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Maritime Strategist Admiral Ace Lyons Remembered

By David F. Winkler, Ph.D. NHF Staff Historian

The Naval Historical Foundation saddened with the news of the passing of one of its Life Members – Admiral James “Ace” Lyons who departed this world on December 12th.

Asked to discuss his recently published Oceans Ventured, Winning the Cold War at Sea, (Norton, 2018) NHF Board Director and former Navy Secretary John F. Lehman praised Lyons as one of the architects of the Maritime Strategy that contributed to the demise of the Soviet Union. In his book Lehman wrote he first met Lyons in the 1970s when the future Navy Secretary was performing his naval reserve training with Attack Squadron 176 embarked on America stationed in the eastern Mediterranean. Meeting then Captain Lyons, Lehman reflected: “As we were both interested in strategy, we soon hit it off, and when off duty, we could often be found at a table in the wardroom talking strategy, operations, and tactics.”

With the election of President Ronald Reagan and Lehman’s selection as Secretary of the Navy, the U.S. Navy was provided marching orders to be more realistic and aggressive during its periodic fleet exercises. Lehman saw Ocean Venture 81’ “as a transformational strategic operation, not just a training event.” When Vice Admiral Lyons arrived to take command of Second Fleet, he recalled, “The first thing I did after taking command was to tear up the old Ocean Venture OPORD.”

Lyons used a number of deception decoys and tactics, integrated Air Force assets into the fleet movement, and welcomed the participation of allied navies. Lehman reflected that it was not until Lyon’s Second Fleet units had reached the Norwegian Sea that “the Soviets realized they had been snookered.” Ocean Venture 81’ sent the message to the Soviets that the U.S. Navy would be act offensively in its training regime during the Reagan presidency. With regards to Soviet ballistic missile submarine sanctuaries – there would be “no bastion for the Bear.”

The confrontational nature of the Cold War at sea came to a head in the aftermath of the September 1983 shootdown of KAL 007 west of Sakhalin Island. With recovery operations being conducted by the United States and Japan, Soviet naval vessels interfered resulting in protests and charges of violation of the 1972 US-USSR Incidents at Sea Agreement.

The following June US and Soviet delegations met in Moscow to review the events of the previous September. In their nation’s capital, the Soviets confronted Admiral Lyons has the head of the U.S. delegation. In my book Incidents At Sea (Naval Institute Press, 2017) I wrote: “Lyons had a reputation as a tough cookie.” His American interpreter went as far to say “He ate junior officers for breakfast.”

That persona impressed the Soviets and Rear Adm. Ronald Kurth would observe “In 1984, after KAL 007, the Soviet Navy went, by far, the extra mile…They handled their conduct in the Sea of Japan very openly, and we did, indeed, establish confidence.”

Well, as it turns out – not complete confidence. Secretary Lehman related an incident six months following the Moscow during the Christmas season where a stranger with a Russian accent arrived at the gate of the Washington Navy Yard to deliver a package to the residence of Vice Admiral Lyons. “A military bomb squad, called to investigate, saw an X-Ray picture of “two liquid-filled cannisters,” and the package was duly destroyed by a small explosive device. The remains disclosed that it had contained two bottles of premium Russian Vodka.”

Following his tour in the Pentagon, Lyons earned his fourth star and took command of the Pacific Fleet. Again he challenged his units to challenge the Soviets in waters contiguous to the coastal areas of Siberia. Such an aggressive posture, Secretary Lehman has since argued, contributed to the end of the Cold War. You will be remembered Admiral Lyons.

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    • Michael Shalter

      I knew Ace, when he and I were on the staff of Comsixthfleet in 1968. One day, a Russian ship that had been 150 m off the flagship maneuvered and crossed our bow. Ace, who was observing this from the flag bridge, started ranting and raving… shouting that the ship’s captain
      should “Ram ’em!”
      That was the day I hoped that Ace would never be in a position where he could ram us into World War 3!
      Perhaps he had mellowed by the time he became Cincpac.
      He was a charming, very intelligent guy but a tad frenetic and overly aggressive.
      I liked him

  1. Michele Lyons

    Thank you Mr. Winkler for this article about ADM Ace Lyons, he indeed loved this country and the United States Navy! There is not another person that I know that had his compassion for what he tried to do every day for the Navy and USA even up to the days before he left this world. There really needs to be a USS James A Lyons , Jr. I may be a big supporter of a ship being named for ADM. Lyons because I am his daughter. I miss my Dad and Mom every day and the USA could really use my Dad now!! Best Regards,
    Michele Lyons

    • I just posted at (a blog site with which I have a love/hate relationship) this comment in response to the question “Who is the Most Famous Person You Ever Met?”

      “ADM James A. “Ace” Lyons, former Commander in Chief, US Pacific Fleet – truly a larger-than-life Cold Warrior. I met him at CPAC 2016, when he was appearing on a panel moderated by Frank Gaffney, founder of the Center for Security Policy. I recounted to ADM Lyons how a few years earlier John Batchelor was interviewing on his radio show an author who had written a book about the Pacific Fleet. John Batchelor, an outstanding interviewer, said (paraphrasing) “. . . and then arrives Admiral James A. “Ace” Lyons. He’s . . . he’s superhuman! He’s like a superhero – if he didn’t exist, we’d have to make him up!” That got a chuckle out of Admiral Lyons.”

      I’m going to have to figure out what that book is, buy a copy, and then figure out how to get it to you for an autograph. Perhaps at the christening of the USS James A. Lyons, Jr.

  2. Charles Springer

    I was a Marine orderly for Adm Lyons from 1975-77 onboard the USS America. He was a pleasure to work for, and I hated when he left to go work at the pentagon. He was definitely tough, and had all the qualities a great leader should have. We would go up on one of the upper decks of the carrier during lunch to enjoy the sun when possible. There were so many good memories. I did my best to watch out for him during those days, and hate to hear of his passing. I believe there couldn’t be a better ship named after someone Ms. Lyons. I’m sorry for your loss and our nations. Semper Fi.

  3. James W Jones

    Please see my FB profile for a lengthy reply to your fine article. I was Ace’s unofficial administrative assistant as a Yeoman Second Class in Surface Ops, primarily Intel, on the Sixth Fleet Flag Allowance on the Little Rock (CLG-4), 1968-1969. I would not take any amount of money for one second of time I served under one of the most brilliant and colorful characters I have ever met in my life, James A. “Ace” Lyons III. Also, I have a slight correction to Secretary Lehman’s remarks about the gift Stoli incident, based on an article I saw in the Washington Post when I worked as a civilian writer-editor for the old Headquarters Air Force Systems Command Office of Public Affairs, Andrews.

    • James W Jones

      Please provide your Facebook userid, and I will be most pleased to forward my response to your article on my profile, including my recall of the gift Stoli incident as reported by the Washington Post.

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