Ralph W. Cousins, 94, a retired Navy admiral who directed naval air operations during the Vietnam War and later became the Navy’s second-highest-ranking officer and the top commander of NATO forces, died Aug. 5 at a hospital in Newport News, Va., of complications from a fall.
From 1967 to 1969, during some of the fiercest fighting of the Vietnam War, Cousins was commander of the attack carrier strike force and was responsible for all naval aviation operations carried out from aircraft carriers in the Gulf of Tonkin. He developed tactics for combating antiaircraft missiles fired at Navy airplanes and in 1967 directed the first successful attack on a missile installation in North Vietnam.
In 1970, when he was promoted to the rank of four-star admiral, he became vice chief of naval operations, the Navy’s second-highest office. For the final years of his naval career, from 1972 to 1975, Cousins was simultaneously the commander of the U.S. Atlantic fleet and the supreme allied commander in charge of all NATO forces.
After his Navy retirement, he joined Newport News Shipbuilding and Drydock, the largest private shipyard in the world. His tenure as president from 1977 to 1979 was marked by labor strife and layoffs of more than 5,000 of the company’s 19,500 workers.
Ralph Wynne Cousins was born July 24, 1915, in Eldorado, Okla. He graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in 1937 and became a Navy pilot in 1940.
During World War II, he served aboard the USS Lexington, an aircraft carrier that was sunk during the Battle of the Coral Sea in May 1942. In that battle, Cousins led dive-bombing attacks against a Japanese aircraft carrier, despite heavy antiaircraft fire, and was awarded the Navy Cross, the service’s second-highest award for valor.