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In Memoriam: Vice Admiral Joseph S. Mobley, USN (Ret).

June 25, 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 Vice Admiral Joseph Scott Mobley on 15 June 2024 at age 82. Vice Admiral Mobley entered the U.S. Naval Academy in June 1962 and served as a naval flight officer (NFO) until his retirement in June 2001 as Commander, Naval Air Force, U.S. Atlantic Fleet. His commands included Attack Squadron SEVEN FIVE (VA-75), USS Kalamazoo (AOR-6), USS Saratoga (CV-60), Carrier Group TWO, and Naval Safety Center. He was awarded the Legion of Merit with Combat “V,” Distinguished Flying Cross, Bronze Star with Combat “V” (two awards), Purple Heart (two awards), and three Navy Commendation Medals with Combat “V” for service in the Vietnam War, including as a prisoner of war (POW) from June 1968 to March 1973. He commanded Saratoga during Operation Desert Storm. Vice Admiral Mobley was the last Vietnam War POW on active duty when he retired.

Joe Mobley entered the U.S. Naval Academy (USNA) on 27 June 1962. The academy’s Lucky Bag (yearbook) described him as “a carefree spirit” who “left his surfboard behind and came to the Academy to better himself.” He was “a standout cross country runner and volleyball player” who had “good grades, despite continuing hassles with the English, History and Government Department.” Mobley graduated on 8 June 1966 with a bachelor of science degree in naval science and was commissioned an ensign the same day. The USNA Class of ’66 would have the sad distinction of suffering the most killed in action of any class since World War II.

In June 1966, Ensign Mobley reported to Naval Aviation Basic Training Course at Naval Air Station (NAS) Pensacola, Florida, for initial training as an NFO. In February 1967, he reported to Naval Aviation Technical Training Center at NAS Glynco, Georgia, for additional training. He was designated a naval flight officer on 30 March 1967. In April 1967, he reported to Reconnaissance Attack Squadron THREE (RVAH-3) at NAS Sanford, Florida, for training in the RA-5C Vigilante reconnaissance jet. He was promoted to lieutenant (junior grade) on 8 December 1967.

Due to wartime requirements, in December 1967, Lieutenant (j.g.) Mobley was transferred to Attack Squadron THREE FIVE (VA-35) “Black Panthers” at NAS Oceana in Virginia Beach as a bombardier/navigator (B/N) in the A-6A Intruder all-weather medium attack jet. VA-35 embarked on nuclear attack carrier Enterprise (CVA[N]-65), deploying for the Vietnam War Zone in January 1968. While transiting, Enterprise was diverted to the Sea of Japan in reaction to the North Korean seizure of the intelligence collection ship Pueblo (AGER-2) before arriving on Yankee Station in the Gulf of Tonkin in March 1968 and immediately conducting strike operations in reaction to the Communist Tet Offensive. Mobley would be awarded a Distinguished Flying Cross for actions during these strikes. On 12 March, the VA-35 commanding officer and his B/N were killed in an operational accident.

On 24 June 1968, just before Enterprise was scheduled to depart the theater of operations, Mobley was shot down over North Vietnam while conducting a DST-36 minelaying mission on the Song Ca River, near Vinh Airfield. There were two active surface-to-air sites and more than a dozen anti-aircraft artillery sites in the vicinity of the target. Flown by Lieutenant Nicholas Mallory “Nick” Carpenter, Mobley’s A-6 was on a low-level run-in at 250 feet and 420 knots, under heavy fire, when an enemy round burst inside the cockpit, critically wounding Carpenter and causing the jet to roll out of control and crash in a fireball. Mobley was able to eject despite an out-of-envelope attitude, but Carpenter was not and died in the crash (Carpenter’s body would be returned to the United States in 1989). Mobley suffered a broken leg in the ejection.

Mobley was immediately captured by the North Vietnamese. As recounted on one Vietnam War history website (, he was “tied standing to a pillar, beaten, interrogated and displayed for public humiliation and forced to dodge bricks and bamboo sticks for eight or nine hours. He was then put into a cell and after waiting many long agonizing hours for medical attention for his broken leg, he set the bone himself. His captors later applied a splint. He endured months of solitary confinement and intermittent torture and interrogation sessions.” Mobley was promoted to lieutenant on 1 July 1969 while in POW status. 

Lieutenant Mobley was released on 4 March 1974 after 1,724 days of North Vietnamese captivity for Operation Homecoming, the return of all surviving American POWs following the signing of the Paris Peace Accords. He was awarded the Legion of Merit with Combat “V” and two Bronze Stars with Combat “V,” along with two Purple Hearts for his time in captivity. (The individual Bronze Stars were awarded for periods of particularly egregious torture sessions.) Upon return to the United States, Mobley was admitted as a patient to Naval Hospital San Diego. In September 1973, Lieutenant Mobley reported to the Naval Postgraduate School, Monterey, California. He graduated in April 1975 with a master of science degree in computer systems management. He then reported to Attack Squadron ONE TWO EIGHT (VA-128) “Golden Intruders” at NAS Whidbey Island, Washington, for refresher training in the A-6. He was promoted to lieutenant commander on 1 June 1975.

