In Memoriam: Rear Admiral Ronald Charles Wilgenbusch, USN (Ret.)

March 1, 2022 | By Sam Cox (Rear Adm. USN, Ret.), Director, Naval History and Heritage Command
It is with deep regret I inform you of the passing of Rear Admiral Ronald Charles Wilgenbusch, U.S. Navy (Retired), on 25 February 2022 at age 83. Rear Admiral Wilgenbusch enlisted in the U.S. Naval Reserve in 1956 and served as a surface line officer and materiel professional, with specialty in communications, until his retirement in 1991 as program director, Information Transfer System (PD-50), Space Warfare Systems Command. His commands included USS Lucid (MSO-458), USS John Hancock (DD-981), Naval Communications Station Rota, and Naval Communications Area Master Station Mediterranean. He was awarded two Navy Achievement Medals with Combat “V” and a Combat Action Ribbon for service in Vietnam.
 
Ronald Wilgenbusch enlisted as a seaman apprentice in the U.S. Naval Reserve on 6 February 1956 while attending Loras College in Dubuque, Iowa, where he graduated in 1960 with a bachelor of arts degree in history. He was honorably discharged on 7 June 1960 and, the next day, was commissioned an ensign in the U.S. Naval Reserve. He reported for active duty on 30 June 1960 and was assigned to the radar picket destroyer escort USS Durant (DER-389). Based out of Pearl Harbor, Durant patrolled the Distant Early Warning Line between Midway and the Aleutian Islands to provide warning against a surprise Soviet bomber attack, while also providing navigation and search and rescue (SAR) support to the WV-2 “Willy Victor” (Super G Constellations) airborne early warning aircraft on the Pacific Barrier. He was promoted to lieutenant (junior grade) on 8 December 1961 and augmented into the active-duty Navy in August 1962. That same month, he deployed to Antarctica on Durant in support of Operation Deep Freeze.
 
In October 1962, Lieutenant (j.g.) Wilgenbusch reported to Fleet Training Center San Diego for duty under instruction and, in May 1963, he reported to guided missile destroyer leader USS Gridley (DLG-21), which was commissioned the same month and homeported in Long Beach. In early 1964, Gridley commenced her first deployment, arriving in Australia in May for the commemoration of the Battle of the Coral Sea. Promoted to lieutenant in June 1964, Wilgenbusch remained embarked as Gridley proceeded to the Philippines and Japan before being directed on short notice to escort carrier USS Constellation (CVA-64) to augment U.S. carrier presence in the South China Sea in reaction to the Gulf of Tonkin incidents in August 1964. Gridley was awarded a Naval Unit Commendation for this deployment.
 
In January 1965, Lieutenant Wilgenbusch was assigned to the staff of Commander-in-Chief, U.S. Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. In November 1967, he was assigned as operations officer on destroyer USS Edson (DD-946), deploying to Vietnam in April 1968. In June 1968, Edson came under shore battery fire while interdicting North Vietnamese coastal traffic near the demilitarized zone (DMZ) during one of the more chaotic actions of the war when “Swift Boat” PCF-19 was sunk, possibly by a very rare attack by North Vietnamese helicopters. USAF F-4 Phantom aircraft, responding to unusual night helicopter activity, fired air-to-air missiles, one of which hit Australian destroyer HMAS Hobart (killing one sailor), and shrapnel from a near miss lightly damaged guided missile heavy cruiser USS Boston (CAG-1). Lieutenant Wilgenbusch witnessed an F-4 fire a missile at Edson that missed by 100 yards. 
 
Promoted in May 1969, Lieutenant Commander Wilgenbusch reported the next month to Naval Mine Schools in Charleston, South Carolina, for duty under instruction. In August 1969, he assumed command of minesweeper USS Lucid (MSO-458) as she was completing a major overhaul before operating along the U.S. West Coast. With the Vietnam War drawing down, the U.S. Navy determined that there was no further need for minesweepers and sadly, decommissioned Lucid in December 1970. 
 
