In Memoriam: Vice Admiral James B. Perkins III, USN (Ret.)

Jan. 27, 2022 | By Samuel J. Cox Rear Adm., USN (retired) Director of Naval History, Curator for the Navy Director, Naval History and Heritage Command
In Memoriam: Vice Admiral James B. Perkins III, USN (Ret.)

It is with deep regret I inform you of the passing of Vice Admiral James Blenn Perkins III, U.S. Navy (Retired) on November 27, 2021 at age 79. James Perkins entered the U.S. Naval Academy in 1960 and served as a surface line officer until his retirement in 1999 as Commander, Military Sealift Command. His commands included Schofield (FFG-3), Destroyer Squadron NINE, U.S. Naval Forces Marianas, and Amphibious Group THREE. He was awarded a Bronze Star with Combat “V” and a Combat Action Ribbon. As COMDESRON 9, he led the operation that destroyed Iranian guns and the intelligence-collection site on the Sassan oil platform during Operation Praying Mantis in April 1988. 

James Perkins entered the U.S. Naval Academy on July 5, 1960. Known there as “Perk,” his motto of “work hard, play even harder” resulted in a few “trips to the dant” (Commandant). Nevertheless, he did work hard, graduated with a Bachelor of Science in Naval Science (as did all USNA graduates at the time), and was commissioned an ensign on June 3, 1964. Although his stated desire to become an aviator did not come to pass, his first tour was aboard aircraft carrier Saratoga (CVA 60) as a deck division officer and watch officer for a Mediterranean deployment. In October 1966, Lieutenant (j.g.) Perkins was briefly assigned to Newport-based destroyer Charles H. Roan (DD 853) for a period of pre-deployment workups at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and Vieques, Puerto Rico, before reporting to Naval Destroyer School, Newport, in March 1967. 

In September 1967, Perkins reported to the destroyer Henderson (DD 785) as weapons officer. In reaction to the Communist Tet Offensive, Henderson deployed to Vietnam in April 1968, operating on the gun line shelling Viet Cong positions in South Vietnam. For a period, Henderson also operated with aircraft carrier Bon Homme Richard (CVA 31) in the Sea of Japan off Korea as part of Operation Formation Star, the U.S. show of force following the North Korean capture of the intelligence-collection ship Pueblo (AGER-2) earlier that year. 

In July 1969, Lieutenant Perkins attended the Fleet Sonar School, Key West, before assuming duty in September 1969 as executive officer for John Willis (DE 1027) as that ship was being prepared for decommissioning. In January 1972, Perkins reported to the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, where he was promoted to lieutenant commander in July 1972, and earned a Master of Science in Engineering Acoustics in 1974. This was followed by a period as a student at the Armed Forces Staff College in Norfolk. Lieutenant Commander Perkins then attended training at Surface Warfare Officer Schools Command in Newport and then more training on the staff of Commander, Naval Surface Force Pacific. 

In October 1975, Perkins assumed duty as executive officer of Downes (FF 1070) for operations on the U.S. West Coast, including operational test and evaluation of the Harpoon anti-ship missile, the NATO Sea Sparrow anti-aircraft missile, and the TAS Mk-23 target acquisition system. In January 1977, Lieutenant Commander Perkins was assigned as flag secretary for Commander, Cruiser-Destroyer Group FIVE in San Diego. Promoted to commander in May 1979, he reported to the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations in Washington, DC, that same month as head, Surface Anti-Submarine Warfare Sensors Section (OP-353C). In June 1982, he reported to Surface Warfare Officers Schools Command in Newport, followed by participation in the Senior Officer Ship Material Readiness Course. 

In November 1982, Commander Perkins assumed command of San Diego–based guided-missile frigate Schofield (FFG-3). During his command tour, Schofield deployed to the Persian Gulf and was awarded the Meritorious Unit Commendation, the Pacific Fleet Golden Anchor Award (for retention excellence), and the Destroyer Squadron THIRTEEN Battle Efficiency Award. In July 1985, he reported as a student to the Naval War College in Newport, where he was promoted to captain in October 1985 and graduated “with distinction” in 1986 with a Master of Science in National Security and Strategic Studies. 

