, before graduating in June 1961.
After a short stint in a replacement squadron, Lt. Cmdr. Hays reported to Attack Squadron ONE ZERO SIX (VA-106) at NAS Jacksonville flying the A-4 Skyhawk jet fighter-bomber off carrier Shangri-La (CVA 38) for a Mediterranean and Caribbean contingency deployments. During the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962, VA-106 cross-decked to Lexington (CVS 16) as a ready-reserve strike force should attacks against Soviet targets in Cuba be necessary (Shangri-La was in the yards and Lexington’s transition to permanent training carrier was interrupted). In November 1963, Lt. Cmdr. Hays reported to the staff of Commander Carrier Air Wing FOUR (CVW-4) a readiness air wing at NAS Jacksonville as Attack Training Officer, flying both the A-4 Skyhawk and F-8 Crusader.
Promoted to commander in May 1965, Cmdr. Hays reported in July 1965 as Executive Officer for Attack Squadron EIGHT FIVE (VA-85) “Black Falcons” at NAS Oceana Va., flying the new A-6A Intruder all-weather medium bomber. Embarked on carrier USS Kitty Hawk (CVA 63) VA-85 deployed to Vietnam in November 1965 and was the second A-6 squadron to see combat in Vietnam, during a period of rapidly improving North Vietnamese air defenses. Interrupted by a unilateral thirty-seven day U.S. Christmas bombing pause (to see if the Vietnamese had had enough of the Rolling Thunder bombing campaign) which the North Vietnamese used as an opportunity to rapidly proliferate SA-2 Guideline surface-to-air missiles and radar-directed anti-aircraft artillery, and bring in new MiG-21 Fishbed jet fighters. Cmdr. Hays flew 80 combat missions on this deployment and was awarded two Distinguished Flying Crosses and multiple Air Medals and lesser combat awards.
Cmdr. Hays assumed command of VA-85 in April 1966 before Kitty Hawk returned from deployment in June 1966. Following a quick turn, Kitty Hawk deployed to Vietnam in November 1966 during a period of some of the most intense aerial combat over North Vietnam during the war, with U.S. missions hampered by monsoon conditions (during which the all-weather A-6A demonstrated its worth) and another unilateral U.S. bombing pause that only served to aid North Vietnamese air defenses, (which shot down over 120 U.S. Navy aircraft in 1966). During this period, Cmdr. Hays flew 82 more combat missions, including leading large daylight alpha strikes and small two-plane night strikes, which caught the North Vietnamese by surprise, although they quickly adapted. During this period, Cmdr. Hays was awarded three Silver Stars and five more Distinguished Flying Crosses. He insisted on leading the strikes and he would make attacks on the most dangerous axis to draw fire away from his other strike aircraft. His aircraft was hit multiple times by anti-aircraft fire (in one case a 37mm round blew a hole through his wing) yet he still pressed on and delivered ordnance on target. In one night bad-weather strike, he pressed on alone after his wingman’s aircraft developed problems (he ordered the wingman to abort) and he delivered a devastating blow to the target (the North Vietnamese claimed it was hit by B-52’s).
Some excerpts from Cmdr. Hays’ Silver Stars;
December 13, 1966: “…led a 25-plane strike group in a daring daylight strike against the heavily defended Van Dien Vehicle Depot five miles from the city of Hanoi…Experiencing radio failure while approaching the target area…forcing him to relinquish the lead…assumed wingman in van element in preference to aborting…sustained a direct hit by a 37mm round….even though his aircraft had received substantial damage, he rolled into his dive and accurately delivered his bombs.”
March 16, 1967: “…during a daring and hazardous night strike against the strategic Bac Giang Thermal Power Plant located thirty miles northeast of Hanoi…detached the faltering plane (his wingman) and courageously continued on the mission alone…adverse weather conditions, complete darkness, and at extremely low altitude…succeeded in reaching the target despite frequent encounters with intense barrage fire…continuous indications of missile and gunlaying activity, a missile fired at the airplane, and an attempt by the enemy to illuminate with searchlights…accurately delivered his bombs…avoid the surface-to-air missile volley fired at his aircraft.”
