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In Memoriam: Vice Admiral William H. Rowden, USN (Ret.)

Nov. 9, 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 Vice Admiral William Henry “Bill” Rowden, U.S. Navy (Retired), on 15 October 2022 at age 92. Bill Rowden entered the U.S. Naval Academy in July 1948 and served as a surface warfare officer until his retirement in October 1988 as Commander, Naval Sea Systems Command. His other commands included Cormorant (MSC-122), USS Bauer (DE-1025), Lynde McCormick (DDG-8), USS Columbus (CG-12), Cruiser-Destroyer Group THREE (CRUDESGRU 3), Sixth Fleet, and Military Sealift Command. While in command of Lynde McCormick, his ship was credited with scattering a Viet Cong force and saving the city of Nha Trang, South Vietnam, for which he was awarded a Bronze Star. He was in command of U.S. Sixth Fleet during a particularly eventful period, including the downing of two Libyan fighters and another Middle East conflict—the 1982–83 Lebanon War. 

Bill Rowden took the oath of office at the U.S. Naval Academy on 14 July 1948. As a midshipman, he participated in plebe crew, company sports, and sailing yawls, and according to the Lucky Bag, he yearned to be a Marine Corps officer. Midshipman Rowden graduated on 6 June 1952 with a degree in naval science and was commissioned an ensign. In September 1952, Ensign Rowden reported to his first assignment, as weapons officer on the San Diego–based Fletcher-class destroyer Yarnall (DD-541) while the ship was engaged in bombardment of the North Korean port of Wonsan. He made two Korean War deployments on Yarnall, operating in the Sea of Japan and escorting Task Force 77 carriers, with periodic assignment to the gun line on the coast of North Korea. One period was also spent on the Formosa Straits patrol between the People’s Republic of China and the Republic of China (Taiwan) to keep that continuing crisis from flaring up. He was promoted to lieutenant (junior grade) in December 1953.

In December 1954, Lieutenant (j.g.) Rowden reported as executive officer for the recently commissioned Bluebird-class coastal minesweeper Cormorant (AMS-122). Cormorant was reclassified as MSC-122 in February 1955, and Rowden assumed command that December. Initially operating from its homeport of Long Beach, California, Cormorant was permanently forward-deployed to Sasebo, Japan, in January 1956, and conducted exercises with Korean, Japanese, and Taiwanese minesweepers. The ship was awarded a Battle Efficiency ribbon, and Rowden was promoted to lieutenant in July 1956. 

In May 1957, Lieutenant Rowden was assigned to the Bureau of Naval Personnel in Washington, DC, as the advanced and functional school assignment officer in enlisted distribution. In August 1959, Rowden assumed duty as executive officer for Newport-based Dealey-class destroyer escort Lester (DE-1022) for the Operation Springboard annual Atlantic Fleet exercise in the Caribbean, followed by a northern Europe deployment for the fall NATO convoy exercise. In July 1961, Lieutenant Rowden reported as a student at the Naval Postgraduate School, Monterey, California, in a two-year ordnance engineering course. While at the school, he was promoted to lieutenant commander in January 1962. Rowden was awarded a bachelor of science in electrical engineering in 1963. 

In June 1963, Lieutenant Commander Rowden assumed command of San Diego–based Dealey-class destroyer escort Bauer (DE-1025) while the ship was deployed to the Far East. It deployed again in June 1964 to the Gulf of Tonkin, escorting Task Force 77 carriers on Yankee Station. In July 1965, Rowden was assigned as aide and flag lieutenant for Commander-in-Chief, U.S. Pacific Command, Admiral Ulysses S. Grant Sharp, in Pearl Harbor. He was promoted to commander in July 1966. 

In July 1967, Commander Rowden attended the Armed Forces Staff College in Norfolk, Virginia, graduating at the beginning of 1968. In March 1968, Rowden assumed command of Charles F. Adams–class guided missile destroyer Lynde McCormick while that ship was escorting Kearsarge (CVS-33), which was operating in the Sea of Japan in reaction to the North Korean seizure of the intelligence collection ship Pueblo (AGER-2). Lynde McCormick had just come off the gun line after being slightly damaged by Communist Vietnamese shore battery fire. The ship deployed to Vietnam again in early 1969, where its accurate gunfire broke up a Viet Cong attack on Nha Trang, South Vietnam. Following return from deployment to San Diego, Commander Rowden reported in November 1969 to Naval Ordnance Systems Command, Washington, DC, as deputy project manager, surface missile systems project/technical program director. He was promoted to captain in August 1971. 

