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In Memoriam: Rear Admiral Riley D. Mixson, USN (Ret).

May 3, 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 Riley Dewitt Mixson, U.S. Navy (Retired), on 27 April 2022 at age 85. Rear Admiral Mixson enlisted in the U.S. Naval Reserve in 1958 and served as a naval aviator until his retirement in 1994 as director, Air Warfare Division (N88), Office of the Chief of Naval Operations (CNO). His commands included Attack Squadron TWO ONE FIVE (VA-215), Carrier Air Wing THIRTY (CVWR-30), USS Roanoke (AOR-7), USS Midway (CV-41), and Carrier Group TWO (COMCARGRU 2 ). He flew 255 combat missions in Vietnam in A-4 and A-7 aircraft from USS Oriskany (CVA-34) and USS Kitty Hawk (CVA-62), and was awarded 24 strike/flight and two individual Air Medals, along with a Navy Commendation Medal with Combat “V.” He led the Red Sea Carrier Force (Battle Force Yankee) during Desert Shield/Desert Storm. 

Riley Mixson graduated in 1958 from Vanderbilt University with a bachelor’s degree in business administration. He enlisted in the U.S. Naval Reserve on 8 October 1958, and entered Aviation Officer Candidate School (AOCS) at Naval Air Station (NAS) Pensacola. He was commissioned an ensign in the U.S. Naval Reserve on 27 February 1959 and continued on active duty. He then reported to the Naval Aviation Basic Training Course (NABTC) at NAS Pensacola, with follow-on training at Whiting Field and NAS Memphis. In December 1959, he continued training at Naval Auxiliary Air Station (NAAS) Kingsville, Texas. He was designated a naval aviator on 7 June 1960. 

In June 1960, Ensign Mixson reported to Air Anti-Submarine Squadron THREE TWO (VS-32) “Maulers” at NAS Quonset Point, Rhode Island, flying the S2F-1 Tracker (redesignated S-2F in 1962). Following a brief training period at Fleet Air Electronics Training Unit Atlantic (FAETULANT) he returned to VS-32. He was promoted to lieutenant (junior grade) in August 1960. VS-32 deployed on ASW carrier USS Lake Champlain (CVS-39), the last axial-deck aircraft carrier, which served as the prime recovery platform for the first manned U.S. Mercury mission, the sub-orbital flight by U.S. Navy Commander (later Rear Admiral) Alan Shepard in Freedom 7 in May 1961. Lieutenant (j.g.) Mixson augmented to the active duty Navy in July 1962. VS-32 and Lake Champlain made a number of Atlantic deployments, including participating in the October–November 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis naval quarantine, which ensured no Soviet ships carrying nuclear missiles reached Cuba. He was promoted to lieutenant in March 1963 and served as a landing signal officer (LSO). 

In June 1964, Lieutenant Mixson reported to the Naval Postgraduate School, Monterey, California, graduating a year later with a master of science in management. In September 1965, he reported to the Naval Air Systems Command as an avionics procurement and contract management officer (UC-45J). In July 1966, he reported to Training Squadron TWO ONE (VT-21) at NAAS Kingsville for transition to jet training, flying the TAF-9J and TF-9J jet trainers. He was promoted to lieutenant commander in January 1967. 

In July 1968, Lieutenant Commander Mixson reported to Attack Squadron ONE TWO FIVE (VA-125), the Fleet Replacement Squadron for the A-4 Skyhawk at NAS Lemoore, California. In February 1969, he reported to Attack Squadron ONE NINE FIVE (VA-195) “Dambusters” at NAS Lemoore, serving as operations officer and flying the A-4E Skyhawk. VA-195 deployed aboard attack carrier USS Oriskany (CVA-34) to the western Pacific and Vietnam; Mixson flew 103 combat missions on this deployment. Upon return to the States, VA-195 transitioned to the A-7E Corsair II and deployed to the western Pacific and Vietnam on attack carrier USS Kitty Hawk (CVA-63) in November 1970. Lieutenant Commander Mixson flew 152 combat missions on this deployment, including 60 straight days of intense close-air support for the South Vietnamese offensive into Laos, Lam Son 719 (which was a debacle for the South Vietnamese). Mixson also flew operational test missions with the Focus missile, a Sidewinder air-to-air missile modified to work in an air-to-ground mode with a light-sensitive seeker, which entailed flying on dark moonless nights into valleys in North Vietnam and Laos (the idea was for the missile to go after truck headlights and not the moon). 

