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In Memoriam: Admiral Bruce DeMars, USN (Ret.)

Feb. 12, 2024 | 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 Admiral Bruce DeMars on 3 February 2024 at age 88. Admiral DeMars entered the U.S. Naval Academy in June 1953 and served as a submarine warfare officer until his retirement in October 1996 as the third director of Naval Reactors/Naval Nuclear Propulsion. His commands included Cavalla (SSN-684), Submarine Development Squadron TWELVE, and Naval Base Guam/U.S. Naval Forces Marianas. Admiral DeMars’s career had a profound effect on bringing about the end of the Cold War and providing numerous submarine and power-plant technological advances—including improved Los Angeles–, Seawolf-, and Virginia-class submarines―while maintaining an extraordinary safety record. In addition, he was an avid practitioner of the use of history.

Bruce DeMars entered the U.S. Naval Academy on 29 June 1953, right as the Korean War was ending. His first midshipmen cruise was on the battleship Missouri (BB-63) as a powder-hoist operator in turret no. 2, and his second cruise was on the destroyer Turner (DD-834. Both cruises were to European waters. According to the Lucky Bag (the Naval Academy’s yearbook), he was noted for his “lively enthusiasm” and that his “favorite subjects lay in the limited liberal arts category offered by the academy including history and literature. ‘Red’s’ ability to take things in stride and his casual humor earned him a great many friends.” He graduated on 7 June 1957 with a bachelor of science in naval science, ranking approximately 150th in his class, and was commissioned an ensign.

In June 1957, Ensign DeMars reported to Naval Amphibious Base Coronado, California, for training. In September 1957, he was assigned to the attack transport Telfair (APA-210), based in San Diego, serving as first division officer. As Telfair was in the process of being decommissioned, three months later he was reassigned to attack transport Okanogan (APA-220), based in Long Beach and deploying to Korea in 1958 for amphibious exercises with embarked South Korean marines, during which he served as assistant combat information center officer. He applied and was selected for submarine service, reporting to the Naval Submarine School, New London, Connecticut, in May 1958. He was promoted to lieutenant (junior grade) in December 1958.

In January 1959, Lieutenant (j.g.) DeMars was assigned to the diesel-electric submarine Capitaine (SS-336) in San Diego, serving variously as supply officer, communications officer, gunnery officer, electrical material officer, and first lieutenant, while deploying to the Western Pacific. He applied for the Navy Nuclear Power Program and interviewed with then–Vice Admiral Hyman Rickover. He was thrown out of Rickover’s office twice (once with a four-month gap) before being selected for the program.

In March 1960, Lieutenant (j.g.) DeMars attended Naval Nuclear Power School, Mare Island, California, finishing in the middle of a 12-officer class. In September 1960, he continued training at the Atomic Energy Commission, Naval Reactor Operations Office, Schenectady, New York. In April 1961, DeMars flew to Holy Loch, Scotland, as part of the Blue Crew for George Washington (SSBN-598), the first U.S. Navy nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarine, which was completing its second Polaris missile deterrent patrol. He completed three deterrent patrols on George Washington, which due to the range of the Polaris required operations in the northern Norwegian Sea. He was promoted to lieutenant in April 1961 and served variously as main propulsion assistant, damage control assistant, machinery division officer, and diving officer, qualifying for submarine command.

In September 1962, Lieutenant DeMars again reported to Naval Nuclear Power School, Mare Island, this time as an instructor for both officer and enlisted courses. In October 1964, DeMars reported to San Diego–based Skipjack-class nuclear fast attack submarine Snook (SSN-592), then under the command of Commander (and future Chief of Naval Operations [CNO]) James Watkins. Lieutenant DeMars served as main propulsion assistant, reactor control officer, weapons officer, operations officer, and navigator on two deployments to the Western Pacific, including operations in the vicinity of Vietnam and North Korea, for which Snook was awarded a Navy Unit Commendation. He was promoted to lieutenant commander in March 1966.

