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In Memoriam: Rear Admiral Eric Alton McVadon, Jr., USN (Ret.)

March 17, 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 Eric Alton McVadon, Jr., U.S. Navy (Retired) on 15 February 2022 at age 85. Rear Admiral McVadon entered the U.S. Navy as an NROTC midshipman in 1955 and served as a naval aviator and politico-military policy expert until his retirement in 1992 as the U.S. defense and naval attaché in Beijing, China. His commands included Patrol Squadron FOUR ZERO (VP-40), Naval Station Keflavik, and Iceland Defense Force. He introduced President Ronald Reagan on global TV as host of the 1986 Reykjavik Summit between the President and Soviet Premier Gorbachev.

Eric McVadon entered the U.S. Navy as a Naval Reserve Officer Training Corps (NROTC) midshipman at Tulane University on 19 September 1955. He served as a midshipman captain and midshipman battalion commander, and was awarded the President’s Cup as most outstanding midshipman. He graduated from Tulane with a bachelor of arts in philosophy and was commissioned an ensign on 4 June 1958. 

Ensign McVadon spent several months assigned to destroyer USS English (DD-696) before reporting in October 1958 to Naval Aviation Basic Training Course (NABTC) at Naval Air Station (NAS) Pensacola for flight training. In November 1959, he transferred to NAS Corpus Christi for more advanced flight training and was promoted to lieutenant (junior grade) in December 1959. On 25 May 1960, Lieutenant (j.g.) McVadon was designated a naval aviator (HTA—heavier than air), finishing as one of the top ten in his group. 

In July 1960, McVadon reported to Patrol Squadron TWO TWO (VP-22) at NAS Barbers Point, Hawaii, flying the P2V-5F Neptune ASW aircraft (re-designated P-2E in 1962) and taking part in  two deployments to the western Pacific. He was promoted to lieutenant in June 1962. In July 1963, Lieutenant McVadon reported to the Naval Postgraduate School, Monterey, California, where he graduated with distinction in 1964 with a master’s degree in engineering science. In June 1964, he reported to Air Development Squadron ONE (VX-1) at NAS Key West, where he served as a P-3 Orion project officer.

In July 1966, Lieutenant McVadon reported to the attack carrier USS Shangri-La (CVA-38), on which he served as assistant navigator. He was promoted to lieutenant commander in December 1966 and deployed twice to the Mediterranean. These deployments included crisis response to the outbreak of the 1967 “Six-Day” Middle East war and the Israeli air and surface attack on the intelligence collection ship USS Liberty (AGTR-5). Following Shangri-La’s Indian Ocean operations in 1968, Lieutenant Commander McVadon detached in August to attend the Naval War College, Newport, Rhode Island, from which he graduated with distinction in June 1969, concurrently earning a master’s degree in international relations from George Washington University.

In June 1969, McVadon reported to “FAETUPAC” (Fleet Air ? Training Unit Pacific) at NAS North Island for duty under instruction, before reporting in September 1969 to Patrol Squadron THREE ONE (VP-31), the West Coast P-3 replacement squadron. In December 1969, Lieutenant Commander McVadon reported to Patrol Squadron FOUR SIX (VP-46) at NAS Moffett Field, California, serving as admin officer and flying the P-3B Orion. During this period, he deployed to Adak, Guam, the Philippines, and also operated out of Cam Ranh Bay, South Vietnam (during this latter deployment, he was awarded an Air Medal with numeral “1.”) 

In December 1971, McVadon reported to the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations in Washington, DC, serving as a special staff officer in the Strategic Plans and Policy Division (OP-60). He was promoted to commander in March 1973, and continued to serve in the Office of the CNO under the director of Anti-Submarine Warfare (OP-95). In August 1973, Commander McVadon returned to VP-31 for P-3 refresher training. 

In January 1974, McVadon assumed duty as executive officer of Patrol Squadron FOUR ZERO (VP-40) “Fighting Marlins” at NAS Moffett Field as the squadron completed transition to the new P-3C Orion. He then deployed with the squadron to the western Pacific, South China Sea, and Indian Ocean, operating from Diego Garcia and Iran. In January 1975, Commander McVadon assumed command of VP-40, including a deployment to Adak. In January 1976, he reported to the staff of Commander Patrol Wings Pacific as special projects officer. In June 1976, he reported to the National War College in Washington, DC, graduating with distinction in 1977. In July 1977, he was assigned to the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs in Washington, DC. He was promoted to captain in October 1979.

In July 1980, Captain McVadon was assigned as the Navy member of the Chairman’s Staff Group (then General David C. Jones, USAF) on the Joint Staff in Washington, DC. In March 1982, he was assigned to the Defense Language Institute, where he studied Icelandic at the State Department Foreign Service Institute. In July 1982, Captain McVadon assumed command of NAS Kevlavik, Iceland. In October 1984, he returned to the Office of the CNO, initially in the Politico-Military Policy and Current Plans Divison. Upon being designated a rear admiral (lower half) in March 1985, he became deputy director, Strategy, Plans and Policy Division (OP-06B). In August 1985, he was assigned as deputy director of the Defense Mapping Agency (now part of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency—NGA) in Bethesda, Maryland. He was promoted to rear admiral (lower half) on 1 October 1986.