In February 1976, Lieutenant Commander Mobley reported to Attack Squadron FIVE TWO (VA-52) “Knightriders” at NAS Whidbey Island, flying in the A-6E Intruder and deploying to the Western Pacific on carrier Kitty Hawk (CV-63) from October 1977 to May 1978. Upon return from deployment, he was assigned to Commander, Medium Attack and Airborne Early Warning Wing Pacific (COMMATVAWWINGPAC) as staff aviation readiness bombardier/navigator training officer. In July 1979, he was assigned to Commander, Medium Attack Wing ONE (COMMATWING 1) as readiness department assistant.

In January 1980, Lieutenant Commander Mobley was assigned as executive officer for Attack Squadron SEVEN FIVE (VA-75) “Sunday Punchers” right after its commanding officer, Commander A. J. Lynch, and his B/N were killed in a flight deck crash on carrier Saratoga. Equipped with the upgraded A-6E TRAM aircraft, VA-75 deployed to the Mediterranean on Saratoga from March 1980 to August 1980. In January 1981, Mobley assumed command of VA-75 and was promoted to commander in April 1981. In January 1982, VA-75 embarked on carrier John F. Kennedy (CV-67) and deployed to the Mediterranean and Indian Ocean. Commander Mobley detached during the carrier’s only Indian Ocean port call, at Perth/Fremantle, Australia, in March 1982. During his time in command, VA-75 won the Intruder Bombing Derby as well as the prestigious Hughes Trophy for operations and maintenance excellence.

In March 1982, Commander Mobley reported to Naval Amphibious School, Little Creek, Virginia, for duty under instruction. In May, he then reported to carrier America (CV-66) as navigator, deploying from December 1982 to June 1983 to the Mediterranean and Indian Ocean, to include port visits to Sri Lanka (Columbo), Oman (Masirah), and Kenya (Mombasa), followed by contingency operations in support of the Multi-National Force in Lebanon.

In June 1984, Commander Mobley reported to the staff of Commander in Chief, U.S. Atlantic Command/Commander in Chief, U.S. Atlantic Fleet (USCINCLANT/CINCLANTFLT) as deputy assistant chief of staff for program planning. In March 1986, he reported to Surface Warfare Officers School Command, Newport, Rhode Island, for duty under instruction. In May 1986, he then assumed duty as executive officer of America, deploying to the Mediterranean from March to September 1986 and arriving just at the conclusion of America’s participation in Libya combat operations (Operations Attain Document I/II and III, and El Dorado Canyon). He was promoted to captain on 1 July 1987. In November 1987, he reported to the Senior Officers Surface Material Readiness Course in Newport. He was designated a joint specialty officer in 1988 (his time as a POW actually counted as “joint duty”).

In April 1988, Captain Mobley assumed command of replenishment oiler Kalamazoo (AOR-6). In December 1988, Kalamazoo made an “unexpected” deployment to the Mediterranean after Detroit (AOE-4) was unable to meet the commitment. Kalamazoo returned in June 1989 after completing in excess of 300 alongside replenishment evolutions without injury or material failure. It was the only ship in Combat Logistics Squadron FOUR to exceed both first and second term type commander reenlistment goals. Kalamazoo also finished fourth in the Navy-wide Ney Competition, passed a short-notice out-chop operational propulsion plant examination, and qualified for six out of seven mission area excellence awards.

In January 1990, Captain Mobley assumed command of carrier Saratoga, commencing a short-notice deployment on 7 August 1990 in reaction to the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. In the next months, Saratoga would make a record six transits of the Suez Canal, alternating with John F. Kennedy for Desert Shield operations in the Red Sea that included the first SEAL team boardings in support of United Nations sanctions against Iraq. This period included a tragic Israeli ferry boat accident in Haifa, Israel, just before Christmas. The ferry capsized in rough seas and cost the lives of 21 Saratoga crew members. Upon commencement of Desert Storm hostilities in January 1991, Saratoga’s air wing flew hundreds of strike missions from the Red Sea into western Iraq, with the loss of one F/A-18 Hornet on the first night (Lieutenant Commander Scott Speicher) and then an A-6 (both aviators were captured and subsequently returned). The Iraqis fired one SCUD surface-to-surface ballistic missile in the direction of Saratoga but missed by 100 miles. The carrier conducted 11,000 launch/recovery cycles in Desert Shield/Desert Storm before returning to the United States in March 1991.

In May 1991, Captain Mobley was assigned as chief of staff for Commander, Sixth Fleet, embarked on flagship Belknap (CG-26) and homeported at Gaeta, Italy. In August 1992, he was assigned to the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) in Washington, DC, as executive assistant to the Deputy CNO for Resources, Warfare Requirements and Assessment (N8). In November 1993, he became director of Aviation Manpower and Training Branch (N889) in the office of the CNO. He was promoted to rear admiral (lower half) on 1 May 1994.