In December 1966, Lieutenant Commander DeMars reported to the Armed Forces Staff College in Norfolk, Virginia, as a student. In June 1967 he assumed duty as executive officer for recently commissioned (March 1967) nuclear fast attack submarine Sturgeon (SSN-637), the lead boat of her class, assigned to Submarine Development Group TWO (SUBDEVGRU 2—later Submarine

Development Squadron TWELVE) at Groton, Connecticut. Sturgeon made two special operations deployments to the Barents Sea, earning two Meritorious Unit Commendations, while Lieutenant Commander DeMars earned a Navy Achievement Medal and then a Navy Commendation Medal during this tour. Sturgeon also participated in the search for lost submarine Scorpion (SSN-589) in May 1968 and visited the U.S. Naval Academy in March 1969.

In July 1969, Lieutenant Commander DeMars reported to Naval Submarine School Groton as director of the Executive Officer and Division Officer Training Department. He was promoted to commander in July 1970. In June 1971, he commenced Pre-Commissioning Commanding Officer (PCO) training at the Atomic Energy Commission, Director of Naval Reactors, followed by additional training with the staff of Commander, Submarine Force U.S. Atlantic Fleet, in Norfolk.

In December 1971, Commander DeMars assumed duty as PCO of Sturgeon-class fast attack submarine Cavalla (SSN-684) finishing construction at Groton. He assumed command of Cavalla upon commissioning on 9 February 1973, under Submarine Squadron TEN (SUBRON 10) at Groton, deploying to the Barents Sea and earning a Meritorious Unit Commendation. In January 1975, he reported to the staff of SUBRON 10 as deputy commander for training. Shortly thereafter, in July 1975 he was reassigned to Commander in Chief, U.S. Atlantic Fleet, as senior member of the Nuclear Propulsion Examining Board, a position he held for three years. He was promoted to captain on 1 July 1976.

In June 1978, Captain DeMars assumed command of Submarine Development Squadron TWELVE at Groton (redesignated from SUBDEVGRU 2 in May 1977), leading the development of tactics and testing them in real-world operations against the Soviet Navy. In May 1979, he was short-toured in command and assigned to the Office of the CNO as deputy director, Attack Submarine Division (OP-22B.)

In August 1981, Captain DeMars was designated a rear admiral for duty in a billet commensurate with that rank and assigned as the Commander, Naval Base Guam, with additional duty as Commander, Naval Forces Marianas, and Commander in Chief, U.S. Pacific Command, Representative to Guam and the Trust Territory of Pacific Islands. This was his first (and only) tour outside the submarine community since becoming a submarine officer. He was promoted to rear admiral on 1 October 1982.

In July 1983, Rear Admiral DeMars returned to the Pentagon and the Office of the CNO as assistant deputy CNO, Submarine Warfare (OP-02B.) In November 1985, he became the assistant chief of naval operations for undersea warfare (OP-02) and was promoted to vice admiral the next month. At the time, OP-02 was one of the three “Barons” (Air, Surface, and Sub-Surface) with far more power to control budgets within their own respective communities, which had advantages in efficiency and disadvantages in interoperability.

In October 1988, Vice Admiral DeMars was designated an admiral (four stars) for service in a billet commensurate with that rank, relieving Admiral Kinnaird McKee as only the third director of Naval Reactors/director of Naval Nuclear Propulsion following the long tenure of Admiral Hyman Rickover (1949–1982), and at that point limited by statute to an eight-year term. He was promoted to full admiral on 1 November 1988. In this position, he had responsibility for all aspects of naval nuclear propulsion, which at the time included 176 reactor plants (more than all commercial nuclear power plants in the United States) on more than 150 ships and submarines, eight land-based research and training reactors, eight nuclear-qualified shipyards, two Department of Energy laboratories, and an extensive commercial supplier base. With the sudden end of the Cold War following the collapse of the Soviet Union and political desire for a “peace dividend,” he was then required to direct the nuclear enterprise to a post–Cold War footing, involving the disposal of some 50 nuclear-powered ships and submarines, and inactivation of two naval nuclear shipyards and seven land-based reactor sites. Despite this, he guided the Seawolf Submarine Development Program (truncated at three units, mostly due to cost and lack of political support) and initiated the development of the propulsion plant for the following generation of submarines (the Virginia class.)

Admiral DeMars retired from active duty on 1 October 1996, whereupon both houses of the U.S. Congress passed resolutions honoring his 44 years of service.

Admiral DeMars’s awards include the Navy Distinguished Service Medal (two awards); Legion of Merit (four awards); Meritorious Service Medal (two awards); Navy Commendation Medal (two awards); Navy Achievement Medal; Navy Unit Commendation; Meritorious Unit Commendation (three awards); Battle Efficiency Ribbon; Navy Expeditionary Medal; National Defense Service Medal (three awards); Vietnam Service Medal (two campaign stars); and the Navy Overseas Service Ribbon.

