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In Memoriam: Rear Admiral George Rhodes Worthington, USN (Ret.)

Jan. 20, 2022 | 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 Rear Admiral (lower half) George Rhodes Worthington, U.S. Navy (Retired), on 18 December 2021 at age 84. George Worthington enlisted in the U.S. Naval Reserve in 1955, graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in 1961, and served as a surface line officer, underwater demolition team (UDT) officer, and sea, air, land (SEAL) officer until his retirement in 1992 as Commander, Naval Special Warfare Command 
(COMNAVSPECWARCOM). His commands included SEAL Team ONE, Inshore Undersea Warfare Group ONE, and Naval Special Warfare Group ONE. He was awarded a Navy Commendation Medal with Combat “V” and Combat Action Ribbon for service in multiple deployments and tours to Vietnam. He was a naval attaché to Cambodia when that country fell to the Khmer Rouge in 1975. 
George Worthington enlisted in the U.S. Naval Reserve on 25 July 1955. As part of his contract in the Naval Reserve Officer Training Corps (NROTC) program, he attended the South Kent School in Connecticut, followed by a year at Brown University, in Rhode Island, before gaining an appointment to the U.S. Naval Academy in 1957. He entered the academy, where he proved to be a bit of a renaissance man, on 1 July 1957. He was a record-setting swimmer, superb guitar player, and cartoonist for The Log (the midshipman humor magazine). Midshipman Worthington graduated on 7 June 1961, with a bachelor of science in naval science, and was commissioned an ensign the same day. 
In July 1961, Ensign Worthington reported to USS Halsey Powell (DD-686). From May to July 1962, the destroyer deployed for Operation Dominic, a series of 31 atmospheric nuclear weapons tests at Christmas and Johnston Islands in the Central Pacific. This series included the only end-to-end test of a U.S. submarine-launched ballistic missile with a live nuclear warhead (launched by USS Ethan Allen—SSBN-608), in response to a Soviet resumption of atmospheric nuclear tests. In April 1963, Lieutenant (j.g.) Worthington was assigned as a flag lieutenant and aide to Commander, Cruiser-Destroyer Flotilla SEVEN, in San Diego, California. In June 1965, Lieutenant Worthington was ordered to Naval Amphibious School, Coronado for UDT training, graduating with UDT Class 36. 
In December 1965, Worthington was assigned to UDT ELEVEN. He served as operations officer and then executive officer, deploying twice to Vietnam, where he conducted dangerous hydrographic surveys and other missions along the country’s coast and rivers. In July 1968, he reported to Naval Destroyer School, Newport, Rhode Island, for duty under instruction, before being assigned in February 1969 as operations officer on Charleston, South Carolina–based destroyer USS Strong (DD-758). Promoted to lieutenant commander in July 1968, he deployed to the Mediterranean aboard Strong, from November 1969 to May 1970. 
In February 1971, Worthington returned to Vietnam, this time as assistant officer in charge of Naval Special Warfare Group Vietnam, in Saigon, Republic of Vietnam. In February 1972, he assumed command of SEAL Team ONE, for combat deployments to Vietnam from Coronado, California. In May 1972, Lieutenant Commander Worthington reported to the Defense Intelligence Agency Attaché School, acquiring an intelligence sub-specialty. He was then assigned in September 1974 to the U.S. Defense Attaché Office as naval attaché to Cambodia. This occurred during a particularly tumultuous period culminating in Operation Eagle Pull in April 1975, the evacuation of Americans from Cambodia as the capital Phnom Penh, and the rest of the country, fell to the brutal onslaught of the Communist Khmer Rouge (see movie The Killing Fields). Upon the fall of Cambodia in May 1975, Lieutenant Commander Worthington was reassigned as special assistant to Commander, Naval Special Warfare Group ONE, before reporting in August 1975 as a student at the U.S. Marine Corps Command and General Staff College, Quantico, Virgina. Upon graduation in June 1976, he assumed command of Inshore Undersea Warfare Group ONE, responsible for West Coast and Pacific harbor defense. He was promoted to commander in September 1976. 