In September 1994, Rear Admiral Mobley assumed command of Carrier Group TWO (COMCARGRU 2). However, the flagship (John F. Kennedy) was taken out of active service (temporarily as it later turned out), so he was assigned additional duty as commander of Naval Safety Center. He would also serve as commander of NATO Exercise BALTOPS ’95, an 11-nation, 37-ship exercise in the Baltic Sea. Moreover, he variously served as deputy joint force air component commander and deputy joint force commander for multiple U.S. Atlantic Command–directed major joint exercises, including the Northern Viking defense of Iceland exercise. As commander of Naval Safety Center, Mobley would be given credit for a 37 percent reduction in Navy motor vehicle fatalities and an 11 percent overall reduction in Navy fatalities.

In November 1995, Rear Admiral Mobley returned to the Pentagon as director of the Navy Staff (the ultimate cat-herding job, which would later be upgraded to a three-star position). He was designated a rear admiral (two-star) for duty in a billet commensurate with that rank on 5 September 1996.

In September 1996, Rear Admiral Mobley reported to the U.S. Pacific Command, Camp Smith, Hawaii, as director for operations (J-3) responsible for operations in the U.S. military’s largest theater, including reactions to multiple contingencies, as well as significant enhancement of the counternarcotics effort in the Pacific. He was awarded a Defense Distinguished Service Medal.
On 7 October 1998, Mobley was designated a vice admiral for duty in a billet commensurate with that rank, and the next month assumed duty as Commander, Naval Air Forces, U.S. Atlantic Fleet (AIRLANT), the type command for U.S. naval aviation units operating primarily in the Atlantic. He was promoted to vice admiral on 1 January 1999. He would be the last three-star to hold this position due to a reorganization of type commands into a lead-follow construct, with Naval Air Forces Pacific remaining a three-star while Commander, Naval Air Forces, and AIRLANT was reduced to a two- star billet. Vice Admiral Mobley retired on 1 June 2001 as the last Vietnam War POW still on active duty.

Vice Admiral Mobley’s awards include the Defense Distinguished Service Medal; Distinguished Service Medal; Legion of Merit (six awards, one with Combat “V”); Distinguished Flying Cross; Bronze Star (two awards, both with Combat “V”); Purple Heart (two awards); Defense Meritorious Service Medal; Meritorious Service Medal (two awards); Air Medal (four individual and seven strike/flight); Navy Commendation Medal (three awards with Combat “V”); Combat Action Ribbon (two awards); Navy Unit Commendation (two awards); Meritorious Unit Commendation (two awards); Prisoner of War Medal; Navy Expeditionary Medal (two awards); National Defense Service Medal (two awards); Armed Forces Expeditionary Medal; Vietnam Service Medal (three campaign stars); Southwest Asia Service Medal (two campaign stars); Sea Service Deployment Ribbon (six awards); Republic of Vietnam Unit Citation (Gallantry Cross); Republic of Vietnam Campaign Medal; Kuwait Liberation Medal (Saudi Arabia); and Kuwait Liberation Medal (Kuwait).

Vice Admiral Mobley’s career is one that puts everything else in perspective, beginning with graduating with the Naval Academy class that paid the highest price of any class in any war since World War II. He entered into an occupation that was dangerous even in peacetime, and as a naval flight officer, depending on the skill of the pilot for his safety. His career is a lesson for junior officers who serve today and in the future—that their moment of truth may come much sooner than expected. Lieutenant (j.g.) Mobley’s moment came on 24 June 1968, when he was shot down, wounded, and thrown into the sheer hell of North Vietnamese captivity and torture, yet expected to remain loyal to his fellow prisoners and uphold the Code of Conduct. And that he did. Yet, even after that, he chose to remain in the cockpit and continue to serve our nation in repeated deployments around the globe. The rest of his career was nothing short of spectacular, demonstrating extraordinary leadership and achieving success everywhere he went, even while being described as a “nice guy,” a “great leader and great person in every way.” His command of Saratoga in Operation Desert Storm was extraordinary, while dealing with the loss of so many of his crew in the ferryboat accident at Haifa. His career undoubtedly placed even greater sacrifice on the part of his family than is typical for a flag officer. Reminiscences and accolades have been flowing in, but rather than trying to summarize his career, I will let Lieutenant Mobley’s Legion of Merit citation speak for itself:

For exceptionally meritorious conduct in the performance of outstanding service while interned as a Prisoner of War in North Vietnam from June 1968 to March 1973. Under the most adverse of conditions, he resisted all attempts by the North Vietnamese to use him in a cause detrimental to the United States, never wavering in his devotion and loyalty to the United States and his fellow prisoners. Despite the adversities of confinement, he performed such duties as assigned by superiors and required of the Code of Conduct in an exemplary and highly professional manner. Displaying extraordinary courage, resourcefulness and dedication throughout this period of imprisonment, he reflected great credit upon himself and upheld the highest traditions of the Naval Service and the United States Armed Forces. (Lieutenant Mobley is authorized to wear the Combat “V.”) 

At his request, no funeral services are planned.

Rest in Peace, Admiral Mobley.