In Memoriam: Admiral Ronald J. Zlatoper, USN (Ret).

April 28, 2022 | By Sam Cox (Rear Adm. USN, Ret.), Director, Naval History and Heritage Command

It is with deep regret that I inform you of the passing of Admiral Ronald Joseph “Zap” Zlatoper on 21 April 2022 at age 80. Admiral Zlatoper entered the Naval Reserve Officer Training Corps (NROTC) in 1959 and served as an aviator until his retirement in 1997 as Commander-in-Chief, U.S. Pacific Fleet. His commands included Attack Squadron EIGHT FIVE (VA-85), Carrier Air Wing ONE (CVW-1), Carrier Air Wing FIFTEEN (CVW-15), and Carrier Group SEVEN (CARGRU 7). He was awarded a Distinguished Flying Cross and 11 Air Medals for flying 150 combat missions during two Vietnam War tours, plus one more combat mission in Desert Storm. He was aboard USS Forrestal (CVA-59) during her conflagration in 1967.

Ronald Zlatoper entered the NROTC program at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Troy, New York, on 17 September 1959. Midshipman Zlatoper earned a bachelor of science in mathematics, graduating in 1963. He was commissioned an ensign on 5 June 1963. Ensign Zlatoper then reported to the Naval Aviation Basic Training Course (NABTC) at Naval Air Station Pensacola, Florida, flying the T-34 trainer. In September 1963, he reported to Naval Auxiliary Air Station (NAAS) Meridian, Mississippi, for basic jet training in the T-2C Buckeye jet trainer. In May 1964, he commenced advanced jet training at NAAS Kingsville, Texas, flying the TF-9 and TF-11 jet trainers. Ensign Zlatoper was designated a naval aviator HTA (heavier than air) on 30 October 1964.

In November 1964, Ensign Zlatoper reported to Attack Squadron FOUR TWO (VA-42) as one of the first five new pilots (“nuggets”) selected to fly the new A-6A Intruder all-weather medium attack bomber. “The ugliest thing I ever saw,” was his first impression of the A-6. He was promoted to lieutenant (junior grade) in December 1964. Upon conclusion of training in the A-6, he was assigned to VA-65 “World-Famous Fighting Tigers” in January 1965, embarked on attack carrier USS CONSTELLATION (CVA-64) and deploying to Vietnam between May and December 1966. On his fifth combat mission over North Vietnam, Lieutenant (j.g.) Zlatoper knocked down a key bridge. Due to inclement weather during this period, the A-6s flew over one third of all strike missions from Yankee Station in the Gulf of Tonkin. The squadron developed new night and all-weather tactics, but low-altitude delivery profiles made them vulnerable to anti-aircraft artillery (69 Intruders were lost to combat causes during the war). On 1 July 1966, VA-65 aircraft contributed to sinking three North Vietnamese patrol craft approaching USS Coontz (DLG-9) at high speed (19 North Vietnamese sailors would be rescued by U.S. ships). 

Upon return to the States, newly promoted Lieutenant Zlatoper and VA-65 cross-decked to attack carrier USS Forrestal, deploying again to Vietnam in June 1967. Zlatoper was the squadron duty officer during Forrestal’s major fire on 29 July 1967, in which 134 men were killed, including one officer and three enlisted men from VA-65. (VA-65 actually lost no aircraft, as the A-6s were all forward). Due to the severe damage, Forrestal had to return to the United States for repair. In addition to medals previously listed, Lieutenant Zlatoper was also awarded at least one Navy Commendation Medal with Combat “V.” 

In March 1968, Lieutenant Zlatoper reported to VA-42 at NAS Oceana, Virginia, as a fleet replacement squadron flight instructor, flying the A-6. He was promoted to lieutenant commander in February 1970. He also earned a master of science in automated data processing (ADP) from the George Washington University in 1970. In March 1971, Lieutenant Commander Zlatoper reported to VA-34 as assistant maintenance and operations officer, again flying the A-6, and embarked on attack carrier USS John F. Kennedy (CVA-67) for a Mediterranean deployment. In 1971, Zlatoper won the East Coast A-6 Bombing Derby.

In July 1972, Lieutenant Commander Zlatoper commenced study at the Naval War College, where he was a distinguished graduate and winner of the Sims Award. In June 1973, he reported to the NROTC unit at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he earned a master’s degree in management from the MIT Sloan School of Management. Upon graduation, he reported to the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations in Washington, DC, in July 1975 as program coordinator for guided and air-launched weapons (OP-506). He was promoted to commander in August 1977. 

