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In Memoriam: Rear Admiral Steven R. Briggs, USN (Ret.)

April 5, 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) Steven Russell “Steve” Briggs on 4 February 2023 at age 81. Rear Admiral Briggs entered the U.S. Navy via the Naval Reserve Officers Training Corps (NROTC) in September 1959 and served as a naval aviator until his retirement in January 1997 as the Director of Aviation Plans and Requirements (N880) in the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations. His commands included Attack Squadron NINE FOUR (VA-94), Carrier Air Wing FIVE (CVW-5), amphibious transport ship Ogden (LPD-5), Amphibious Squadron TWELVE (PHIBRON 12), Light Attack Wing Pacific, Fleet Air Western Pacific, and Naval Air Force Pacific (Acting). He flew 229 combat missions over Vietnam, earning a Distinguished Flying Cross, 23 Air Medals, and 6 Navy Commendation Medals with Combat “V.” 

Steve Briggs entered the NROTC program on 21 September 1959 at the University of California, Los Angeles. He graduated with a bachelor’s degree in chemistry and was commissioned an ensign on 5 June 1963. He then reported to the Naval Aviation Basic Training Course at Naval Air Station (NAS) Pensacola, Florida. In June 1964, Ensign Briggs continued flight training at Naval Auxiliary Air Station Kingsville, Texas. He was designated a naval aviator, heavier-than-air, on 30 October 1964. He then reported to VA-125 “Rough Raiders,” the Fleet Replacement Squadron at NAS Lemoore, California, for training in the A-4E Skyhawk. He was promoted to lieutenant (junior grade) in December 1964. 

In May 1965, Lieutenant (j.g.) Briggs reported to VA-212 “Rampant Raiders” at NAS Lemoore. Commencing in November 1965, VA-212 made the second of the squadron’s eight Vietnam War deployments, embarked on attack carrier Hancock (CVA-19). VA-212 participated in Operation Jackstay, providing air support to amphibious operations clearing the Rung Sat Special Zone southeast of Saigon, South Vietnam. Operations over North Vietnam included a major attack on the Bac Giang petroleum, oil, and lubricant facility in June 1966. During a short turnaround period, VA-212 was the first fleet unit with aircraft modified to carry the AGM-62 Walleye television-guided bomb. Briggs was one of the “Succulent Six,” the first pilots trained to use the Walleye. He was promoted to lieutenant in December 1966. He deployed with the squadron again in January 1967, this time embarked on attack carrier Bon Homme Richard (CVA-31). This deployment the squadron met intense North Vietnamese resistance, losing multiple aircraft. On 11 March 1967, VA-212’s commanding officer, Commander Homer L. Smith, made the first attack with a Walleye, hitting the Sam Son army barracks in North Vietnam. VA-212 conducted a series of strikes on the Bac Giang thermal power plant on 19 and 20 May 1967. On the second day, Commander Smith was shot down. Although he successfully ejected, he was captured and died during torture in North Vietnam; he would later be awarded a posthumous Navy Cross.

In September 1967, Lieutenant Briggs reported to VA-174 “Hellrazors” Fleet Replacement Squadron at NAS Cecil Field, Florida, where he was among the first trained in the new A-7A Corsair II light attack jet, subsequently serving as an instructor pilot training others on the A-7. In January 1969, Briggs reported to Naval Postgraduate School at Monterey, California, where he was promoted to lieutenant commander in February 1970 and earned a master’s degree in aeronautical engineering in 1971. 

In April 1971, Lieutenant Commander Briggs reported to VA-125 at NAS Lemoore for refresher training in the A-7B Corsair II. In December 1971, Briggs was assigned to VA-155 “Silver Foxes” at NAS Lemoore, serving as maintenance officer and operations officer. VA-155 deployed to Vietnam in June 1972, embarked aboard attack carrier Oriskany (CVA-34) and participating in Operation Linebacker I and Linebacker II (the “Christmas Bombing Campaign” of 1972). Following the cease-fire in February 1973, VA-155 flew combat missions over Laos until a cease-fire was declared there as well. VA-155 deployed again on Oriskany in October 1973 to the western Pacific, with a short-notice change to deploy to the Arabian Gulf, relieving Hancock during a period of tension following the 1973 Yom Kippur War in the Middle East.

Promoted in July 1974, Commander Briggs reported to VA-122 “Flying Eagles,” the West Coast A-7 Fleet Replacement Squadron at NAS Lemoore, which flew the A-7C Corsair II. In February 1975, Briggs assumed duty as executive officer for VA-94 “Mighty Shrikes.” VA-94 deployed to Vietnam in December 1974, embarked on attack carrier Coral Sea (CVA-43), flying the A-7E. In April 1975, two years after the “Paris Peace Accords” had been signed, North Vietnam launched a major conventional offensive into South Vietnam. Although five U.S. carriers quickly arrived on station, including Coral Sea, the United States chose not to intervene beyond supporting the evacuation of Saigon (Operation Frequent Wind), which fell in April 1975. VA-94 was subsequently involved in attacks on Cambodian targets in May 1975 when the U.S.-flagged merchant ship SS Mayaguez was captured by Cambodian Communist Khmer Rouge forces, before the ship and crew were released. Commander Briggs assumed command of VA-94 in April 1976, deploying again on Coral Sea to the western Pacific in February–October 1977. 

