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In Memoriam: Rear Admiral Lafayette F. Norton, USN (Ret.)

Jan. 6, 2023 | 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 (lower half) Lafayette Ferguson “Ferg” Norton on 11 September 2022 at age 83. Rear Admiral Norton entered the U.S. Navy as a midshipman in the Naval Reserve Officers Training Corps (NROTC) in September 1957 and served as a naval aviator until his retirement in December 1993 as Commander, Fleet Air Caribbean. His other commands included Fighter Squadron ONE ZERO TWO (VF-102), Fighter Squadron ONE SEVEN ONE (VF-171), Naval Air Station (NAS) Oceana, and Naval Safety Center. He flew 94 combat missions in Vietnam in 1970–71, earning an Air Medal with numeral “5.” 

Ferg Norton began his Navy career on 13 September 1957 as a midshipman in NROTC at the University of North Carolina (UNC) at Chapel Hill. He played varsity baseball and was named “all conference” his junior and senior year. He was also a member of the first UNC team to go to the College World Series. He graduated with a bachelor of arts degree in English and was commissioned an ensign on 7 June 1961. 

In June 1961, Ensign Norton reported to the Naval Aviation Basic Training Course at NAS Pensacola, Florida, for flight training. In April 1962, he commenced advanced flight training at Naval Aviation Auxiliary Station (NAAS) Kingsville, Texas, and qualified as a naval aviator in August 1962. He then served at NAS Whiting Field as a flight instructor in basic formation flying and radio instruments. He was promoted to lieutenant (junior grade) in December 1962. In 1963 he played baseball for Team USA in the Pan-American Games in Brazil, earning a Silver Medal. 

In August 1963, Lieutenant (j.g.) Norton was assigned to Training Squadron TWO ONE (VT-21) at NAAS Kingsville for jet training. In October 1963, he was briefly assigned to Attack Squadron FOUR THREE (VA-43) at NAS Oceana, Virginia, for training in the A-4C Skyhawk, before reporting in November 1963 to VA-101 at NAS Key West, Florida, for instruction in the F-4 Phantom II jet fighter-bomber. In March 1964, Lieutenant (j.g.) Norton was assigned to VA-31 at NAS Oceana, flying the F-4B embarked on attack carrier Saratoga (CVA-60) for two extended Mediterranean deployments in 1964–65 and 1966. (Of note, VA-31 served for 24 years on Saratoga, the record for a ship/squadron pair.) He was promoted to lieutenant in March 1965 and transitioned to the F-4J in 1966. 

In May 1967, Lieutenant Norton was assigned to the U.S. Air Force 43rd Tactical Fighter Squadron as an exchange instructor pilot in air-to-air and air-to-ground weapons delivery, flying the F-4C/D/E. He was promoted to lieutenant commander in July 1969, and that same month attended the Aviation Safety Officer School at Naval Postgraduate School, Monterey, California. 

In September 1969, Lieutenant Commander Norton reported to VF-121 at NAS Miramar, California, for refresher training in the F-4. He was then assigned to VF-114 in January 1970, but within a month was reassigned to VF-143 “World Famous Pukin’ Dogs,” due to Vietnam War combat requirements. Norton met the squadron in Subic Bay in the Philippines for the last three months of its 1970 combat deployment aboard attack carrier Constellation (CVA-64). He deployed again with VF-143, embarked on nuclear attack carrier Enterprise (CVAN-65) in 1971 for Vietnam combat operations, as well as operations in the Indian Ocean in reaction to the 1971 war between India and Pakistan. During his tour with VF-143, Norton flew 94 combat missions, earning five strike/flight Air Medals. 

In March 1972, Lieutenant Commander Norton reported to the Bureau of Naval Personnel in Washington, DC, as aviation junior officer detailer. He returned to flying in July 1973, assigned to VF-101 for refresher training. He then assumed duty as executive officer for VF-102 “Diamondbacks,” flying the F-4J. He assumed command of VF-102 in February 1975. During his executive officer/commanding officer tour, VF-102 embarked on Independence (CV-62) for three Mediterranean deployments, including operations in reaction to the 1973 “Yom Kippur” Middle East war, the 1974 coup in Greece, and the terrorist bombing of TWA Flight 841 by Palestinian terrorists.

