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In Memoriam: Rear Admiral John E. Gordon, USN (Ret.)

Feb. 10, 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 (upper half) John Edward “Ted” Gordon on 22 January 2023 at age 81. Rear Admiral Gordon entered the U.S. Naval Academy in July 1960. After graduation, he served in the Navy Supply Corps and then in the Judge Advocate General’s Corps (JAG Corps) until his retirement in November 1992 as Judge Advocate General of the Navy. His commands included Naval Security and Investigative Command and Naval Legal Service Command. 

Ted Gordon attended Wilkes College for a year, playing varsity football before he entered the Naval Academy on 14 July 1960. While at the academy, Midshipman Gordon played varsity football for three years, as well as being on the track team and singing in the Glee Club and Antiphonal Choir. His Lucky Bag entry stated, “Ted’s wit and cheerful manner made him a man to whom friends could bring their woes.” This would probably serve him well in his future career. He graduated with a bachelor of science in naval science and was commissioned an ensign on 3 June 1964.

Ensign Gordon reported to the Navy Supply Corps School, Athens, Georgia, and was designated as a supply corps officer. In January 1965, he then reported to guided missile destroyer leader Josephus Daniels (DLG-27) while the ship was fitting out before commissioning in July 1965, serving as assistant supply officer. He was promoted to lieutenant (junior grade) in December 1965. In December 1966, he was assigned to Naval Air Engineering Center, Philadelphia. In August 1967 he reported to Philadelphia Naval Shipyard as a contracting officer. He was promoted to lieutenant in December 1967.

In August 1969, Lieutenant Gordon reported to guided missile destroyer USS Joseph Strauss (DDG-16) for deployment to the Western Pacific and operations in the Vietnam War zone. While serving as a supply officer, he earned designation as a surface warfare supply corps officer and a procurement officer. Selected to attend law school, Gordon was administratively assigned to the Fourth Naval District in Philadelphia while attending Temple University School of Law. He was promoted to lieutenant commander in July 1972. He earned his juris doctor degree in 1973 and was subsequently admitted to the Pennsylvania Bar. In July 1974, he was assigned briefly to the Naval Legal Service Office, Philadelphia, as military justice supervisor before shifting to the Navy–Marine Corps Trial Judiciary, Naval Base Philadelphia, as military judge, special court martial. 

In October 1974, Lieutenant Commander Gordon assumed duty as assistant officer-in-charge, Naval Legal Service Office, Philadelphia. In August 1975 he was assigned to the Office of the Judge Advocate General in Washington, DC, as an admiralty attorney. In February 1977, he was assigned to the Office of Legislative Affairs as head of General Legislative Branch/Personnel Legislation Branch/Personnel Authorization Branch. He was promoted to commander in May 1979.

In August 1980, Commander Gordon reported to the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Navy (Manpower, Reserve Affairs and Logistics) as special assistant for military law. In May 1981, he was assigned to the Office of the Secretary of the Navy as special assistant for legal and legislative affairs to Secretary of the Navy John Lehman. He was promoted to captain in October 1984.

In July 1985, Captain Gordon assumed duty in the Office of Legislative Affairs as principal deputy chief of legislative affairs for senate liaison. He was promoted to rear admiral (lower half) in October 1986. That same month he assumed duty as assistant judge advocate general (operations and management)/ deputy assistant secretary of defense (legislative affairs) for Secretary of Defense Casper Weinberger.

In September 1987, Rear Admiral Gordon assumed command of Naval Security and Investigative Command (NSIC). In this role he served as director of the Naval Investigative Service (NIS) and as assistant director of the Office of Naval Intelligence for Counterintelligence. He was responsible for the Navy’s response to Operation Ill Wind (a major procurement fraud investigation) and oversaw the prosecution of Clayton Lonetree, a Marine security guard who allowed a Soviet spy access to the U.S. embassy in Moscow. In October 1988, he assumed duty as deputy judge advocate general with additional duty as commander, Naval Legal Service Command. He was promoted to rear admiral (upper half) on 1 November 1988. In November 1990, Gordon assumed duty as Judge Advocate General of the Navy. Beginning In October 1991, Rear Admiral Gordon provided legal advice to senior Navy officials related to the investigation of the Tailhook scandal. He retired on 1 November 1992.

Rear Admiral Gordon’s awards include the Defense Distinguished Service Medal; Distinguished Service Medal (two awards); Legion of Merit (three awards); Meritorious Service Medal; National Defense Service Medal (two awards); Vietnam Service Medal (three campaign stars); Republic of Vietnam Campaign Medal; Expert Pistol Shot Medal; and Expert Rifleman Medal.

After retiring from active duty, Rear Admiral Gordon went to work for Litton Industries as vice president for its Washington, DC, operations, overseeing the company’s work with all branches of the government. In 2001, he joined Alliant Tech Systems as vice president for Washington, DC, operations. In 2007, he became a senior fellow at Potomac Institute for Policy Studies, where he was a member of the Board of Regents.

Being promoted to rear admiral (lower half) after only two years as a captain is a convincing testament not only to superlative performance, but superlative performance in extremely difficult, high-visibility assignments, often fraught with some form of peril. Serving as Secretary John Lehman’s assistant—no easy feat—and then being requested by name by Secretary of Defense Weinberger certainly helped. Nevertheless, getting to that point required sustained outstanding performance in a wide variety of jobs, initially in the Supply Corps and then in the JAG Corps. He had multiple assignments representing the U.S. Navy on Capitol Hill, and did a terrific job. Like the best lawyers in the JAG Corps, he not only completely understood the ins-and-outs of the law, he had the moral fortitude to stand up to the well-intentioned but misguided efforts of a few bosses. By fraught with peril, an example is his time as commander of NSIC/NIS as the lead on the Navy’s part of the Ill Wind procurement scandal investigation, which ultimately led to the conviction of over 50 government officials and contractors, including the assistant secretary of the navy (research, engineering and systems) pleading guilty to accepting hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes, as well as the conviction of the deputy assistant secretary of the navy for theft and illegal conversion of government property. And then, as Judge Advocate General of the Navy, he was engaged a classic “no-win” problem: providing legal advice to senior Navy officials investigating the Tailhook scandal. The head of NIS, Rear Admiral Duvall “Mac” Williams, was directed to lead the investigation, which by its very nature made virtually no one happy. Under intense political pressure, Secretary of the Navy William Garrett III directed the investigation be reopened, which was led by Department of Defense Inspector General Derek Vander Schaaf. That report heavily criticized the initial investigation, claiming it was “more concerned with protecting the reputation of the Navy than with discovering the role of high-ranking officers.” Rear Admiral Gordon defended the initial investigation, stating the follow-on was “flawed and factually incorrect.” As a result of the controversy, Gordon retired several months earlier than planned, but with his integrity intact. Regardless of what one thinks of Tailhook or the investigation, Rear Admiral Gordon served our Navy and Nation with extraordinary dedication and distinction that deserves to be remembered.

Rest in Peace, Admiral Gordon.