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In Memoriam: Vice Admiral James A. Sagerholm, USN (Ret.)

Nov. 17, 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 James Alvin Sagerholm, U.S. Navy (Retired), on 3 November 2022 at age 94. Vice Admiral Sagerholm enlisted in the U.S. Navy in July 1946 and served as a surface line officer, submarine officer, and in intelligence billets until his retirement in November 1985 as the chief of Naval Education and Training. His commands included coastal minesweeper (old) Rhea (MSC[O]-52), fleet ballistic missile submarine Kamehameha (SSBN-642) Gold Crew, Naval Intelligence Support Center, and South Atlantic Force.

James Sagerholm enlisted in the U.S. Navy on 15 July 1946. After attending schools at Naval Air Station (NAS) Jacksonville, Florida, and NAS Lakehurst, New Jersey, he was assigned to the Navy Hurricane Weather Center at NAS Miami. He was honorably discharged on 15 June 1948 and entered the U.S. Naval Academy the next day. He was the fall set brigade commander. He was also president of the Class of 1952 and worked with the presidents of the Classes of 1951 and 1953 in forming the Brigade Honor Concept. He also lettered in varsity track in the quarter-mile and one-mile relay. He graduated ninth in his class on 6 June 1952 with a bachelor of science in naval science and was commissioned an ensign the same day. 

In June 1952, Ensign Sagerholm was assigned to the Oregon City–class heavy cruiser Rochester (CA-124) for that ship’s third Korean War deployment from November 1952 to April 1953. He was promoted to lieutenant (junior grade) in December 1953. In August 1954, Lieutenant (j.g.) Sagerholm attended the Naval Mine Warfare School at Yorktown, Virginia. In February 1955, he reported as executive officer of coastal minesweeper (old) Crow (MSC[O]-7), assigned to the Mine Warfare Lab, Panama City, Florida. The vessel was engaged in initial feasibility testing of helicopter-towed mine gear (including an experiment in which a helicopter towed Crow, resulting in the minesweeper nearly running aground). He was promoted to lieutenant in July 1956. That same month, he assumed command of coastal minesweeper (old) Rhea, homeported in Charleston, South Carolina. 

In August 1957, Lieutenant Sagerholm attended the Naval Intelligence School in Washington, DC, and was subsequently attached in June 1959 to the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations in the Pentagon, assigned to the Office of Naval Intelligence. In January 1959, he was assigned as aide to the chief of staff of Commander-in-Chief, U.S. Pacific Command, at Pearl Harbor. In February 1961, Sagerholm reported to Gearing-class destroyer escort Epperson (DDE-719, later reverting to DD-719), which deployed to the Western Pacific from Pearl Harbor and assisted with recovery of manned and unmanned U.S. spacecraft. Sagerholm was promoted to lieutenant commander in August 1961. 

In August 1961, Lieutenant Commander Sagerholm assumed duty as navigator and the executive officer of Fletcher-class destroyer Sproston (DD-557), which was awarded a Battle Efficiency Ribbon in 1961. During the October 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, Sproston took station in the Strait of Tsushima to track any Soviet submarine exiting from the Sea of Japan (none did). While returning to Pearl Harbor in December 1962 with Hornet (CVS-12), the task force encountered extremely heavy weather in the North Pacific, incurring substantial damage and necessitating a repair stop at Midway Island. During this tour Sagerholm qualified for command of destroyers. 

In May 1963, Lieutenant Commander Sagerholm reported to the Naval Submarine School in Groton, Connecticut, for duty under instruction. Selected somewhat late in his career for the Navy nuclear power program, Sagerholm reported in April 1964 to the Naval Nuclear Power School, Naval Training Center, Bainbridge, Maryland. This was followed in October 1964 with additional training at the U.S. Atomic Energy Agency Schenectady Naval Reactors Office and U.S. Naval Nuclear Power Training Unit, Windsor, Connecticut. In May 1965, Sagerholm reported to Atlantic Fleet Skate-class nuclear attack submarine Seadragon (SSN-584) as operations officer and navigator. He was promoted to commander in June 1966. 

In July 1966, Commander Sagerholm reported to the pre-commissioning crew of Benjamin Franklin–class fleet ballistic missile submarine Mariano G. Vallejo (SSBN-658), and upon commissioning of the submarine in December 1966 became Blue Crew executive officer. The boat arrived at Pearl Harbor in April 1967 to commence deterrent patrols in the Western Pacific. In May 1968, Sagerholm reported to the director, Division of Naval Reactors, Atomic Energy Commission, Washington, DC, for prospective commanding officer training.