In May 1976, Lieutenant Commander Norton was assigned to Operational Test and Evaluation Force Norfolk as head of the Fighter Weapons Test and Evaluation Section. He was promoted to commander in August 1976. In June 1978 he commenced a training track at Naval Aviation Technical Training Center (NATTC) Memphis, Tennessee, followed the next month by the Senior Officer Training and Indoctrination Program at Commander Naval Air Forces, U.S. Atlantic Fleet. In July 1978, Commander Norton assumed duty as air operations officer for the first deployment of the new nuclear-powered carrier Dwight D. Eisenhower (CVN-69), which deployed to the Mediterranean in January 1969. In October 1979, he attended the Aviation Command Safety Course at Naval Postgraduate School, Monterey. 

In October 1979, Commander Norton was assigned to Commander Fighter Wing ONE for training prior to assuming command of VF-171 in January 1980 at NAS Key West, conducting air combat training for F-4 Phantoms and A-4 Skyhawks. In April 1981, he reported to Naval Military Personnel Command as head, Aviation Commander Assignments Branch, with additional duty as deputy director and then director, Aviation Distribution Division. He was promoted to captain in October 1982.

In August 1983, Captain Norton attended the Industrial College of the Armed Forces at Fort McNair in Washington, DC, as a student, graduating in 1984, while also earning a master’s degree in public administration from the George Washington University. In August 1984, Captain Norton assumed command of NAS Oceana. In July 1986, he was then assigned as chief of staff for Commander Cruiser-Destroyer Group TWO based in Charleston, South Carolina. He deployed on carrier John F. Kennedy (CV-67) for the International Naval Review in New York City in July 1986, followed by a Mediterranean deployment. He subsequently deployed on battleship Iowa (BB-61) in September 1987 to the North Atlantic and Mediterranean, and then through the Suez Canal to the Persian Gulf to participate in Operation Ernest Will, the escort of reflagged Kuwaiti tankers, protecting them from Iranian attacks. 

In August 1988, Captain Norton reported to the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations as deputy director of Military Personnel Policy Division (OP-13B.) In May 1989, he assumed command of the Naval Safety Center in Norfolk, Virginia. In July 1990, he assumed command of Fleet Air Caribbean at NAS Roosevelt Roads, Puerto Rico. He was promoted to rear admiral (lower half) on 1 July 1990. Rear Admiral Norton retired on 1 December 1993. 

Rear Admiral Norton’s awards include the Legion of Merit (three awards); Meritorious Service Medal, Air Medal with numeral “5”; Meritorious Unit Commendation (two awards); Navy Battle Efficiency Ribbon; National Defense Service Medal (two awards); Armed Forces Expeditionary Medal; Vietnam Service Medal (two campaign stars); Humanitarian Service Medal; Sea Service Deployment Ribbon; Republic of Vietnam Campaign Medal with device; and the Expert Pistol Shot Medal. 

Following his retirement from active duty, Norton was involved in defense-related consulting work and family business. In 1996, he became engaged with the First Flight Centennial Foundation, serving as executive director from 1998 to 2005, during which time he worked on the rededication of the Wright Brothers Memorial at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. The foundation was subsequently renamed First Flight Foundation, and in June 2019 he was elected president. 

Although most of his flying was in the Atlantic and Mediterranean, Ferg Norton was one of the now dwindling number of U.S. naval aviators who “laid it on the line” and did their duty in Vietnam (94 combat missions) when much of the U.S. population only wanted to get out. For the most part, his career looks like the detailer’s “ideal” path to promotion to higher rank. It is also the ideal path to countless months/years away from home and family serving our nation on the far side of the globe—most of it before the creation of the Sea Service Deployment Ribbon, so who knows how many silver and bronze stars his ribbon should really have? Flying jets off carriers has always been inherently dangerous, but he did it safely and well and his tours show a particular regard for safety, experience he no doubt used when he ended up in command of the Naval Safety Center and passed on to others. His positive impact was felt everywhere he served, such as when he was the air operations officer on the first deployment of the Dwight D. Eisenhower, setting such a standard of excellence (I lost count of how many consecutive Battle E’s the “Ike” was awarded in the years immediately following). Ferg was a leader and mentor to many, and his passion for aviation continued even after his retirement. His family endured great sacrifice due to his service, but he truly made a difference and the Navy and our nation are better and safer for it.  

Rest in Peace, Admiral Norton. 

I regret the late notice, but only recently learned of his passing. If you learn of a flag officer passing, please do not assume that “Flag Matters" or I already know, as there is no formal notification process for this.