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Fair Winds, Rear Admiral John Joseph Ekelund, USN

It is with deep regret I inform you of the passing of Rear Admiral John Joseph Ekelund. U.S. Navy (Retired) on 28 July 2021 at age 93. Rear Admiral Ekelund entered the U.S. Naval Academy in June 1945 and served as a surface line officer and conventional submarine officer with a specialty in Navy education until his retirement in November 1983 as superintendent of the Naval Postgraduate School, Monterey. He survived the sinking of minesweeper USS Pirate (AM-275) while sweeping mines off Wonsan, North Korea, in October 1950 and served in the U.S. Naval Forces, Naval Advisory Group, Military Assistance Command, Vietnam in 1972–73. His commands included guided missile submarine USS Grayback (SSG-574), guided missile cruiser Albany (CG-10), and South Atlantic Force, U.S. Atlantic Fleet. 

John Ekelund took the oath of office at the U.S. Naval Academy on 20 June 1945, near the end of World War II. His father, Captain Kenneth O. Ekelund (USNA ’22), commanded attack transport USS General W. C. Langfitt (AP-151) during Pacific combat operations and his brother, Captain Kenneth O. Ekelund, Jr. (USNA ’47), was a naval aviator, flying carrier- and land-based maritime patrol aircraft. Midshipman Ekelund earned a Bachelor of Science in Naval Science and was commissioned an ensign on 3 June 1949. Ekelund was first assigned as operations officer on destroyer escort USS Coolbaugh (DE-217), serving as the school ship for Fleet Sonar School and operating out of Key West, Florida. 

Upon the outbreak of the Korean War, Ensign Ekelund was sent to Yokosuka, Japan, to serve as communications officer on the minesweeper Pirate, which was being brought out of reserve and recommissioned for wartime service. On 12 October 1950, Pirate was leading the U.S. minesweeper force clearing a passage through North Korean minefields (mines supplied by the Soviet Union) in preparation for the major amphibious landing at Wonsan, North Korea. In accordance with doctrine, all but essential engineering personnel were topside to minimize casualties in the event of a mine strike. Pirate’s sweep brought multiple mines to the surface in quick succession and she then struck one, which blew a large hole and caused the ship to capsize and sink in four minutes with the loss of six of 79 men aboard. Hidden North Korean shore batteries then opened fire on the sinking ship and survivors in the water. While maneuvering to avoid the gunfire and the sinking Pirate, minesweeper USS Pledge (AM-277) also struck a mine and sank. Gunfire from destroyer-minesweeper USS Endicott (DMS-35) and napalm from USS Leyte (CV-32) aircraft neutralized the shore batteries. Of the survivors of Pirate, 43 were wounded. As a result of the loss of the two minesweepers, the amphibious landing was delayed by almost two weeks. Pirate and the rest of the minesweeping force were awarded the Presidential Unit Citation for their actions in the mined waters.

After survivor’s leave, Ekelund reported to Naval Submarine School, New London, Connecticut, in October 1950. In June 1951, newly promoted Lieutenant (j.g.) Ekelund reported as gunnery officer on diesel-electric submarine USS Cobia (SS-245), based out of New London and serving as a training submarine for reservists and Submarine School students. In November 1953, Ekelund reported to diesel-electric submarine USS Razorback (SS-394) while she was in the shipyard undergoing major conversion to GUPPY IIA configuration (Greater Underwater Propulsion Power Program). Re-commissioned in January 1954, Razorback operated out of New London as part of Submarine Squadron TEN, with Ekelund serving in various capacities as gunnery, operations, and engineering officer.

Promoted in July 1954, Lieutenant Ekelund transferred to Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, in May 1955 to serve as assistant tactics and training officer on the staff of Commander Submarine Force, U.S. Pacific Fleet (COMSUBPAC). In June 1956, Ekelund returned to the Naval Submarine School in New London, serving as an instructor in pro-submarine tactics in the Basic Course, assisting in the Prospective-Commanding Officer Course, and participating in the establishment of a Refresher Training Course and Prospective Executive Officer Course. In 1956, Lieutenant Ekelund developed a mathematical algorithm that became such a well-known target motion analysis technique that it became known as “Ekelund Ranging” (and there is now an iPhone app for it).