 In August 1978, Commander Worthington reported to a war college (service transcript states National War College, biography states Senior Course at Naval War College). In July 1979, he reported to the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations as the head of Naval Special Warfare Branch (OP-37 and OP-954). He was promoted to captain in October 1982. 
In July 1985, Captain Worthington assumed command of Naval Special Warfare Group ONE at Coronado. In July 1987, he was briefly assigned to Naval Special Warfare Command before assuming duty in October 1987 as chief of staff for Special Operations Command Europe (SOCEUR). 
On 29 April 1988, he was designated a rear admiral (lower half) for duty in a billet commensurate with that rank. The same month, Rear Admiral Worthington was assigned to the Office of Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations and Low Intensity Conflict (SO/LIC) as the first Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense (Special Operations). In July 1989, he was promoted to rear admiral (lower half) and the next month assumed command of Naval Special Warfare Command in Coronado. Worthington retired on 1 September 1992.
Rear Admiral Worthington’s awards include the Defense Superior Service Medal; Legion of Merit (two awards); Meritorious Service Medal; Joint Service Commendation Medal; Navy Commendation Medal with Combat “V” (two awards); Combat Action Ribbon; National Defense Service Medal (two awards); Vietnam Service Medal with two bronze stars; Republic of Vietnam Gallantry Cross Unit Citation; Republic of Vietnam Civil Actions Unit Citation; and Republic of Vietnam Campaign Medal. (The service transcript often lacks the last award, so it is possible he has a third Legion of Merit of even Distinguished Service Medal from his last three-year tour as COMNAVSPECWARCOM.)
Following retirement from active duty, Rear Admiral Worthington remained active in many endeavors. He was an avid sky-diver with 1,622 jumps. He worked as a defense consultant in the San Diego area, serving on a number of boards, including service on the San Diego Military Advisory Council. He was also active with the Special Operations Warrior Foundation, Naval Academy Alumni Association, National Defense Industrial Association, and the Navy League of San Diego, among others. In 2018, he wrote a personal memoir, Runnin’ with Frogs; it’s on Amazon—great leadership lessons.
Services will be held on 27 January 2022 at 1700 at Christ Episcopal Church, Coronado, California, and 28 January 2022 at 0930 at Miramar National Cemetery, San Diego, California. 
Rear Admiral Worthington’s penultimate job was as the first Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense (Special Operations) in the Office of Special Operations and Low Intensity Conflict. The juxtaposition of special operations and “low intensity” belies the dangerous and intense nature of special operations, even in so-called peacetime. It is, however, very different than George Worthington’s first tour, when he was in close proximity to 29 of the 31 atmospheric nuclear blasts of Operation Dominic in 1962. His love of swimming caused him to choose a very unconventional career path (whether the nukes had anything to do with it is hard to say). He was quoted at one point as saying he wanted to be a diver, not carry a rifle through the mud. He wound up doing both in Vietnam as a UDT officer and as a SEAL officer. In fact, he was an early leader in the merging of the UDT community with the new SEAL community, resulting in  a sum greater than the parts. He was described as a “colorful character, talented, smart, bold and very straight-forward—very dedicated to NSW [Naval Special Warfare], who played key role in the development and evolution of community.” In the early years, the SEAL community battled for recognition, respect, funding, and promotions with the rest of the mainstream Navy. George Worthington was a key leader in earning all of that, and in turning the SEALs into an indispensable main battery weapon system of the Navy today. Much of what the SEALs do remains rightly cloaked in secrecy, but there is no doubt that they contribute every day in very meaningful ways to the national security of the United States, a legacy of Rear Admiral Worthington’s selfless and dedicated service. The Navy will not forget his contributions.

Rest in Peace, Admiral Worthington.