James Holloway, a retired Navy admiral and decorated aviator who fought in three wars, served as chief of naval operations under three presidents and led an investigation into the disastrous 1980 mission to rescue American hostages in Iran, died Nov. 26 at a retirement home in Alexandria, Virginia. He was 97.
He had dementia, said his daughter Jane Holloway, and “finally got to landing on that great big carrier in the sky.”
Holloway became the Navy’s top-ranking officer on July 1, 1974, and served as a member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff under Presidents Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter. The son of an admiral and the husband of an admiral’s daughter, he was known throughout the service as a battle-hardened sailor and aviator: His destroyer had been hit by the Japanese, his commanding officer’s plane downed by the Chinese, and his flagship vessel shot at by the North Vietnamese.
It went without saying that in each engagement, Holloway responded with equal force, notably as a gunnery officer during the Battle of Surigao Strait in 1944. His destroyer, the USS Bennion, torpedoed the battleship Yamashiro “at point blank range,” then “sank the Japanese destroyer Asagumo with gunfire, and shot down three Zeros,” according to his Navy biography.
During his four-year term as chief of naval operations, Holloway faced challenges including inflation, defense-spending cuts, the aftermath of the Arab oil embargo and a standoff at the Korean demilitarized zone. He pushed to modernize the U.S. fleet and develop new aircraft, including the F/A-18 Hornet, while competing against the Soviet navy in the aftermath of the Vietnam War.
Holloway was credited with convincing Ford to step back from a proposal to ban cruise missiles – still a crucial weapon for Navy destroyers, cruisers and submarines – as part of the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks with the Soviet Union. He also oversaw a new fleet organization plan that created tactical “battle groups,” generally centered around an aircraft carrier.
In his 36-year Navy career, he flew F9F-2 Panther jet fighters on two tours during the Korean War, taking charge of his squadron after his commanding officer was shot down. He later drew on his in-flight experience as an adviser to the war and action movies “The Bridges at Toko-Ri” (1954) and “Top Gun” (1986).
A onetime student of Hyman Rickover, the father of the nuclear Navy, Holloway also commanded the Navy’s first nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, the USS Enterprise, in the Gulf of Tonkin during the Vietnam War. He later established the Navy’s nuclear-powered carrier program at the Pentagon and commanded a carrier force in the Mediterranean.
In 1972, he was named commander of the U.S. Seventh Fleet, where he was known by the radio call sign Jehovah and directed more than 150 ships in bombing operations against North Vietnam.
After retiring from the Navy in 1978, Holloway was appointed to chair a Special Operations Review Group that investigated the April 1980 hostage rescue mission, which ended in flames in the Iranian desert. Eight service members died while trying to free 53 hostages in Tehran, where the U.S. Embassy had been seized by students the previous November, taking diplomats and staff members prisoner.
The rescue effort, Operation Eagle Claw, faced mechanical problems and a dust storm in the desert, where one helicopter crashed into a transport plane. In its aftermath, the Joint Chiefs commissioned a six-person investigative team composed of active and retired military officers and led by Holloway.
In a 78-page unclassified version of the report, released in August 1980, Holloway wrote that they “encountered not a shred of evidence of culpable neglect or incompetence.”
“The concept of a small clandestine operation was valid and consistent with national policy objectives,” he added. “It offered the best chance of getting the hostages out alive and the least danger of a war with Iran.” (The last of the hostages were released on the day of Ronald Reagan’s inauguration in January 1981.)
But the report was critical of the operation’s “ad hoc” organization and planning, and recommended the creation of a counterterrorist joint task force and Special Operations advisory panel under the Joint Chiefs.
“Everybody on that operation did absolutely the best they could,” Holloway later told The Washington Post. “It was the most difficult undertaking you could imagine, and things will go wrong.”
James Lemuel Holloway III was born in Charleston, South Carolina, on Feb. 23, 1922. His mother, the former Jean Hagood, was a homemaker from an Army family; his father, Adm. James L. Holloway Jr., commanded naval forces in the eastern Atlantic and Mediterranean and chaired the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, where he was nicknamed “Lord Jim” for his aristocratic bearing.
According to the Naval History and Heritage Command, the Holloways were the only father-son duo to become four-star admirals while on active duty.
“The idea of living a life of service was something he got from his mother and father, and from the parochial school he went to,” his daughter said. “We all need to lead a life that is focused on a bigger good than on our own interests – that was very important to him.”
Holloway studied at the Saint James School in Hagerstown, Maryland, and graduated from the Naval Academy in 1942, part of a three-year class that was pressed into service early because of World War II.
Gambling that aircraft carriers and naval aviators would go on to play a pivotal role in combat, Holloway trained as a pilot after the war, and later flew a Douglas A-4 Skyhawk to support the 1958 Marine Corps landing in Lebanon. He also flew missions in the Taiwan Strait and developed a program of standardized operating procedures credited with “substantially reducing naval aviation accidents,” according to a Navy announcement of his death.
Holloway was vice chief of naval operations under the reform-minded Elmo Zumwalt, whom he succeeded as chief. He was later president and chairman of the Naval Historical Foundation and wrote a book, “Aircraft Carriers at War” (2007), in addition to serving as a special envoy to the Middle East in the mid-1980s and directing an anti-terrorism task force for Reagan.
Survivors include his wife of 77 years, the former Dabney Rawlings of Alexandria; two daughters, Lucy Lyon of Bonita Springs, Florida, and Jane Holloway of Washington; and a grandson. His son, James L. Holloway IV, died in a 1964 car crash while studying at the University of Virginia.
Holloway received military honors including two Defense Distinguished Service Medals, four Navy Distinguished Service Medals, two Legion of Merit awards, the Distinguished Flying Cross, the Bronze Star and three Air Medals.
For all his decorations, he often returned to the Battle of Surigao Strait, which he called “the battle that broke the back of the Japanese navy.” In a 2007 video interview, he recalled having “a ringside seat” to history, launching five torpedoes at the Yamashiro battleship before facing “a scene of absolute devastation,” with “sheets of flame and sheets of sparks.”
That battle was vividly in mind in 1972, when he was a vice admiral directing combat operations off the coast of North Vietnam. He donned a steel helmet and earplugs to stand exposed on the port bridge wing of his cruiser, according to a biography by historian David Winkler, and later wrote that his position there “afforded the full range of sensations and the panorama of the battle” as his ships pummeled targets near Haiphong.
“The rush of wind, the hot blast of the guns and the acrid smell of gun smoke,” he added, “differed little from what I had experienced . . . in World War II.”