March 18 and March 24 1967: “…when inclement weather prevented visual attacks…boldly planned and courageously led four multi-aircraft night strikes…against North Vietnam’s only steel and iron complex and two of its most significant thermal power plants….each target was also heavily defended by an unparalleled number of anti-aircraft batteries of all caliber and automatic weapons….Cmdr. Hays elected to fly the more hazardous route to the targets in order to provide diversity of attack headings and a measure of reduced exposure to the other aircraft in the flight…despite intense barrage fire and missile fire…all three facilities were damaged by bomb hits and rendered inoperable.”
Kitty Hawk and VA-85 returned from deployment in June 1967 (earning two Navy Unit Commendations for the 65-67 deployments) and Cmdr. Hays immediately transferred to the Staff of Commander SEVENTH Fleet as Air Warfare Officer. Although based out of Yokosuka, Japan the flagship guided-missile light cruiser USS Providence (CLG 6) spent much of her time on the gunline shelling North Vietnamese targets on the coast except for an emergency deployment to the Sea of Japan in reaction to the North Korean seizure of the U.S. Intelligence Collection Ship USS Pueblo (AGER 2) Providence was awarded a Navy Unit Commendation and Cmdr. Hays a Bronze Star with Combat V.
Having successfully remained in the cockpit or on ship for almost his entire career, Cmdr. Hays was finally sent to Washington, D.C. in December 1968 to serve Tactical Aircraft Plans Officer in the Aviation Plans Branch (OP-508) in the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations, where he was promoted to captain in July 1969. In February 1971, Capt. Hays assumed command of Naval Station Roosevelt Roads, Puerto Rico. In July 1972, he returned to Washington, D.C. as Director, General Planning and Programming Division (Op-90) in the Office of the CNO and in August 1972 he was designated a rear admiral for duty in a billet commensurate with that rank. He was promoted to rear admiral on July 1, 1973.
In July 1974, Rear Adm. Hays assumed command of Carrier Group FOUR (COMCARGRU 4) shortly after transition from Carrier Division FOUR, in which he was tasked with implementing the new concept that gave responsibility for the entire Battle Group to the CARGRU Commander (previously split between the CARDIV commander for the carriers/airwing and a separate commander for the surface ship screen). In July 1975, Rear Adm. Hays once again returned to Washington, D.C., this time as Director of the Office of Program Appraisal in the Office of the Secretary of the Navy, during a very tumultuous time of major social change and austere budgets in the post-Vietnam period, for which he was awarded his first Distinguished Service Medal.
In September 1978, Rear Adm. Hays was designated a vice admiral for duty in a billet commensurate with that rank, assuming duty as Deputy and Chief of Staff for Commander-in-Chief U.S. Atlantic Command/Commander-in-Chief U.S. Atlantic Fleet with additional duty as Deputy and Chief of Staff for Commander-in-Chief Western Atlantic (CINCLANT/CINCLANTFLT’s NATO hat) and Commander Ocean Submarine Area (COMOCEANLANT). In September 1980, Vice Adm. Hays assumed duty as Commander-in-Chief, U.S. Naval Forces Europe (CINUSNAVEUR) headquartered in London as the Naval Component Commander for U.S. European Command. Vice Adm. Hays was one of only two vice admirals to serve as CINUSNAVEUR since 1942 (all others were four-stars) leading U.S. Navy Cold War Operations against the Soviet Union as well as during crises such as Libya’s Gulf of Sidra “Line of Death,” including the shoot-down of two Libyan SU-22 Fitters by USS Nimitz F-14’s in 1981, and the Lebanon Crisis of 1982-1983.
