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In Memoriam: Admiral James B. Busey IV, USN (Ret.)

June 13, 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 Admiral James Buchanan Busey IV on 21 April 2023 at age 90. Admiral Busey enlisted in the U.S. Navy in January 1952, was commissioned an ensign in the U.S. Naval Reserve in February 1954, and served as a naval aviator until his retirement in June 1989 as Commander in Chief, Allied Forces Southern Europe/Commander in Chief, U.S. Naval Forces Europe, having previously served as the Vice Chief of Naval Operations (VCNO). His commands included Attack Squadron TWO ONE SIX (VA-216), Attack Squadron ONE TWO FIVE (VA-125), Naval Air Station Lemoore, Light Attack Wing Pacific, and Naval Air Systems Command. He was awarded a Navy Cross, three Distinguished Flying Crosses, a Bronze Star, and other awards for valor and flight achievement during 189 combat missions in two tours during the Vietnam War.

James Busey entered the University of Illinois Urbana in 1951 but then enlisted in the U.S. Navy on 4 January 1952. After graduating from recruit training at Great Lakes, Illinois, in March 1952, he attended aviation technician A School, graduating in February 1953, and was promoted to aviation technician third class. In March of 1953, he was selected for the Aviation Cadet Program. He subsequently underwent flight training in multiple aircraft at Naval Air Station (NAS) Pensacola, Florida; NAS Corpus Christi, Texas; Naval Air Facility Cabaniss, Texas; and NAS Kingsville, Texas. On 31 January 1954, he was honorably discharged and then commissioned an ensign in the U.S. Naval Reserve on 1 February 1954. He was designated a naval aviator heavier-than-air on 6 August 1954.

In August 1954, Ensign Busey reported to Fighter Squadron ONE ZERO TWO (VF-102) at NAS Cecil Field, Florida. VF-102 was subsequently designated VA-36 in July 1955. Busey flew the F9F Panther/Cougar (multiple variants) and the A4D (later A-4B) Skyhawk light attack jet, deploying to the Western Pacific on Bennington (CVA-20), the first aircraft carrier with a combination of angled deck and the then-new portable British mirror landing system. He was promoted to lieutenant (junior grade) in August 1955, augmented into active duty in May 1957, and promoted to lieutenant in December 1957.

In September 1958, Lieutenant Busey reported to Jet Transition Training Unit, NAS Olathe, Kansas, as an instructor in the F9F-8 Cougar and F-11F Tiger. In October 1959, he reported to VA-44 at NAS Jacksonville, Florida, as an instructor pilot flying the F9F-8 and A-4B/C Skyhawk. In June 1961, Lieutenant Busey commenced study at the Naval Postgraduate School (NPS) Line School in Monterey, California, but before he earned a degree he was ordered to Carrier Division FIVE (CARDIV 5) at San Diego as flag lieutenant and aide to the commander. He was promoted to lieutenant commander in August 1963. In July 1964, he returned to NPS and completed his bachelor of science degree and earned a master of science degree in management in 1966.

In August 1966, Lieutenant Commander Busey reported to VA-125 at NAS Lemoore, California, for refresher training in the A-4C/E. In January 1967, he was assigned to VA-163, “Saints,” part of Air Wing SIXTEEN (CVW-16) embarked on attack carrier Oriskany (CVA-34). The Oriskany deployed to Vietnam in June 1967. During this period, Busey flew 115 combat missions during a period of increasingly effective North Vietnamese antiaircraft capability, making this the deadliest of CVW-16’s four Vietnam War deployments. Twelve CVW-16 A-4E Skyhawks were lost, 10 due to enemy action, with five pilots killed and two missing in action. VA-163 pilots earned three Navy Crosses during this period, including one to Lieutenant Commander Busey. He would later say he “went to war in Vietnam in VA-163 with the greatest group of naval aviators anyone would want to serve with. There were countless ‘above and beyond’ performances. Of our eight (pilot) losses, two are still unaccounted for. Air Wing 16 had a tough time of it in 1967.” He was promoted to commander in June 1968.

In April 1968, Commander Busey reported to VA-125 as operations officer. In December 1968, he assumed command of VA-216 “Black Diamonds,” embarked on attack carrier Coral Sea (CV-43), deploying again to Vietnam and flying 74 more combat missions. In September 1969, Commander Busey was assigned to the staff of Commander Task Force SEVEN SEVEN (CTF-77)/CARDIV 5 as strike plans officer, deployed in the Gulf of Tonkin aboard attack carriers Constellation (CVA-63) and America (CVA-66). In October 1970, he was assigned as training and readiness officer on the staff of Commander Fleet Air Lemoore, at NAS Lemoore, flying the new A-7A/B Corsair II. In April 1971, Busey assumed command of VA-125, the West Coast readiness and training squadron for the A-7 Corsair II at NAS Lemoore. In March 1972, he was assigned to the Systems Analysis Division of the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations (OP-96) as assistant head of Projection Forces Group. He was promoted to captain in July 1972.