In November 1977, Commander Zlatoper reported to VA-42 for refresher training in the A-6. He then assumed duty in April 1978 as executive officer for the VA-85 “Black Falcons,” embarking on Forrestal for a Mediterranean deployment that included an unusual northerly return transit near Iceland to test Soviet reaction. In June 1979, Zlatoper assumed command of VA-85, embarking again on Forrestal for the carrier’s 15th Mediterranean deployment. In August 1980, Commander Zlatoper was assigned briefly as executive assistant to commander, Medium Attack Wing ONE. However, in October 1980, he was ordered back to Washington as executive assistant to the director of the Office of Program Appraisal, Major General Colin Powell. 

In October 1981, Commander Zlatoper was assigned to Naval Air Force, U.S. Atlantic Fleet, for “duty under instruction.” In April 1982, he assumed duty at Tactical Wings Atlantic as readiness officer. In July 1982 he assumed command of Carrier Air Wing ONE (CVW-1), embarked on carrier USS America (CV-66) for a Mediterranean and Indian Ocean deployment that included a port visit to Mombasa, Kenya. CVW-1 flew the first 1,000-mile strike-training missions, with organic assets, in the Atlantic and Mediterranean. 

In August 1983, Commander Zlatoper (presumably selected for and frocked as captain) returned to Washington, DC, as military assistant to the Secretary of Defense, Caspar Weinberger. He was promoted to captain in October 1983. In June 1985, he reported to the Office of the CNO for the initial training pipeline for the new Carrier Air Wing Major Command concept, also known at the time as “Super CAG.” (Then-Lieutenant Cox was the escort officer for the national intelligence portion of the training for the first group of Super CAGs). 

In August 1985, Captain Zlatoper reported to Fighter Squadron ONE TWO FOUR (VF-124) for training in the F-14 and other carrier air wing aircraft. In February 1986, he assumed command of Carrier Air Wing FIFTEEN (CVW-15) as the first West Coast “senior” CVW commander. CVW-15 embarked on carrier USS Carl Vinson (CV-70) for her second deployment, which included operations in the Bering Sea in August 1986—the first time a carrier operated in those waters since World War II (and I’m not sure any did before that). Vinson/CVW-15 then continued on to the Indian Ocean and Arabian Sea, before returning back through the Bering Sea again (this would have been much to the aggravation of the Soviets at Petropavlovsk—in fact, the squadrons used multiple tail codes specifically to confuse the Soviets). 

In May 1987, Captain Zlatoper assumed duty as chief of staff for Commander U.S. Seventh Fleet, embarked on USS Blue Ridge (LCC-19) as part of the Forward Deployed Naval Force (FDNF) operating from Yokosuka, Japan. This occurred as the Cold War culminated and the People’s Republic of China became a rising challenge at sea. In August 1988, Captain Zlatoper reported to Naval Military Personnel Command as director, Distribution Department (NMPC-4). On 1 November 1988, he was designated a rear admiral (lower half) for duty in a billet commensurate with that rank. After attending Capstone, he was promoted to rear admiral (lower half) on 1 October 1989.

In July 1990, Rear Admiral Zlatoper assumed command of Carrier Group SEVEN, embarked in USS Ranger (CV-61), deploying to the Arabian Gulf for Operation Desert Storm, where he had the lead for surface combat in the northern Arabian Gulf. Aircraft from Ranger, along with British Lynx helicopters, destroyed virtually every Iraqi (and captured Kuwaiti) missile boat that attempted to flee to Iran in what was known as the Battle of Bubiyan Island in late January 1991, along with destroying dozens of other Iraqi small craft during the course of the war. Rear Admiral Zlatoper also flew one combat mission in an A-6, increasing his career total to 151. He was awarded a Distinguished Service Medal for this tour. 

In August 1991, Rear Admiral Zlatoper was designated a rear admiral (two-star) for duty in a billet commensurate with that rank. In November 1991, Zlatoper assumed duty as Deputy CNO for Manpower and Personnel (N1)/Chief of Naval Personnel. He was promoted to rear admiral and then vice admiral in this assignment.