In June 1986, Captain Perkins assumed command of Destroyer Squadron NINE. DESRON 9 was in the Arabian Gulf supporting operation Ernest Will when Samuel B. Roberts (FFG 58) was severely damaged by striking an Iranian-laid mine. In reaction, the United States executed Operation Praying Mantis. Perkins was given command of Surface Action Group BRAVO (SAG B) with orders to destroy the Iranian surveillance and intelligence-collection site on the non-operational Iranian Sassan oil platform, which was being used to direct Iranian strikes against neutral shipping during the “Tanker War.” With Captain Perkins embarked on destroyer Merrill (DD 979), SAG B also included guided-missile destroyer Lynde McCormick (DDG 8) and amphibious transport dock Trenton (LPD 13), with an embarked Marine air-ground team and the LAMPS (Light Airborne Multi-Purpose System) helicopter detachment from the damaged Samuel B. Roberts. 

At 0800 on April 18, 1988, Merrill broadcast an order for the Iranians to abandon the platform. Some Iranians did abandon it, but others did not. After 20 minutes, SAG B opened fire on the platform. The Iranians returned fire with ZU-23 anti-aircraft guns. The Iranians subsequently requested a cease-fire, which was granted, and additional Iranians abandoned the platform on a tug. However, others remained and resumed firing. A Cobra helicopter gunship from Trenton finally put an end to the resistance. Marines boarded the platform, found and evacuated one wounded Iranian, collected documents, emplaced explosives, and after departing the platform, detonated the explosives. SAG B was then ordered to proceed north to the Iranian Rakhsh oil platform. While on the way to Rakhsh, two Iranian F-4 Phantom fighter-bombers commenced an attack run but veered off when Lynde McCormick locked them up with fire-control radar. In the meantime, other U.S. ships and aircraft sank the Iranian frigate Sahand, the missile boat Joshan, and three speedboats, and also severely damaged the frigate Sabalan. SAG B’s attack on Rakhsh was called off in order to de-escalate the situation. (Although not clear from the record, Vice Admiral Perkins’ Bronze Star with Combat “V” is probably from this action and his Navy Achievement Medals with Combat “V” are probably from Henderson’s action on the gun line off Vietnam.) 

In June 1988, Captain Perkins assumed duty as deputy and chief of staff for Commander, Naval Surface Force Pacific. In March 1990, he assumed command of Naval Forces (NAVFOR) Marianas, with additional duty as U.S. Commander-in-Chief Pacific (USCINCPAC) representative to Guam, the Commonwealth of the Northern Marianas, the Federated States of Micronesia, and the Republic of Palau, where he was responsible for over 10,000 U.S. Navy personnel and family members. In October 1990, he was designated a rear admiral (lower half) for duty in a billet commensurate with that rank. While in command of NAVFOR Marianas, as part of Operation Fiery Vigil in June 1991, he supervised the evacuation through Guam of over 21,000 military personnel and dependents displaced by the eruption of Mount Pinatubo, Philippines (the second largest volcanic eruption in the 20th century), which buried Clark Air Force Base and Subic Bay in ash. He was promoted to rear admiral (lower half) in September 1991. 

In June 1992, Perkins assumed command of Amphibious Group THREE (PHIBGRU 3). During this tour, he deployed to Mogadishu, Somalia, with his staff, to serve as senior naval commander for the initial major U.S. support of the United Nations relief effort for the region (Operation Restore Hope) in December 1992. This operation, in conjunction with Operation Provide Relief a couple months earlier, is estimated to have saved over 100,000 Somali lives. PHIBGRU 3 ships continued to support the mission in Somalia, even as it became bogged down in inter-factional Somali fighting resulting in the “Black Hawk Down” incident in October 1993, and eventual UN and U.S. withdrawal in 1994–95. In October 1993, Perkins was designated a rear admiral (upper half) for duty in a billet commensurate with that rank and was promoted to that rank on July 1, 1994. 