In October 1986, Rear Admiral McVadon returned to Iceland in as Commander Iceland Defense Force (a NATO and U.S. Sub-Unified Command, responsible for the defense of Iceland, which has no armed forces). In this capacity, McVadon hosted the 1986 Reykjavik Summit between President Ronald Reagan and Soviet Premier Gorbachev. In 1989, he was awarded Iceland’s highest honor, the Order of the Falcon, presented by the president of Iceland. He was also awarded a Defense Distinguished Service Medal. McVadon was promoted to rear admiral (two star) on 1 March 1989. 

In June 1989, Rear Admiral McVadon reported to the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) for duty under instruction, where he learned Mandarin Chinese at the State Department Foreign Service Institute. 

In July 1990, Rear Admiral McVadon assumed duty as the U.S. defense attaché and naval attaché in Beijing, People’s Republic of China (PRC), serving during Operation Desert Shield/Desert Storm. He was instrumental in thawing post–Tiananmen Square Massacre tensions. He was also the first to report to the State Department that the war between the PRC and Vietnam was officially over (the combat phase had ended in 1979). He was subsequently awarded his second Defense Distinguished Service Medal. Rear Admiral McVadon retired on 1 December 1992. During his career, he logged over 4,000 flight hours in the P-2, P-3, S-2, C-1, and C-118 aircraft. 

Rear Admiral McVadon’s awards included the Defense Distinguished Service Medal (two awards); Defense Superior Service Medal (three awards); the Legion of Merit; Air Medal with bronze numeral “1”; Navy Commendation Medal; Meritorious Unit Commendation (two awards); Vietnam Service Medal with one bronze star; Sea Service Deployment Ribbon; Navy Overseas Service Ribbon (four awards); Republic of Vietnam Meritorious Unit Citation (Gallantry Cross Color); and the Republic of Vietnam Meritorious Unit Citation (Civil Actions Color). As noted above, he was also awarded Iceland’s highest award, the Order of the Falcon. 

After retiring from active duty, Rear Admiral McVadon served as a consultant on Far East and Asia-Pacific security matters. With his expertise in Chinese military matters, he found extensive work with the U.S. intelligence community and as a consultant for the Center for Naval Analyses (CAN). He also served as the director of Asia-Pacific Studies for the Institute of Foreign Policy Analysis. His extensive writings were published in professional books, periodicals, and academic journals. Other associations included the U.S. Naval Institute, Association of Naval Aviation, and National War College Alumni. Rear Admiral McVadon was interested in everything from growing artichokes to astrophysics. He travelled extensively, visiting 50 countries from Greenland to Mongolia, Yugoslavia to Zimbabwe.

RADM McVadon’s career started fast out of the blocks: Even as an NROTC midshipman his superior leadership skills were evident (and he would make flag right at the point where non–Naval Academy officers first became a majority). He displayed exceptional versatility, with degrees in philosophy, engineering science, and international relations. Ultimately, he was able to speak and write three very difficult languages—Japanese, Icelandic, and Mandarin Chinese. He may have been one of the best-educated officers in the Navy, attending the Naval Post-graduate School, Naval War College, and National War College, and graduating with distinction from all. He excelled early as a naval aviator, flying the P-2 Neptune and being selected as P-3 project officer in VX-1. His career path was a model for the maritime patrol/ASW community, all the way to command of VP-40, with deployments all around the globe, including supporting Operation Market Time along the coast of Vietnam while operating from Cam Ranh Bay, where he earned an Air Medal. At mid-career, he was identified as a serious strategic thinker, which led to multiple Navy and joint assignments in strategy, policy, and in political-military and international affairs, including serving as the Navy representative on the Chairman’s Staff Group. He commanded NAS Keflavik and the Iceland Defense Force at a key inflection point in the Cold War, as Soviet “out-of-area” submarine operations peaked in 1986. He won accolades for his role in hosting the pivotal Reagan-Gorbachev Summit in Iceland in 1986, which although technically billed as “failure” (no joint statement), actually led to subsequent nuclear weapons reductions and a significant lessening of U.S.-Soviet tensions. His most difficult challenge probably came at USDAO Beijing in the very strained period following the 1989 Tiananmen Square Massacre (so difficult, he actually received death threats). Nevertheless, he was able to establish a productive relationship with the Chinese. After retirement, he continued to serve our nation as perhaps the foremost expert on the Chinese military, and he generously gave of his time to mentor succeeding generations of officers assigned to attaché positions in China. Described as “a beacon of integrity and loyal friend,” Rear Admiral McVadon truly made a difference in advancing airborne ASW/maritime patrol capability, while improving U.S. relations with the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China and lessening the threat of war. He served our Navy with great dedication and distinction. He will be missed, but his legacy lives on in today’s generation of U.S. Navy “China hands.”

Rest in Peace, Admiral McVadon.