In April 1983, Vice Adm. Hays was designated a full admiral and assumed duty as the 21st Vice Chief of Naval Operations as the Reagan Administrations’ “Maritime Strategy” against the Soviet Union was coming to fruition, and the U.S. Navy was commencing a major force buildup. In September 1985, Adm. Hays assumed duty as the Commander-in-Chief, U.S. Pacific Command in Hawaii, the joint command responsible for the Pacific and Indian Ocean regions. This period was marked by audacious U.S. Navy operations in close proximity to the Soviet Union in the northern Pacific (some of which were not well coordinated with the theater commander – Adm. Hays, leading to some friction and contributing to the early relief of the Pacific Fleet commander). A major crisis was the fall of the Ferdinand Marcos regime in the Philippines to a “People Power” revolution led by Corazon Aquino, wife of assassinated opposition leader Benigno Aquino. Adm. Hays was instrumental in ensuring continued U.S. access to bases at Subic Bay and Clark Air Force Base during this tumultuous period. U.S. Navy ships also conducted the first port-visit to the Peoples Republic of China in 37 years. Adm. Hays retired on October 1, 1988.
Adm. Hay’s awards include the Distinguished Service Medal (three awards), Silver Star (three awards), Legion of Merit, Distinguished Flying Cross (seven awards), Bronze Star with Combat “V,” Air Medal (18 awards – three gold stars and numeral 14), Navy Commendation Medal with Combat “V” (two awards), Navy Unit Commendation (three awards -VA-85, Kitty Hawk, Providence), Meritorious Unit Commendation (Oklahoma City) World War II Victory Medal, Navy Occupation Service Medal (Europe), National Defense Service Medal (two awards), Korean Service Medal, Vietnam Service Medal with one silver star (six campaigns), Navy Overseas Service Ribbon, South Korean National Security Merit (Tongil), Korean Presidential Unit Citation, Republic of Vietnam Meritorious Unit Citation (Gallantry Cross Color), United Nations Service Medal, Republic of Vietnam Campaign Medal with Device. (Although not in the record, Adm. Hays was probably awarded a Defense Distinguished Service Medal as CINCPAC – the service transcripts frequently miss the last award).
After retiring from active duty, Adm. Hays served on a number of corporate boards, including civic and non-profit organizations and served as a consultant for global engineering firm Parsons Corporation. He was awarded a Doctorate of Humanities by Northwestern State University, La. He was recognized as a Distinguished Eagle Scout and Distinguished Graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy. He led the effort to establish battleship USS Missouri (BB 63) as a memorial near the USS Arizona memorial in Pearl Harbor. He also served as Chairman of the Board of the Pacific Aviation Museum (now Pearl Harbor Aviation Museum) on Ford Island, Pearl Harbor. He was also a Golden Eagle.
With 4,800 flight hours and 900 fixed-wing carrier traps, Adm. Hays was a consummate Cold War-era Naval Aviator at a time when flying jets off aircraft carriers resulted in far more accidents than today. He apparently had a very high tolerance for danger, as being a jet aircraft test pilot in the 1950’s had an attrition rate as high as any combat. More importantly, as the Commanding Officer of VA-85 he represented the epitome of Navy combat leadership. During a time when Navy Wing Commanders and Squadron CO/XO’s were being lost over Vietnam at a staggering rate, then-Commander Hays always led from the front, always setting an example of duty ahead of self, while doing everything possible to bring his fliers back alive while accomplishing every mission. He went on to key Navy leadership positions to bring the Navy through the morale-busting post-Vietnam years into a new renaissance in the 1980’s, contributing significantly and materially to the end of the dangerous Cold War with the Soviet Union. Always a perfect gentleman (my wife was his Command Briefer at PACOM) he was nevertheless a hard-driving officer who got things done no matter the challenge. Even after retirement, his efforts on behalf of museums at Pearl Harbor continued to serve our nation by ensuring the legacy of former heroes lived on. He was possessed of unusual humility (in the Navy biographies we used to fill out at every promotion, under “significant combat experience” he put down “none,” listing only “test pilot.”) Make no mistake though, he is indeed a true hero, and the Navy and Nation are far better for his service and his valor.
Rest in Peace Admiral Hays.