In December 1970, Lieutenant Commander Wilgenbusch reported to the Naval Postgraduate School, Monterey, California, where he earned a master of science in communications management in June 1973. He then reported to the staff of Commander Cruiser-Destroyer Group ONE (COMCRUDESGRU 1) in San Diego as communications officer, responsible for three destroyer squadrons. In July 1974, he assumed duty as executive officer of guided missile destroyer USS Hoel (DDG-13) while the ship was on a Western Pacific deployment. Upon return to homeport, Hoel entered an overhaul period in November 1974. Lieutenant Commander Wilgenbusch guided the ship through the maintenance period and post-maintenance sea trials in the middle of 1975, and was promoted to commander in September 1975, detaching from Hoel the following month. 
 
In November 1975, he assumed duty as chief, Plans Implementation Division of Commander Naval Telecommunications Command, Washington, DC. In November 1978, he commenced the commanding officer training track at Commander Naval Surface Forces and, in January 1979, he reported to Ingalls Shipyard at Pascagoula, Mississippi, and assumed command of destroyer USS John Hancock (DD-981) upon her commissioning on 10 March 1979. He then took John Hancock through trials, workups, and her first deployment, to the Mediterranean from November 1980 to April 1981. He was promoted to captain in April 1981.
 
In July 1981, Captain Wilgenbusch assumed command of Naval Communications Station, Rota, Spain, and in August 1984, he assumed command of Naval Communications Master Station, Mediterranean, in Naples, Italy, one of only four master stations. In early 1986, he was designated a materiel professional and, in August 1986, he reported to the Space Warfare Systems Command as assistant program manager for Communications.
 
In August 1987, he was designated a rear admiral (lower half) for duty in a billet commensurate with that rank at Space Warfare Systems Command as program director, Information Transfer System (PD-50). He was promoted to rear admiral (lower half) on 1 July 1988 and continued his service at Space Warfare Systems Command until his retirement on 1 August 1991.
 
Rear Admiral Wilgenbusch’s awards include the Legion of Merit (two awards); Meritorious Service Medal; Navy Achievement Medal with Combat “V” (two awards); Combat Action Ribbon; Naval Unit Commendation; Meritorious Unit Commendation (two awards); National Defense Service Medal; Antarctica Service Medal; Vietnam Service Medal (one silver and three bronze stars for eight campaigns); Navy Overseas Service Ribbon; Spanish Cross of Merit First Class; Republic of Vietnam Gallantry Cross with Palm Unit Citation; and the Republic of Vietnam Campaign Medal.
Following retirement from active duty, Ron Wilgenbusch served as president of RCW Consulting, was a senior associate at Burdeshaw Associates, and was a vocal advocate for the restoration of the former USS Lucid. From the beginning of his career, Ron was used to tough challenges: His first tour was rough, literally, as the radar pickets were required to remain on station no matter the weather, which in the North Pacific meant bad weather most of the time. He served with distinction in repeated tours on the Vietnam gun line (narrowly avoiding enemy and “friendly” fire). He was a multiple plank owner, establishing climates of excellence in new-construction ships, including his command on John Hancock, with her unique stern-plate name painted in cursive at his direction. Like many Sailors and officers of his generation, he spent a great deal of time in shipyards in asbestos-laden ships, which in hindsight proved equally dangerous as North Vietnamese shore batteries.
 
Aside from his command on John Hancock, Ron Wilgenbusch is perhaps most respected for his work in naval communications. He was one of those thrown into the breech to fix the poor state of our communications systems in the late 1970s and early 1980s. It was a Sisyphean task, but he took on the challenge and succeeded at multiple levels from DESRON communications officer and commanding communications stations to leading the Navy’s space communications programs, focusing on improving information transfer systems for the entire fleet. The Navy certainly got more than its money’s worth from his degree in communications management from Naval Postgraduate School. 
 
Rear Admiral Wilgenbusch served our nation and Navy with great distinction, and at great sacrifice to his family and himself, for which we should all be exceedingly grateful. His career and life are an inspiration to all.
 
Rest in Peace, Admiral Wilgenbusch.