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In Memoriam: Admiral Joseph F. Frick, USN

March 8, 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 Rear Admiral Joseph Francis Frick, U.S. Navy (Ret.), on 6 February 2024 at age 93. Rear Admiral Frick entered the U.S. Naval Academy in July 1949 and served as a naval aviator until his retirement in September 1983 as Commander, Naval Base Norfolk. His commands included Attack Squadron THREE FIVE (VA-35) “Black Panthers,” Attack Carrier Air Wing FOURTEEN (CVAW-14), USS San Jose (AFS-7), and USS Coral Sea (CV-43). He was awarded a Silver Star, Legion of Merit with Combat “V,” four Distinguished Flying Cross medals, and other combat awards during the Vietnam War, most of them in the last months of the conflict as commander of CVAW-14. 

Joseph Frick attended Union College in Schenectady, New York, before entering the U.S. Naval Academy on 13 July 1949. He graduated with a bachelor of science degree in naval science and was commissioned an ensign on 5 June 1953, just as the Korean War was ending. He then reported to the Allen M. Sumner–class destroyer USS Lowry (DD-770) as the ship was preparing for her second around-the-world deployment. He detached just before that deployment, reporting instead to the Naval Aviation Basic Training Course at Naval Air Station Pensacola, Florida, in January 1954. 

In October 1954, Ensign Frick continued flight training NAS Corpus Christi, Texas. He was promoted to lieutenant (junior grade) in December 1954 and the next month continued flight training at Naval Auxiliary Air Station Cabiness Field, Corpus Christi. He was designated a naval aviator—heavier-than-air (HTA) on 8 April 1955. 

In April 1955, Lieutenant (j.g.) Frick reported to Attack Squadron EIGHT-FIVE (VA-85) “Black Falcons” at NAS Oceana, Virginia, flying the AD-1 Skyraider. A few months later in June 1955, he transferred to newly established Attack Squadron ONE SIX (VA-16), a short-lived squadron flying the AD-6 Skyraider with a mission of nuclear weapon delivery in addition to conventional all-weather bombing. VA-16 deployed to the Mediterranean embarked on attack carrier USS Lake Champlain (CVA-39), including operations in the eastern Mediterranean in April 1957 in reaction to a crisis in Jordan. Frick was promoted to lieutenant in July 1957. VA-16 later conducted in-flight refueling tests, operating from attack-carrier USS Ranger (CV-61) before the squadron was disestablished in February 1958. 

In February 1958, Lieutenant Frick reported Fleet Airborne Electronics Training Unit Atlantic (FAETULANT) as an instructor. In May 1959, he was assigned to Basic Training Group SEVEN (BTG-7) at NAS Memphis, Tennessee, as an instructor. In May 1960, he was stashed at NAS Memphis before reporting in June 1960 to Naval Postgraduate School, Monterey, California. He graduated in June 1962 with a bachelor of science degree in electrical engineering (this may be a misprint in service transcript as a master of science would make more sense). 

In June 1962, Lieutenant Frick reported to Attack Squadron FOUR TWO (VA-42) “Green Pawns” at NAS Oceana for refresher training in the AD-6 Skyraider. In November 1962, he was assigned to Attack Squadron EIGHT FIVE (VA-85) “Black Falcons,” rotating through the administrative, operations, and maintenance officer positions, flying the AD-6. He was promoted to lieutenant commander in March 1963.  

In March 1964, Lieutenant Commander Frick transferred to VA-35 at NAS Jacksonville, Florida, serving as a conventional and nuclear weapons delivery pilot, flying the AD-5 Skyraider. On 4 February 1965, the commanding officer of VA-35 was killed in a crash and Frick assumed duty as acting commanding officer until July 1965, during a Mediterranean deployment on USS Saratoga (CV-60). 

In July 1965, Lieutenant Commander Frick reported to the U.S. Naval Academy for duty as a chemistry instructor and military chairman of the chemistry committee, concurrently earning a master of science degree in personnel administration. In June 1967, he returned to VA-42 from transition training to the new A-6A Intruder medium all-weather bomber. He was promoted to commander in July 1967. 

In March 1968, Commander Frick assumed duty as executive officer of VA-35, flying the A-6A/B, while the squadron was embarked on nuclear attack carrier USS Enterprise (CVA[N]-65). Enterprise had just concluded operations in the Sea of Japan in reaction to the North Korean seizure of the intelligence collection ship USS Pueblo (AGER-2) and conducted strike operations against North Vietnam from Yankee Station in the Gulf of Tonkin until the end of the deployment in July 1968. Commander Frick assumed command of VA-35 in May 1969 as VA-35 cross-decked to attack carrier Coral Sea, deploying again to Yankee Station in September 1969. Commander Frick was awarded his first Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC) for leading a 23-plane coordinated strike on Communist targets on 3 May 1970. Coral Sea and VA-35 returned from deployment in July 1970. 