In June 1958, Lieutenant Ekelund reported to Portsmouth Naval Shipyard as pre-commissioning crew for USS Growler (SSG-557), one of two U.S. Navy conventional submarines purpose-built to carry nuclear land-attack cruise missiles (Regulus I). Two previous conventional submarines had been converted to carry the Regulus I in the Navy’s first attempt to develop a submarine nuclear deterrent capability. Commissioned on 30 August 1958, Growler conducted trials and work-ups before relocating to Pearl Harbor and conducting her first strategic deterrent patrol off Petropavlovsk, Soviet Union, in March–May 1960. Ekelund served in multiple positions until promoted to lieutenant commander in July 1959, when he became executive officer. In June 1961, Lieutenant Commander Ekelund was assigned again to COMSUBPAC in Pearl Harbor, this time as assistant force plans officer.

In November 1961, Ekelund transferred to Mare Island and assumed command of USS Grayback (SSG-574), Growler’s sister submarine, with the same mission, conducting operational missions out of Pearl Harbor. Grayback was the test-firing platform for the supersonic Regulus II, but the program was cancelled and she continued to deploy with the subsonic Regulus I. During his time on Growler and Grayback, Lieutenant Commander Ekelund completed seven deterrent patrols and special operations. On 27 August 1963, while Grayback was snorkeling in heavy seas, wave action caused the main battery breaker to short out, which caused a fire in the berthing compartment, and one crewman was overcome before he could get out. The sub also lost main propulsion for a time, but Ekelund was able to bring her back into Pearl Harbor under her own power. In 1964, Grayback was taken out of operational service, as the nuclear powered Polaris submarines represented a far more survivable deterrent (to fire a Regulus, the submarine had to surface, assemble the missile, and remain on the surface while guiding the subsonic missile all the way to the target with active radar. This concept of operations was not good for submarine longevity, but then, neither was a nuclear war.)

In January 1964, Ekelund commenced studies at Armed Forces Staff College in Norfolk and was promoted to commander in June 1964. The same month, he attended the Polaris Command Course at the Naval Guided Missile School at Dam Neck, Virginia. In September 1964, Commander Ekelund was assigned to the Joint Strategic Target Planning Staff at Offutt Air Force Base, Nebraska, as operations planner, Current Tactics Section, Tactics Branch, SIOP Division. (SIOP stands for Single Integrated Operational Plan, a more benign-sounding term for the plan for all-out thermonuclear war, one of the most sensitive and highly classified U.S. war plans.) 

In July 1966, Commander Ekelund returned for a third time to COMSUBPAC in Pearl Harbor, this time as force plans officer. He detached in July 1968 and was administratively assigned to the Naval Reserve Officer Training Corps at the University of Rochester while earning a Master of Science in Systems Analysis, graduating in September 1969, after being promoted to captain on 1 August 1969. He was then assigned to Headquarters, U.S. Naval District Washington, while studying in the Postgraduate Program, Defense Systems Analysis Curriculum, at the Center for Naval Analysis. In December 1969, Captain Ekelund reported to the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations as head, Strategic Warfare Analysis Branch in the Systems Analysis Division.

In March 1972, as the North Vietnamese “Easter Offensive” in South Vietnam was in full swing, Captain Ekelund was assigned to Saigon in the U.S. Naval Forces Vietnam/Naval Advisory Group of the Military Assistance Command Vietnam (MACV), initially as assistant chief of staff for administration. In November 1972, he became chief of staff. In this position, he designed and executed the phased withdrawal of U.S. Navy and Marine forces from Vietnam in accordance with the 1973 Paris “Peace” Accords (which the North Vietnamese flagrantly violated two years later). In April 1973, following his Vietnam tour, Ekelund served in Hawaii and Washington, DC, as a member of the Navy Council of Personnel Boards. 