On 22 July 1994, Vice Admiral Zlatoper was designated an admiral (four-star) for duty in a billet commensurate with that rank. In August 1994, he assumed duty as Commander-in-Chief, U.S. Pacific Fleet, headquartered at Pearl Harbor, responsible for over 200,000 personnel and 190 ships. Admiral Zlatoper retired on 1 January 1997. 

During his career, Admiral Zlatoper flew 4,375 hours with 1,031 fixed wing and 10 helicopter carrier/ship recoveries, including over 300 night traps on carriers, all with no mishaps. He had no technical wave-offs in his entire career. 

Admiral Zlatoper’s awards include the Defense Distinguished Service Medal; Distinguished Service Medal (two awards); Legion of Merit (three awards); Distinguished Flying Cross; Meritorious Service Medal; Air Medal (11 awards, three individual and eight strike/flight); Navy Commendation Medal (three awards, at least one with Combat “V”; Navy Unit Commendation (two awards); Meritorious Unit Commendation; National Defense Service Medal (two awards); Vietnam Service Medal (three campaign stars); Southwest Asia Service Medal (two bronze stars); Sea Service Ribbon (four bronze stars); Republic of Vietnam Gallantry Cross Unit Citation; Republic of Vietnam Campaign Medal; Kuwait Liberation Medal (Saudi Arabia); Kuwait Liberation Medal (Kuwait); Japanese Grand Cordon of the Order of the Rising Sun; and the Republic of Korea Order of National Security Merit Tong-Il Medal. 

After retirement, Admiral Zlatoper was the founder of Strategic Transitions Research. He was co-chairman of Sanchez Computer Associates and led the banking software company’s market capitalization from $50 million to more than $1 billion (and rated 45th on Forbes’ list of 200 best small companies in the United States). He became chairman of James Campbell Estate, a trust with more than $2 billion in real estate holdings. He was very active in numerous organizations. He served as a Trustee of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and served on the boards of Penn State University—Great Valley, the board of advisors of the School of Public Management of the George Washington University, the USS Missouri Memorial Foundation, and the Military Aviation Museum of the Pacific (now Pearl Harbor Aviation Museum). Other boards included the East-West Center, Vietnam Veterans’ Memorial Foundation, Chamber of Commerce of Hawaii—Military Affairs Council, Catholic Charities of Hawaii, and the Alexis de Tocqueville Society of the United Way. He also served on the Dean’s Council of the University of Hawaii College of Engineering and was a regent for Chaminade University. Admiral Zlatoper held an honorary doctorate in engineering from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and was inducted into the Phi Kappa Phi fraternity hall of fame. He was a prolific author on management, logistics, and naval strategy. He was also a Naval Aviation “Golden Eagle.”

Funeral service arrangements are pending. 

Admiral “Zap” Zlatoper served our nation with extraordinary distinction in three major conflicts, Vietnam, Desert Storm, and the Cold War with the Soviet Union. He flew 151 combat missions, all but one of them into the teeth of the ever-improving and dangerous North Vietnamese air defense network, laying his life on the line in fulfillment of his sense of duty. His other combat mission, over Iraq as a battle group commander, may be unique. In that role, he also ensured that no Iraqi naval vessel came anywhere near threatening Coalition ships. His stated philosophy in life was “carpe diem” (“seize the day”)—but not at other’s expense. He excelled at everything through hard work, from winning a bombing derby to the Sims Award at the Naval War College. Yet, a common refrain from those who knew him was “a real class act”—friendly, lively, always with a kind word. He did have a somewhat jaundiced view of the various management schemes the Navy tried to implement over the years: “All of them have four things in common—have a goal, make a plan, work hard, take care of your people. The rest was flossed up to sell books.” He certainly worked hard everywhere he went and he certainly took care of people during challenging assignments, culminating as the Chief of Naval Personnel. He always counseled staff to never get angry: “It’s easy to say no, but you have to work hard to say yes.” The Navy flag wardroom has lost one of our giants, and one of a dwindling number of Vietnam War heroes. Zap’s leadership was definitely one to emulate, and by doing so, his legacy will live on and the Navy and nation will be better for it. 

Rest in Peace, Admiral Zlatoper. 

On a personal note, I had recent occasions to interact with “Zap” in his role on the board of the Pearl Harbor Aviation Museum and can attest, “what a class act.” His passion for the history of naval aviation was deeply appreciated.