In June 1970, Commander Frick assumed duty as operations officer on attack carrier USS Ranger (CVA-61), deploying again to Yankee Station from October 1970 to June 1971 and primarily engaged in interdiction of North Vietnamese supply lines through Laos. 

In December 1971, Commander Frick assumed command of CVAW-14, embarking on Enterprise for another Vietnam War deployment from September 1972 to July 1973, which coincided with Operation Linebacker II, the last major bombing campaign of the Vietnam War, in December 1972. The campaign finally compelled the North Vietnamese to negotiate a “peace accord” (albeit not in good faith). During this period, Frick was awarded a Silver Star for a successful single-plane nighttime low-level strike against the Bac Giang Thermal Power Plant in a heavily defended area of North Vietnam on 21 October 1972. He received his second DFC for leading a major airstrike on Bai Thuang airfield and a third for another single-plane night strike on the Hanoi Thermal Power Plant on 27 December 1972. He was awarded a fourth DFC for leading a major Alpha strike (strike by entire air wing) on Radio Communications Station No. 3 and two surface-to-air missile sites on 28 December 1972 in support of U.S. Air Force B-52 strikes on targets around Hanoi. All of Commander Frick’s DFC strikes were in the face of extremely intense North Vietnamese opposition. He would be awarded a Legion of Merit with Combat “V” for leading his air wing in combat from September 1972 to April 1973. Frick was promoted to captain in July 1973. 

In July 1973, Captain Frick assumed command of combat stores ship San Jose, homeported in Oakland, California and operating along the U.S. West Coast. In July 1975, Frick assumed command of carrier Coral Sea, deploying to the Western Pacific in February 1977. 

 In March 1977, Captain Frick was designated a rear admiral for duty in a billet commensurate with that rank. The same month, Frick reported to Commander Naval Air Forces Pacific (COMNAVAIRPAC) at NAS North Island as force readiness officer and then chief of staff. In June 1978, he was assigned to Commander in Chief, South (NATO hat of Commander in Chief, U.S. Naval Forces Europe) in Naples, Italy, as deputy chief of staff for logistics. He was promoted to rear admiral on 1 July 1979. In November 1980, he assumed command of Naval Base Norfolk, Virginia, where he was awarded his second Legion of Merit. Rear Admiral Frick retired on 1 September 1983. 

Rear Admiral Frick’s awards include the Silver Star; Legion of Merit (two awards, one with Combat “V”); Distinguished Flying Cross (four awards); Bronze Star Medal (three awards); Air Medal (three individual and 25 strike/flight); Navy Commendation Medal with Combat “V”; Navy Unit Commendation (two awards); Meritorious Unit Commendation (two awards); Battle Efficiency Ribbon; National Defense Service Medal (two awards); Armed Forces Expeditionary Medal (Korea); Sea Service Deployment Ribbon; Vietnam Service Medal (seven campaign stars); Republic of Vietnam Gallantry Cross (multiple); Republic of Vietnam Gallantry Cross Unit Citation (multiple); and the Republic of Vietnam Campaign Medal. Additionally, his official photo shows two ribbons I can’t identify, presumably for foreign awards. 

During the Vietnam War, more than 60 U.S. Navy air wing commanders and squadron commanding officers/executive officers were lost. By 1972, then-Commander Frick would have been well aware of this fact, as well as the fact that the United States was trying to get out of the war rather than pursuing victory. Despite this, he never shirked his duty to lead his squadron and air wing to accomplish their assigned missions, which in the case of Linebacker II contributed to suppressing North Vietnamese air defenses that were taking a heavy toll on the B-52 missions, thus saving many other U.S. lives at the risk of their own. In keeping with the naval aviation ethos, Commander Frick led from the front, and in several cases alone with only his bombardier/navigator, against critical targets in the teeth of the highly lethal North Vietnamese of the late-war period, racking up a lifetime’s worth of medals for valor in a few short months. Even during “peacetime,” the operational loss rates in naval aviation were far higher than now, and he got his first squadron command (acting) when the CO was killed in a “mishap.” To be blunt, using AD-5 Skyraiders as a nuclear strike bomber had to be one of the more arcane ideas of the Cold War, yet Frick was clearly prepared to fly such missions if so ordered. Throughout his career, he exhibited extraordinary leadership and dedication, especially as a commander/captain in back-to-back-to-back sea tours and deployments, which required great sacrifice by him and his family. Like all our dwindling number of Vietnam War heroes, Rear Admiral Frick more than earned the respect and gratitude of our Navy and nation, to which he is due. He set an extraordinary example of duty above self.  

Rest in Peace, Admiral Frick.