In March 1974, Captain Busey was assigned as chief of staff and aide to the Commander, Cruiser-Destroyer Group ONE in San Diego. In September 1975, he assumed command of NAS Lemoore. As he would later say in the “no good deed goes unpunished” category, he was then assigned in October 1978 as the Auditor General of the Navy in the Office of the Undersecretary of the Navy. However, he was promoted to rear admiral on 1 June 1979.

In June 1980, Rear Admiral Busey was assigned to the headquarters of Naval Material Command (Deputy Chief for Resource Management) as comptroller. In October 1982, he returned to flying status as commander of Light Attack Wing Pacific at NAS Lemoore, flying the new F/A-18 Hornet.

On 22 July 1983, Busey was designated a vice admiral for duty in a billet commensurate with that rank and assumed command of Naval Air Systems Command. He was designated a materiel professional in 1985. In September 1985, he assumed duty as the 22nd VCNO. On 17 October 1985, he was designated an admiral (four star) for duty in a billet commensurate with that rank. In May 1987, Admiral Busey assumed duty as Commander in Chief, Allied Forces Southern Europe/Commander in Chief, U.S. Naval Forces Europe. He retired from active duty on 1 June 1989.

Admiral Busey’s awards include the Navy Cross; Defense Distinguished Service Medal (two awards); Distinguished Service Medal (two awards); Legion of Merit (five awards); Distinguished Flying Cross (three awards); Air Medal with one Silver Star and Numeral “7”; Navy Commendation Medal (three awards with Combat “V”); Navy Achievement Medal with Combat “V”; Navy Unit Commendation (two awards); Meritorious Unit Commendation; China Service Medal; National Defense Service Medal (two awards); Armed Forces Expeditionary Medal (Korea); Vietnam Service Medal (six campaign stars); Republic of Vietnam Meritorious Unit Citation (Gallantry Cross Color); Republic of Vietnam Meritorious Unit Citation (Civil Actions Color); and Republic of Vietnam Campaign Medal.

After retiring from active duty, Admiral Busey then served as the administrator for the Federal Aviation Administration. In December 1991, he became deputy director and then acting director of the U.S. Department of Transportation before leaving government service in June 1992. He subsequently served on the board of directors for multiple corporations and non-profits, including Texas Instruments, Curtiss-Wright, and MITRE, as well as the Flight Safety Foundation, National Aeronautic Foundation, and Naval Aviation Museum Foundation. He was also a Golden Eagle Emeritus.

Funeral services will be held at Arlington National Cemetery at a date to be determined.

During his stellar career, Admiral Busey went from E-1 to O-10, ending with two four-star tours―VCNO and Commander in Chief, U.S. Naval Forces Europe—both during momentous events as the Cold War with the Soviet Union culminated and then ended. Along the way, he served three tours in a hot war in Vietnam, the first being a particularly intense period of combat, resulting in significant U.S. Navy aircraft and pilot losses due to improved North Vietnamese air defenses that were allowed by political considerations to arrive in North Vietnam unimpeded from the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China. In spite of this, he displayed extraordinary valor and dedication to accomplishing his assigned missions as evidenced by a Navy Cross in which he pressed home an accurate attack despite damage to his aircraft, dodging four surface-to-air missiles on the egress, and bringing his crippled aircraft back on Oriskany’s deck. This was just one of many extraordinary feats of airmanship and courage on that tour, and there were many others in his 4,500 flight hours, 189 combat missions, and 407 traps on carriers. He also played a leading role in bringing new aircraft to operational capability, including the A-7 Corsair II and F/A-18 Hornet. His accomplishments at the senior level were numerous. In his own words, he said, “I had some great jobs as a flag officer―the most unusual was Auditor General of the Navy, the most interesting was Naval Air Systems Command, the most challenging was VCNO and the most fun NATO CINC South.” Our wardroom has lost yet another of our Vietnam War heroes, one who laid it on the line when duty called. He and his family made great sacrifices in the service of our country, for which we all should be profoundly grateful. We would also all do well to follow his frequently offered words of advice: “Press on, and remember to smell the roses along the way.”

Rest in Peace, Admiral Busey.