Following retirement from active duty, Admiral DeMars worked as a partner in RSD LLC and served on the boards of Exelon Corporation, McDermott International, Inc., and OceanWorks International. Inc. He was a member of the corporation of the Draper Laboratory and served as an advisor to industry and government. He also was a supporter of the Central Union Mission in Washington, DC, and funded the book Making Faces, designed to aid families with children born with cleft palates. He served as chairman of the Naval Submarine League and chairman of the U.S. Naval Academy Class of ’57 Washington, DC, Chapter, as co-chair of the Class of ’57 Legacy Gift Campaign, and was a member of the Naval Academy’s Distinguished Graduate Award Selection Committee, the Naval Academy’s Stadium Committee, the Buchanan Society, and the President’s Circle. He was also awarded the 2011 Ellis Island Medal of Honor and was a member of the Military Order of the Carabao.

Admiral DeMars was named a U.S. Naval Academy Distinguished Graduate in 2009 and served as the chairman of the Naval Historical Foundation from 2008 to 2015. He was a dedicated proponent of teaching naval history, leading his Class of ‘57 in endowing a new Distinguished Chair in Naval Heritage at the Naval Academy and providing major financial support to the U.S. Naval Academy Museum. As chairman of the Naval Historical Foundation, he raised funds in support of the National Museum of the U.S. Navy and for the Cold War Gallery on the Washington Navy Yard, leading by example in donating over $100,000 of his own money. In 2012, the National Maritime History Society honored him with their Distinguished Service Award.

“I respectfully decline to carry out your order” would not typically be the path to four-star rank, but that is what then–Vice Admiral DeMars did when he resigned as president of the FY88 Active Duty Line Captain Selection Board, after Secretary of the Navy John Lehman ordered him to reconvene the board when submarine officers did slightly disproportionately well on the board. DeMars had determined the order to be illegal. (In the end, the board was not reconvened.) In fact, in some ways, DeMars’ path to flag was not typical; no post-graduate school, no aide/executive assistant job, no tours outside the submarine community, inauspicious first tour on troop transports, middle of the road at nuke power school, and two attempts to get past Admiral Rickover into the program. The dust-up with Secretary Lehman wasn’t even the first time he confronted higher authority: As assistant director of Attack Submarines in OPNAV (OP-22B) he persisted against CNO Hayward’s direction that the improved Los Angeles (SSN- 688I) was “not the right answer” (turned out it was) and was sent to Guam (actually a great flag tour) but came back as a “Baron.”

Admiral DeMars was one of the most profoundly influential and effective leaders in the submarine community since World War II. He was described as a “leader in the Cold War battle for undersea supremacy,” who was greatly “instrumental in advancing submarine technology by establishing fully integrated series of design and technology advances—improvements manifested in the Los Angeles and Seawolf classes and instrumental in Virginia-class design, development and delivery which ushered in major stealth and sensor advances far exceeding the technology of all other submarines in the world.” He served in ballistic missile and attack submarines during the height of the Cold War with the Soviet Union, when the only difference between peace and war in the undersea environment was pulling the trigger. It was a time of potentially dangerous “close encounters” between our attack submarines and Soviet submarines, which the Soviets knew was happening through their spy network but could almost never tactically counter or even counter-detect with their submarines. Admiral DeMars also served in multiple instructor and tactical development assignments to pass on critical knowledge. Although nothing strikes fear in the hearts of commanding officers like a Nuclear Propulsion Examining Board, which then-Captain DeMars led for three years, the exacting no-margin-for-error standards are a significant reason why the United States has lost no submarines since 1968 (and the Soviets/Russians have lost about 10). I would be remiss in not noting that, despite the technical emphasis of his profession, he was also a profound believer in the importance of the study of history. He certainly made history in winning the Cold War and the possibly even more difficult (and arguably premature) “peace dividend” downsizing afterward. His legacy permeates the submarine force today and almost certainly extends far into the future. And as with any flag officer, it would not have been possible without the willingness of his family to endure the necessary sacrifice, for which our nation should be grateful.

Rest in Peace, Admiral DeMars.