In July 1971, Lieutenant Commander Mixson reported to the Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island, as a student, graduating a year later and earning a concurrent master of science in international affairs from George Washington University. He was promoted to commander in November 1971. In July 1972, he returned to VA-125 for refresher training, and also served as an instructor pilot. 

In April 1973, Commander Mixson assumed duty as executive officer of Attack Squadron TWO ONE FIVE (VA-215) “Barn Owls” at NAS Lemoore, flying the A-7B Corsair II. VA-215 deployed aboard Oriskany to the South China Sea and then to the North Arabian Sea in response to the 1973 Middle East War. Mixson assumed command of VA-215 on 26 July 1974. In October 1975, he reported as ship’s company to Oriskany as air operations/plans officer. The ship was homeported at NAS Alameda, and deployed to the Western Pacific and North Arabian Sea between September 1975 and March 1976. During this period, he completed the Industrial College of the Armed Forces (ICAF) by correspondence (which says something about boring holes in the North Arabian Sea). In January 1977, he commenced Prospective Air Wing Commander (P-CAG) training. 

In May 1977, Commander Mixson assumed command of Reserve Carrier Air Wing THREE ZERO (CVWR-30) at NAS Alameda, where he got to fly all the different types of aircraft in a carrier air wing. He was promoted to captain in July 1979. In December 1978, Captain Mixson reported to the Office of the CNO in Washington, DC, as deputy head, Strike Warfare Branch (in OP-96). In January 1980, he commenced prospective commanding officer training in the Senior Officer Ship Material Readiness Course (SOS MRC). 

In June 1980, Captain Mixson assumed command of fleet combat replenishment ship USS Roanoke, homeported in San Diego and deploying to the Western Pacific between February and October 1981. In February 1982, Mixson returned to the Office of the CNO as deputy director, Systems Analysis Division (OP-96). In March 1983, he reported as chief of staff to Commander Cruiser Destroyer Group THREE (COMCRUDESGRU 3), homeported at San Diego, and served as anti-air warfare commander (AAWC) embarked on nuclear guided missile cruisers USS Long Beach (CGN-9) and USS Texas (CGN-39) as part of Battle Group BRAVO, which was centered on USS Kitty Hawk. In February 1985, he commenced prospective aircraft carrier commanding officer training. 

In June 1985, CAPT Mixson assumed command of carrier USS Midway (CV-41), with the Forward Deployed Naval Force (FDNF) at Yokosuka, Japan. He led Midway through two periods of Cold War western Pacific operations. Then, Midway underwent major yard work with the addition of blisters intended to enhance stability. When Captain Mixson took Midway back to sea, she rolled dangerously worse than before (and there are some pretty scary photos of this on the Internet). 

In April 1987, Captain Mixson detached from command of Midway to attend the Capstone Course at National Defense University, Fort McNair. In July 1987, he was designated a rear admiral (lower half) for service in a billet commensurate with that rank. In July 1987, he assumed duty as command director, North American Air Defense (NORAD) Combat Operations Staff at Cheyenne Mountain, Colorado. He was promoted to rear admiral (lower half) on 1 November 1987. In September 1988, he assumed duty as executive director, Joint Strategic Defense Planning Staff, U.S. Space Command (responsible for national missile defense). Rear Admiral Mixson was designated a joint specialty officer in 1989. 

In December 1989, Rear Admiral Mixson assumed command of Carrier Group TWO (COMCARGRU 2), homeported at Mayport, Florida. He was designated a rear admiral (two-star) for duty in a billet commensurate with that rank in August 1990. Embarked on USS John F. Kennedy (CV-67), CARGU 2 deployed on five days’ notice in response to the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in August 1990. Upon arrival in the Red Sea, Rear Admiral Mixson was designated Commander Battle Force YANKEE, which initially included JFK and USS Saratoga (CV-60) and alternated between the Red Sea and the Eastern Mediterranean during Desert Shield. Battle Force YANKEE ships were heavily engaged from the very beginning of Desert Shield in interdicting vessels attempting to carry illicit cargo to Iraq, mostly via the port of Aqaba, Jordan. Upon initiation of Operation Desert Storm in January 1991, aircraft from JFK and Saratoga flew 

numerous strike missions into Iraq, shortly joined by the arrival of USS America (CV-66) as USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN-71) proceeded through the Red Sea to Battle Force ZULU in the Arabian Gulf (and America followed a few weeks later). Rear Admiral MIxson was awarded a Distinguished Service Medal for this tour. In February 1991, he was promoted to rear admiral (two-star). 