In July 1968, Commander Sagerholm assumed command of Benjamin Franklin–class fleet ballistic missile submarine Kamehameha Gold Crew. Homeported in Pearl Harbor, Kamehameha conducted deterrent patrols out of Apra, Guam, until 1970 before transiting through the Panama Canal to her new homeport of Charleston, South Carolina. Her arrival in Charleston made headlines as the crew was informed they would be greeted by a boat with Miss Charleston on board, but were instead disappointed by being greeted “only by the captain’s wife,” as Miss Charleston got lost in the shipyard and missed the boat. Kamehameha subsequently made an accelerated patrol due to a mechanical casualty to another SSBN, and then one more patrol before entering extended overhaul for conversion from Polaris to Poseidon submarine-launched ballistic missiles. 

In May 1971, Commander Sagerholm reported to the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations in Washington, DC, as head, General Purpose Warfare Forces Group. He was promoted to captain in July 1971. In November 1971, he was assigned as executive secretary of the CNO Executive Board. In January 1974, Captain Sagerholm assumed command of the Naval Intelligence Support Center, Washington, DC, with additional duty as deputy commander, Naval Intelligence Command. He was promoted to rear admiral on 1 December 1975. 

In June 1976, Rear Admiral Sagerholm assumed command of the South Atlantic Force, U.S. Atlantic Fleet, based out of Roosevelt Roads, Puerto Rico. South Atlantic Force conducted two UNITAS exercise circumnavigations of South America, and initiated the first West Africa Training Cruise as well. In July 1978, Sagerholm returned to the Pentagon, to the Office of the Secretary of the Navy, Office of Program Appraisal. In July 1981, he was assigned to the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs as director, Contingency Planning and Requirements Policy. In April 1982, he was assigned to the White House Office of the Chairman, President’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board, as executive director. 

On 13 January 1983, Sagerholm was designated a vice admiral for duty in a billet commensurate with the rank. That same month, he assumed duty as the chief of Naval Education and Training at NAS Pensacola. Vice Admiral Sagerholm retired on 1 November 1985. 

Vice Admiral Sagerholm’s awards include the Navy Distinguished Service Medal; Legion of Merit; Defense Meritorious Service Medal; Meritorious Service Medal; Meritorious Unit Commendation; World War II Victory Medal; National Defense Service Medal (two awards); Korea Service Medal (two campaign stars); United Nations Service Medal; a medal I can’t identify in his photo and not in his service transcript; and the Republic of Korea Presidential Unit Citation. 

In 2009, he earned a master of arts in military history at Norwich University, graduating cum laude. He was editor of As We Recall: Reminiscences of Naval Academy Class of 1952, published in 2015. He wrote an autobiography, From Green Hills to Blue Seas, published in 2016, and authored a historical fiction, Sounded Forth the Trumpet, published in 2021. He was also an Athletic and Scholarships Programs Foundation Trustee Emeritus. Vice Admiral Sagerholm was predeceased by his son, Captain Mark Sagerholm, USMC (USNA ’83). Interment will be at Arlington National Cemetery at a date to be determined. 
Vice Admiral Sagerholm’s career defies any conventional wisdom of a standard path to making flag rank. It is more an example of “bloom where planted,” demonstrate extraordinary leadership wherever you go, and do whatever the Navy and nation ask you to do. His first tour was on a heavy cruiser in combat in Korea, where presumably he stood out from the crowd of ensigns, although his next tour was on a minesweeper so elderly it was officially designated as “old” (MSC[O]-7). He then took intelligence tours while still remaining on track for command at sea. Then, the “needs of the Navy,” for officers to man the new “41 for Freedom” fleet ballistic missile submarines took precedence, and he transferred to submarines, was selected for nuclear power, and commanded Kamehameha instead of a destroyer. From there he showed he could do just about anything the Navy wanted, including command of the Navy’s technical intelligence center and then command of the South Atlantic Force. His role as executive director of the President’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board at the culmination of the Cold War was particularly noteworthy, and his role as the chief of Naval Education and Training during the height of the Reagan administration’s “600-ship Navy” buildup had profound and lasting effect. However, one of his most lasting legacies may have been as a midshipman for his role in formulating the Brigade Honor Concept. Prior to that point, officers were assumed to be “gentlemen” and as such imbued with the “nicest sense of personal honor.” By the mid-20th century, this apparently needed to be codified, and it remains a concept to which all naval officers should adhere (and perhaps more political leaders could follow, too). As far as his character, despite his academic and leadership prowess at the Academy, a line from the Lucky Bag may sum it up best: “His willingness to lend a helping hand was the salvation of more than a few of his classmates.” He served our nation with extraordinary dedication and skill, no doubt at the sacrifice of much family time, for which we should all be grateful. 

Rest in Peace, Admiral Sagerholm.