In June 1973, Captain Rowden assumed command of guided missile cruiser Columbus (CG-12), deploying to the Mediterranean from November 1973 to May 1974, a period of very high tension as a result of the 1973 Middle East/Yom Kippur War. This was the last deployment of Columbus before it was decommissioned in 1975. In September 1974, Rowden was assigned to the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations in Washington, DC, as deputy director, surface weapons system division. On 31 March 1975, he was designated a rear admiral for duty in a billet commensurate with that rank and assumed responsibility as director, combat direction systems division (OP-35) in the Office of the CNO. He was promoted to rear admiral on 1 January 1976. 

In July 1977, Rear Admiral Rowden assumed command of Cruiser-Destroyer Group THREE, responsible for three San Diego–based destroyer squadrons (7, 17, and the Naval Reserve Force DESRON 27), and deployed to the Philippines for a major amphibious exercises in the South China Sea and Philippine Sea. In June 1979, Rowden returned to Washington, DC, as Assistant Deputy Chief of Naval Operations, Surface Warfare (OP-03B).

On 1 September 1980, he was designated a vice admiral for duty in a billet commensurate with that rank and assumed responsibility as the Deputy CNO for Surface Warfare (OP-03). In June 1981, Vice Admiral Rowden assumed command of U.S. Sixth Fleet, embarked on flagship Puget Sound (AD-38) and operating from Gaeta, Italy. In August 1981, during a missile exercise in the Gulf of Sidra (challenging Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi’s self-declared “Line of Death”), one of a pair of Libya SU-22 Fitter fighter-bombers fired an AA-2 Atoll air-to-air missile at F-14 Tomcat fighters off Nimitz (CVN-68). Both Fitters were promptly shot down by the VF-41 “Black Aces” F-14s. Tensions increased in the eastern Mediterranean when Israel invaded Lebanon in 1982 in response to cross-border attacks, an event that eventually drew the United States into an ill-fated “peacekeeping” mission in Lebanon. At the same time, tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union were at their highest point since the 1962 Cuban missile crisis. In May 1983, Rowden broke his flag on destroyer Radford (DD-968) for a port visit to Constanţa, Romania, in the Black Sea. Rowden was subsequently awarded his first Navy Distinguished Service Medal. 

In August 1983, Vice Admiral Rowden assumed command of Military Sea Lift Command in Washington, DC. In 1985 he was designated a materiel professional and in July 1985 assumed command of Naval Sea Systems Command, also in Washington, where he was extensively engaged in the development of the new Arleigh Burke–class guided missile destroyers. Vice Admiral Rowden retired on 1 October 1988, just after the launch of Arleigh Burke (DDG-51). 

Vice Admiral Rowden’s awards include the Navy Distinguished Service Medal (three awards); Legion of Merit; Bronze Star; Meritorious Service Medal; Joint Service Commendation Medal; Navy Expeditionary Medal; China Service Medal; National Defense Service Medal (two awards); Korean Service Medal (two campaign stars); Armed Forces Expeditionary Medal; Battle Efficiency Ribbon; Vietnam Service Medal (three campaign stars); Sea Service Deployment Ribbon; Korean Presidential Unit Citation; United Nations Service Medal; and Republic of Vietnam Campaign Medal (with device). 

After retiring from active duty, Vice Admiral Rowden served as a director of the Naval Historical Foundation (NHF) beginning in 1995 and continued his association as director emeritus. Former NHF president Vice Admiral Bob Dunn recounted: “Bill Rowden was a respected colleague who oversaw the organization’s finances during a capital campaign to build a Cold War Gallery and expand programs such as oral history and STEM [science, technology, engineering, and math]. He was ever collegial, yet worked to keep the NHF on an even keel. In recognition of his outstanding work during his two decades on the NHF board, on departure he was elected director emeritus.” He also served on the senior advisory board of the Naval Strike Forum. 
Bill Rowden was one of the most humble and gracious leaders you could ever meet. Bill's input into the Class of 52 Lucky Bag; Golden Anniversary Edition punctuates this perfectly: “I was one of those that stayed in the Navy and retired in 1988. I loved the Navy—didn’t always like what I had to do, but I loved the Service. Most memorable events of my Navy life were my first officer of the deck underway watch in a destroyer, the times I took a ship to sea as her captain, and the day I married Sal in a Quonset hut made into a chapel in Sasebo, Japan, in 1956. It turned out to be a great life for both of us. In retirement we have done the usual things: a little work, travel, and watching grandkids appear and grow. I spent several years at the Center for Naval Analyses and a post-retirement association with the AP Moller Group of Copenhagen, Denmark, as the chairman of the board of Maersk Line Limited, Norfolk.” 
We thank Bill Rowden for his many years of dedicated and extraordinary service to our Navy and nation. We wish Vice Admiral Tom Rowden, USN (Ret.), well during this most difficult time.