In July 1991, Rear Admiral Mixson reported to the Office of the CNO as director of Air Warfare Division (N88). In this position, he led the formulation of the 20-year Naval Aviation Plan, which included moving to an all-Hornet air wing. During this tour, he also flew an Israeli F-16 from Ramat David, Israel, evaluating the Python-4 air-to-air missile in order to incorporate technology into the AIM-9X Sidewinder. Rear Admiral Mixson retired on 1 March 1994. 

During his career, Rear Admiral Mixson had 5,720 flight hours, and 920 fixed-wing traps and 15 helicopter recoveries aboard ship. His awards include the Distinguished Service Medal; Defense Superior Service Medal; Legion of Merit (two awards); Meritorious Service Medal; Air Medal (bronze numeral 24 and Gold Star); Navy Commendation Medal with combat “V”: Navy Achievement Medal; Navy Unit Commendation; Meritorious Unit Commendation; Battle Efficiency Ribbon; National Defense Service Medal (two awards); Armed Forces Expeditionary Medal (five awards), Vietnam Service Medal (one gold star); Sea Service Deployment Ribbon (one bronze star); Overseas Service Ribbon; Southwest Asia Campaign Medal; Republic of Vietnam Cross of Gallantry; Republic of Vietnam Gallantry Cross Unit Citatio;, Republic of Vietnam Campaign Medal; and the Kuwait Liberation Medal. 

After retiring from active duty, Rear Admiral Mixson was the founder and president of RDM Associates, an aerospace consulting firm for military and commercial clients. He was a member of the Association of Naval Aviation, the U.S. Naval Institute, the Tailhook Professional Carrier Aviation Association, and Vanderbilt University Alumni Association. He was a board member for the San Diego Symphony and was a supporter of the USS Midway Museum. 

Rear Admiral Mixson’s extraordinary career took an unusual turn when he voluntarily transitioned as a senior lieutenant from carrier ASW aircraft to attack jets. Although flying any carrier aircraft is inherently dangerous, he would have known that this transition would put him on a path to combat in the skies of North Vietnam. Actually it turned out to be mostly over Laos and South Vietnam, but no less dangerous, and in 255 combat missions he laid his life on the line for his country and his sense of duty. As a leader and a pilot, he was greatly respected by those who flew and served with him. He demonstrated great adaptability when the circumstances warranted such as when Midway came out of a refit in 1986 only to become known as the “Rock ’n’ Roll” carrier due to her increased propensity to roll (she took a 26-degree roll in 1988 ), to which he had to adjust in order to operate. As commander of Battle Force Yankee during Desert Storm, he had to adapt tactics after the air wings of JFK and Saratoga took some of the highest losses and damage in the first days, and the changes were successful. In the end, though, his stellar career was shortened by the irresponsible actions of some aviators at the 1991 Tailhook convention. Although he was not involved in the event’s planning, nor was present in the worst of the behavior, he was a senior officer present and received a letter of censure from the SECNAV. As a historian, I will just say that neither the event nor the flawed investigation or system of accountability that followed were any of the Navy’s finest hours. Nevertheless, in his last assignment, Rear Admiral Mixson remained tirelessly focused on the future of naval aviation during a period of tremendous upheaval,. It included the aftermath of the cancellation of the A-12 carrier stealth attack jet, the truncation of the F-14D program, and cancellation of numerous other aviation programs as Congress stampeded to collect a “peace dividend” after the end of the Cold War and Desert Storm. The decision to proceed with the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet (instead of holding out for the F-35) was controversial at the time, but in retrospect was a thing of genius given the Super Hornet’s performance in Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom. Rear Admiral Mixson should be remembered for playing a key role in taking naval aviation through a nadir of morale and funding, and setting it on a course for great success in multiple future combat operations. His impact was indeed profound and positive, for which the Navy is grateful. 

Rest in Peace, Admiral Mixson.