Aviator is named to head Navy Clinton nominates a young admiral to replace Boorda

June 05, 1996|By Tom Bowman and Carl M. Cannon | Tom Bowman and Carl M. Cannon,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Adm. Jay L. Johnson, an understated 1968 Naval Academy graduate and naval aviator, has been selected by President Clinton to lead a Navy still reeling from the suicide of its top officer, White House officials said last night.

A four-star admiral for only the past two months, Johnson has been acting chief of naval operations since Adm. Jeremy M. "Mike" Boorda shot himself in the chest last month. Johnson is expected to be officially selected today -- his 50th birthday, officials said.

Johnson, one of the service's fastest rising stars, is described as a smart and steady officer who can also help the Navy's aviation community rebound from the Tailhook fiasco, the 1991 Las Vegas convention where drunken aviators groped numerous women. He has earned three of his four admiral's stars in the past two years.

"I'm very high on Admiral Johnson," said retired Adm. Leon "Bud" Edney, a former vice chief of naval operations, the post Johnson has held since March. Edney said Johnson's "vision for the future" extends across the board from ethics and integrity to tactical war-fighting.

"Jay Johnson has been a standout since [freshman] year at the Naval Academy, and I wish him all the best," said James H. Webb Jr., a former Navy secretary who was also a member of the '68 academy class and was critical of the Navy leadership under Boorda.

"He was very studious, a hard-working guy, serious -- and a good athlete," said Rear Adm. Kendell Pease, the chief of Navy information and another 1968 academy graduate. "He's a quality person who'll make sound decisions. He's also high energy, a quick learner."

A native of Great Falls, Mont., Johnson grew up in West Salem, Wis. Today, he is also celebrating his anniversary as a naval officer: He became an ensign on June 5, 1968. His only child, Cullen, has made a name for herself in other circles: She was the runner-up in the 1994 Miss America Pageant. His wife, Garland, is from Colorado Springs, Colo.

Still, some privately faulted the choice, saying Johnson has little experience in Washington and, while he is well-regarded in the fleet, is not well-known outside Navy circles in the East Coast, where he served as commander of the 2nd Fleet in Norfolk.

One retired admiral said Johnson lacks the "in-town smarts" of Adm. Joseph W. Prueher, the commander of U.S. forces in the Pacific who was also in the running for Navy chief.

Another former Pentagon official argued that the Navy needs someone with more experience, a "graybeard" with the moral authority to fight for the Navy and set the tone with Congress, particularly the Senate, which continues to hold up promotions of officers who attended the 1991 Tailhook convention.

Johnson attended that Tailhook conference and later was one of about 30 admirals and generals who received "non-punitive" letters from the Department of the Navy, reminding them of their responsibilities as officers, but not reprimanding them.

Choosing Johnson would also be a bow to the aviation community, still embittered by its treatment over Tailhook. A former F-14 Tomcat pilot and decorated Vietnam War veteran, Johnson was given command of a fighter squadron in 1981, and later of an air wing. He will be the first aviator to be tapped for Navy chief since Adm. Thomas Hayward in 1982.

Besides the lingering effects of Tailhook, Johnson will face another spate of wrongdoing at the Naval Academy, the continued challenges of integrating women into the fleet and budget cuts.

If confirmed by the Senate, Johnson would become the second-youngest officer to hold the post, after retired Adm. Elmo R. Zumwalt Jr., who was 49 when he got the four-year assignment on July 1, 1970.

In 1992 Johnson took over a carrier battle group and two years later the entire 2nd Fleet in Norfolk, Va. There, he helped direct the U.S. deployment to Haiti -- a complicated operation in which the Navy had to transport Army troops. The logistical nightmare that marred the 1983 Grenada operation was not repeated, and Johnson is given much of the credit for that success.

"Jay is a a top-notch naval officer," said retired Adm. Paul David Miller. "I think this represents a generational shift, too. Jay worked for me as the battle group commander and as the 2nd fleet commander -- both tough assignments. He was with me when I put Marines on the carriers. He understands jointness -- how naval forces meld with other services."

During the Haiti campaign, "he was not only a leader, but a team-builder," Miller said. "Team play is a hallmark of every mission he's been associated with. I think he'll do a fine job -- and it's a big job."

Admiral Edney and several other retirees said in interviews last week that the next CNO should work with both the Pentagon and the Senate to finally put Tailhook to rest.

"The new CNO will have to be a strong person," said retired Vice Adm. William Mack, a former academy superintendent who commanded the 7th Fleet. "He has to be as good as Boorda but better in not letting the Navy be pushed around again."

Pub Date: 6/05/96

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