In June 1973, Captain Ekelund assumed command of the guided missile cruiser USS Albany (CG-10) during a major overhaul and upgrade. Albany was re-commissioned in May 1974 with Ekelund in command and served as the flagship for Commander Second Fleet, homeported in Norfolk. In July 1975, he was assigned to the Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island, as the dean of academics, tasked with implementing the major academic reforms initiated by the previous Naval War College president, Vice Admiral Stansfield Turner. Selected for rear admiral in January 1976, he returned to the Office of the CNO in July 1976 as the deputy director for Naval Education and Training. He was promoted to rear admiral on 1 October 1976. 

In April 1977, Rear Admiral Ekelund was assigned to Headquarters, Central Intelligence Agency, as the national intelligence officer for general purpose forces and MBFR. (MBFR stood for “Mutual and Balanced Force Reductions” between the United States and the Soviet Union, a major—and seemingly endless—1973–89—conventional arms control negotiation process). In January 1978, Ekelund assumed command of the South Atlantic Force, U.S. Atlantic Fleet (precursor to U.S. Naval Forces Southern Command/U.S. Fourth Fleet), then stationed at Roosevelt Roads, Puerto Rico, conducting Exercise UNITAS with South American navies. In January 1980, Rear Admiral Ekelund commenced his last duty assignment as superintendent of the Naval Postgraduate School, Monterey, California, until his retirement on 1 November 1983.

Rear Admiral Ekelund’s awards include at least one (and probably three—service transcripts frequently omit the last award, and sometimes several) Legion of Merit Medals; Meritorious Service Medal; Joint Service Commendation Medal; Presidential Unit Citation; Navy Unit Commendation; Navy Expeditionary Medal (special operations); American Campaign Medal; World War II Victory Medal; National Defense Service Medal (two awards); Korea Service Medal; Vietnam Service Medal with one bronze star; Korean Presidential Unit Citation; Republic of Vietnam Meritorious Unit Commendation with Gallantry Cross Color; United Nations Service Medal; Republic of Vietnam Campaign Medal with device; and Republic of Vietnam Distinguished Service Order, Second Class. 

After retiring from active duty, Rear Admiral Ekelund served as the president of the California Maritime Academy from 1983–90, thereafter devoting time to his sizable extended family. Services were held at the Naval Postgraduate School Chapel of St. Thomas Aquinas on 19 August and interment at the U.S. Naval Academy Cemetery will be take place on 8 November, with services commencing at 1400 in the Naval Academy Chapel. 

Rear Admiral Ekelund was described as a kind and humble man who frequently remarked that he owed much to the fact that he led a charmed life. He certainly was part of a rare group with Rear Admiral Norman Scott, Rear Admiral David McCampbell, and a handful of others who were sunk as junior officers, but lived to rise to flag rank. He was able to bring his badly damaged submarine back to port after a fire in mountainous North Pacific seas and, when he arrived in Vietnam, the outcome of the North Vietnamese Easter Offensive was still in doubt (it was turned back in large part thanks to U.S. Navy carrier aircraft) and duty behind the lines could be as dangerous as the front line. He was a leader in the development of the U.S. Navy’s sea-based nuclear deterrent, in his case demonstrating that the Regulus program was a dead end, but lessons would be incorporated into the Tomahawk nuclear land-attack missile (TLAM-N). Given his character and temperament, his assignment to help plan for nuclear armageddon probably caused cognitive dissonance, but he never failed in his duty. Fortunately, the SSG’s never had to fire in anger, and the SIOP never had to be executed, but the key to deterrence was to be ready to do so. He was also described a problem solver and inventor, and by some accounts his development of “Ekelund Ranging” revolutionized undersea warfare. That may be a bit of a stretch, but it was certainly significant. He was also known as a natural leader, and as patient and generous with his time, always willing to mentor and advise others. He also was a believer in the importance of education and it was in that realm that he probably made his greatest mark on the future of the U.S. Navy as dean of academics at the Naval War College, deputy director of Naval Education and Training, and superintendent of the Naval Postgraduate School. John Ekelund’s impact on the Navy was profound. He served our nation with great distinction, and his life of service and sacrifice (and close call with fate) deserves to be remembered. 

Rest in Peace, Admiral Ekelund.

Published: Wed Aug 25 09:36:34 EDT 2021