In July 1977, Commander Briggs attended the Industrial College of the Armed Forces at Fort McNair in Washington, DC, graduating in 1998. He was then briefly assigned as special projects officer at Commander Fighter and Airborne Early Warning Wing Pacific. In October 1978, Briggs assumed command of Carrier Air Wing FIVE (CVW-5) at Atsugi, Japan, as part of the new Overseas Family Residency Program. CVW-5 embarked on carrier Midway (CV-41), operating from Yokosuka, Japan, for multiple western Pacific operations and two Indian Ocean deployments in April–June 1979 and September–February 1980 in reaction to the Iranian hostage crisis. In October 1980, Briggs reported to Commander Naval Air Forces, U.S. Pacific Fleet (COMNAVAIRPAC) as force readiness officer, where he was promoted to captain in December 1980. 

In January 1982, Captain Briggs reported to the Surface Warfare Officers School Command at Newport, Rhode Island, for duty under instruction, followed in April 1982 by training at the Naval Reactors Facility, Idaho Falls, Idaho. In July 1982, Briggs assumed command of amphibious transport dock Ogden (LPD-5) at San Diego, deploying to the western Pacific, Indian Ocean, and Arabian Gulf from August 1982 to March 1983. While Captain Briggs was in command, Ogden earned the Battle Efficiency award. In April 1984, Briggs assumed command of Amphibious Squadron TWELVE (PHIBRON 12), including 15 amphibious ships, which earned a Meritorious Unit Citation. In June 1986, he reported to the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations in Washington, DC, as deputy director, Force Level Plans Division (OP-70B), and also as deputy director for electronic warfare. 

On 30 May 1989, Captain Briggs was designated a rear admiral (lower half) for duty in a billet commensurate with that rank. The next month he assumed command of Light Attack Wing, U.S. Pacific Fleet, at NAS Lemoore. He was promoted to rear admiral (lower half) on 1 June 1990. Upon conclusion of the transition of the wing from the A-7 Corsair II to the F/A-18 Hornet strike fighter, the wing was redesignated as Strike Fighter Wing Pacific on 5 May 1991. In June 1991, Rear Admiral Briggs assumed command of Fleet Air Western Pacific at Atsugi, Japan, including responsibility for maritime patrol and national and navy airborne intelligence collection missions. In June 1993, he assumed duty as acting commander, COMNAVAIRPAC. He was promoted to rear admiral (upper half) on 25 October 1993. 

In March 1994, Rear Admiral Briggs returned to the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations in Washington, DC, as director of Aviation Plans and Requirements (N880). He retired from active duty on 1 February 1997. 

Rear Admiral Briggs’s awards include the Distinguished Service Medal, Legion of Merit (three awards), Distinguished Flying Cross, Meritorious Service Medal, Air Medal with numeral “21” and one gold star in lieu of second award, Navy Commendation Medal with six Combat “V’s” and one silver star in lieu of subsequent awards, Presidential Unit Citation, Navy Unit Commendation (two awards), Meritorious Unit Commendation (five awards), Battle Efficiency Ribbon, Navy Expeditionary Medal (two awards), National Defense Service Medal (two awards), Armed Forces Expeditionary Medal (two awards), Vietnam Service Medal (four campaign stars), Humanitarian Service Medal, Sea Service Deployment Ribbon (three awards), Navy Overseas Service Ribbon, Republic of Vietnam Cross of Gallantry with silver and gold star, Japanese Order of the Rising Sun, Republic of Vietnam Gallantry Cross Unit Citation, and Republic of Vietnam Campaign Medal 

Following retirement from active duty, Rear Admiral Briggs worked for Northrop Grumman as vice president and program manager for the F/A-18 Hornet strike fighter program and subsequently as program manager for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter Program from 2003 to 2004 and as deputy for Air Combat Systems. He retired from Northrop Grumman in 2005. He later served as chairman of the Bob Hope USO in Los Angeles. 

Steve Briggs’s obituary states he lived a “life of service and adventure.” That is certainly true, although adventure is an understatement for the danger he faced in deployments that earned a Presidential Unit Citation, two Navy Unit Commendations, and five Meritorious Commendations, not to mention a Distinguished Flying Cross, 23 Air Medals, and other awards during 229 combat missions over Vietnam. Those missions spanned the period from Operation Rolling Thunder to Operation Linebacker I/II (successfully turning back the North Vietnamese “Easter Offensive”), to the end in Operation Frequent Wind, permitted by National Command Authority only to rescue as many U.S. personnel and South Vietnamese refugees as possible as the Republic of Vietnam fell. Throughout, he was one of our Navy’s heroes who stayed true to their oath and did their duty in the deadly skies over North Vietnam, despite the war’s unpopularity back in the States. He was also a key leader in the evolution of U.S. naval aviation from the A-4 Skyhawk through the A-7 Corsair II, F/18 Hornet, F/A-18 E/F Super Hornet, and F-35 Lightning II. In his last assignment as director of Aviation Plans and Requirements, he had a hand in the decision to proceed with the Super Hornet, despite the counsel of many to wait for the F-35 (the decision not to wait may have been one of the smartest in the history of naval aviation). Even after retirement, he continued to play a key role in the modernization of U.S. naval aviation at Northrop Grumman. Rear Admiral Briggs’s life of service and adventure no doubt came at considerable sacrifice in terms of time spent with his family, for which the Navy and nation should be extremely grateful. He is one of our rapidly dwindling number of Vietnam War heroes, but his legacy is profound, and for both the Navy is most grateful.

Rest in Peace, Admiral Briggs.