Moorer, Thomas Hinman

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Moorer, Thomas Hinman

(b. 9 February 1912 in Mount Willing, Alabama; d. 5 February 2004 in Bethesda, Maryland), naval officer whose cold war career in several major commands culminated as chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Both of Moorer’s grandfathers served in the Confederate army, a heritage cultivated by his mother, Hulda Hill (Hinson) Moorer, a teacher active in the United Daughters of the Confederacy. His father, Richard Randolph Moorer, a dentist and sometime state legislator, named his eldest son after Thomas Hinman, Richard’s dean at Atlanta’s Southern Dental College. In addition to an older sister, Moorer had two younger brothers.

Moorer completed high school at age fifteen as class valedictorian at Cloverdale High School in Montgomery, Alabama, northeast of his rural hometown. Two years later his father’s political contacts led to an appointment at the United States Naval Academy. His brother Joseph P. Moorer also attended the U.S. Naval Academy, graduating in the class of 1945; he became a navy fighter pilot and rose to the rank of vice admiral as commander of U.S. naval forces in Europe in the 1970s.

Mechanical skills and prowess in varsity football insured Moorer’s graduation in the upper half of his class of 1933 and commissioning as ensign, unlike the class’s lower half, which was discharged due to Depression-era cutbacks. Following brief duty aboard the light cruiser USS Salt Lake City, he moved to the new heavy cruiser USS New Orleans in the Atlantic Ocean, then to flight training at Pensacola, Florida, in 1935. There he married Carrie Ellen Foy in November 1935, receiving his “golden wings” in July 1936. The couple had three sons and a daughter.

Moorer flew fighter planes, first on the aircraft carrier USS Langley, then the USS Lexington, and from 1937 to 1939 the USS Enterprise. He remained in the Pacific flying patrol bombers (PBYs) based at Pearl Harbor and on 7 December 1941 took one of the first planes aloft during the Japanese attack. His Patrol Squadron 22 transferred to Darwin, Australia, to help defend the Dutch East Indies. On 17 February 1942 Japanese fighters shot down Moorer’s plane, wounding him in the thigh. He nevertheless landed the stricken amphibian in the water and got his seven-man crew into a life raft, from which they were immediately picked up by a passing Philippine freighter. Then it too succumbed to enemy bombs, so Moorer and five of his crew joined the Filipinos in a lifeboat, which he navigated to a nearby island. They were rescued the next day after another plane spotted the large SOS Moorer had fashioned in the sand. Following these events Moorer received a Silver Star and Purple Heart.

Lieutenant Moorer served briefly with Patrol Squadron 101 as the shattered Allied forces withdrew from Indonesian waters. In August 1942 he began seven months with the British navy in the Atlantic, observing its aerial mining practices against the Germans. Promoted to lieutenant commander, he commanded Bombing Squadron 132 based at Key West, Florida, attacking U-boats in the central Atlantic for one year. Moorer spent the remainder of the war as tactical officer to the Atlantic Fleet’s air commander Admiral Patrick N. L. Bellinger. In the full rank of commander he served several postwar months interrogating former Japanese naval leaders as part of the U.S. Strategic Bombing Survey.

During the early cold war period Moorer shifted between seagoing and technological assignments. He was executive officer at the Naval Aviation Ordnance Test Center at Chincoteague, Virginia, 1946–1948, then operations officer of the carrier USS Midway in the Mediterranean Sea and Atlantic. He remained on that flagship during 1949–1950 as operations officer to Rear Admiral J. J. “Jocko” Clark, who allowed him to control virtually all Task Force 87 movements, including two deployments to the Mediterranean. Promoted to captain, Moorer was senior naval officer at Naval Ordnance Test Station, Inyo-kern, California, until July 1952.

After attending the Naval War College, at which he sharpened his knowledge of strategy and planning, Moorer rose rapidly to major assignments. Following duty on the Atlantic Fleet air forces staff, in 1955–1956 he was aide to the assistant navy secretary for air, James H. Smith, followed by command of the seaplane tender USS Salisbury Sound. Promoted to rear admiral in 1957, he was at forty-five the youngest officer yet to attain that rank.

Moorer’s considerable intellectual skills were shown in successive one-year tours of duty as special assistant in the navy’s Strategic Plans Division, then as assistant chief of naval operations (CNO) for war gaming. During 1959–1960 he commanded Carrier Division Six in the Atlantic, then for two years he directed the navy’s Long-Range Objectives Group. Overall he contributed materially to the 1955–1961 CNO regime of Admiral Arleigh A. Burke.

In the rank of vice admiral, Moorer in October 1962 assumed command of the Seventh Fleet as it became increasingly involved in the escalating Vietnam War. He “fleeted up” to commander in chief, Pacific Fleet, in the rank of admiral in June 1964, only two months before the Gulf of Tonkin incident led to the U.S. bombing of North Vietnam and the commitment of American troops early in 1965. That April, Moorer was transferred to command of the Atlantic Fleet and of allied NATO naval forces as they responded to the growth of the Soviet Russian navy and the Arab-Israeli Six-Day War in the Middle East. He directly conducted the large-scale U.S. amphibious intervention in the Dominican Republic in 1965.

Such accomplishments led President Lyndon B. Johnson to select Moorer for CNO in June 1967. As such, he was determined to defeat North Vietnam militarily, contrary to Johnson’s—and successor Richard M. Nixon’s—desires for a negotiated settlement in order to halt the enemy’s aggression. Moorer, abhorring Johnson’s policy of “graduated escalation,” especially wanted to mine Haiphong Harbor but was turned down until the final days of the conflict. He deeply resented Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara and his coterie of appointees for interfering in the military prosecution of the war and in the promotions of flag officers. Indeed, McNamara treated the navy’s role as subordinate to the army and air force in this war that the nation lost.

Moorer was similarly frustrated by McNamara and his successors (after February 1968) for failing to strike North Korea after it had seized the navy’s intelligence ship USS Pueblo in January 1968, to replace aging warships, and to increase skilled manpower in the face of the growing Soviet navy. President Nixon nevertheless elevated him to be chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in mid-1970 and reappointed him to a second term in 1972.

“A tall, affable man of imposing presence and relentless common sense,” in the words of J. Kenneth McDonald, Moorer commanded the respect of President Nixon, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, and others in the administration. Following his retirement from the navy in July 1974, Moorer became an active critic over many strategic issues, notably the SALT II arms agreement in 1979. He died after a stroke at age ninety-one at the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland. Moorer is buried in Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Virginia.

The principal source for biographical information on Moorer is J. Kenneth McDonald, “Thomas Hinman Moorer,” in Robert William Love, Jr., ed., The Chiefs of Naval Operations (1980), based heavily on interviews with Moorer. His Mediterranean duty on the staff of J. J. Clark is treated in Clark G. Reynolds, On the Warpath in the Pacific: Admiral Jocko Clark and the Fast Carriers (2005), taken largely from extensive transcribed interviews of Moorer in several typescript volumes at the U.S. Naval Institute, Annapolis, Maryland. Obituaries are in the New York Times and Washington Post (both 7 Feb. 2004).

Clark G. Reynolds