In August 1994, Rear Admiral Perkins assumed duty as deputy commander and chief of staff for U.S. Southern Command in Panama, responsible for a 5,000-person command engaged in counter-drug, nation-building, and disaster relief operations in Central and South America. This period included a narrowly averted war at sea between Exocet-armed ships of Ecuador and Peru, concurrent with the brief “Cenepa War” between the two countries on their jungle border. Perkins served as acting CINCSOUTH between March and June 1996, during which he assisted in resolving a crisis in Paraguay and averting another round of fighting between Peru and Ecuador. 

In February 1997, Rear Admiral Perkins assumed command of Military Sealift Command (MSC), and was promoted to vice admiral on  April 1, 1997. As commander of MSC, he was responsible for 110 ships, 8,000 personnel and a $2.1 billion annual budget. MSC was awarded the National Defense Transportation Association DoD Distinguished Service Award in 1999. Vice Admiral Perkins retired on April 1, 1999. 

Vice Admiral Perkins’ awards include the Defense Distinguished Service Medal; Navy Distinguished Service Medal; Defense Superior Service Medal; Legion of Merit (three awards); Bronze Star with Combat “V”; Meritorious Service Medal; Navy Commendation Medal; Navy Achievement Medal with Combat “V” (two awards); Joint Meritorious Unit Award (three awards); Meritorious Unit Commendation (four awards); Battle Efficiency Ribbon (three awards); National Defense Service Medal (two awards); Armed Forces Expeditionary Medal (two awards); Vietnam Service Medal (two bronze stars); Sea Service Deployment Ribbon (three bronze stars); Overseas Service Ribbon (three bronze stars); Republic of Vietnam Gallantry Cross Unit Citation; and the Republic of Vietnam Campaign Medal. 

After retiring from active duty, Vice Admiral Perkins served as president of L-3 Communications/TMA Corporation, with headquarters in McLean, Virginia. He served as senior military advisor for the American Maritime Congress and also taught courses at National Defense University. He was a member of the American Society of Naval Engineers, the Surface Navy Association, the Propeller Club, the National Defense Transportation Association, and of Sigma Xi (Scientific Research Society of North America). 

There will be a Celebration of Life in Huntington Beach, California, from 1600 to 2000 on February 27th (VADMPerkinsRSVP2@gmail.com for details) and a funeral at Arlington National Cemetery at a date to be determined. 

Vice Admiral Perkins had an extraordinarily eventful career, some of it necessitating actions outside the normal scope of a typical naval officer, such as caring for thousands of U.S. dependents (and their pets) driven from their homes by a massive volcanic eruption (Operation Fiery Vigil) or providing humanitarian relief to hundreds of thousands of starving Somalis (Operation Restore Hope). Other actions were right up his alley as the right person at the right time, particularly Operation Praying Mantis against the Iranians in 1988. Given the challenging mission of taking out a defended Iranian intelligence-collection and surveillance site on an offshore oil platform, while ordered to minimize bloodshed, then-Commodore Perkins executed it with great skill and adaptability. It turned out that the lattice-work steel of the platform was rather impervious to most shellfire (most rounds went clean through), so he made excellent use of the Marine forces assigned to his surface action group, including Cobra helicopters, to complete the destruction of the Iranian site, which had been used to direct armed Iranian helicopters in attacks against neutral shipping in the Persian Gulf. Throughout his career, he was known for superb leadership, including on the gun line off South Vietnam, but particularly exemplified in his 0-5 command tour as he turned the 14-year old guided-missile frigate Schofield into a Battle E and retention champion ship during an arduous Persian Gulf deployment. Vice Admiral Perkin’s career epitomized that of a surface warfare officer during the Cold War (interrupted by the hot war in Vietnam, the undeclared war at sea with Iran, and major humanitarian crises). His tenure at Maritime Sealift Command prepared MSC to respond superbly during subsequent operations Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom. He served our Navy and nation with great distinction, at considerable sacrifice to his family life, but the nation (and countless Somalis) are better for his service. His legacy continues in the Navy today. 

Rest in peace, Admiral Perkins.