When Paul Ignatius first stepped aboard a Navy ship, he was anxious. Japan had already attacked Pearl Harbor and the war in the Pacific was going strong.
Ignatius — a Glendale native who attended Mark Keppel Elementary School, Toll Middle School and Hoover High School — was responsible for weapons aboard an aircraft carrier that would see heavy action, the USS Manila Bay.
He would go on to have a distinguished career that would eventually see him serve as Secretary of the Navy. But never did Ignatius expect that one day, the Navy would name a new missile destroyer, the backbone of the fleet, after him, though the ship has not yet been built.
Now, nearly seven decades later, that’s just what has happened.
Earlier this week, the 92-year-old stood before top military brass at a Pentagon ceremony as the Secretary of the Navy named the newest Arleigh Burke-class destroyer — a 509-foot long ship known as the workhorse of the fleet that can fight air, surface and underwater battles simultaneously — USS Paul Ignatius.
Ignatius said he was overwhelmed.
“It’s a great honor,” he said by phone from Washington, D.C. “I didn’t expect it.”
The descendant of Armenian immigrants, Ignatius was commissioned in the Navy in June 1942. He had just started studies for his MBA at Harvard Business School after graduating from USC. He would spend four years as a naval officer before returning to school.
During his service, he participated in the Battle of Leyte Gulf, considered one of the largest naval battles of World War II. Fought near the Philippine Islands, Ignatius saw two kamikaze pilots — Japanese military aviators who crashed into targets on suicide missions — slam into the USS Manila Bay during the battle.
“We managed to save the ship and survive,” Ignatius said. “I loved the Navy and I loved the responsibility that I had on the ship.”
After completing his studies at Harvard, he became a professor there. With two colleagues, he later started a consulting company that dealt with several defense projects, including the Polaris missile, a nuclear weapon.
“Because of that experience over a 10-year period, I knew quite a lot about the Defense Department,” Ignatius said.
And then in 1961, then-Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara offered Ignatius a job as assistant Secretary of the Army. Ignatius hit it off with McNamara — also from California and a Harvard alum — early and quickly became one of his principal assistants.
Ignatius spent eight years in the Pentagon, the final two as Secretary of the Navy. It was a tumultuous time that included the Cuban missile crisis, the North Korean capture of a U.S. intelligence-gathering ship, and the Vietnam War, which Ignatius said will remain a point of controversy “until the end of time.”
Ignatius set the standard for what secretaries of the Navy should be, Ray Mabus, who currently holds that title, said at the naming ceremony Tuesday.
Ignatius served under presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson. After leaving government service, he went on to become president of the Washington Post, and later, chief executive of the Air Transport Assn.
He now spends his retirement sitting on various philanthropic boards that focus on at-risk youth.
“There are sailors who will sail on the Paul Ignatius who have not yet been born today,” Mabus said during the ceremony before unveiling another surprise for Ignatius: hats embroidered with the ship’s name for him and his family members.
It typically takes years for Navy ships to be built, but Ignatius hopes to one day board his namesake.
“I’ve got to talk to my doctor to be sure to keep me going because I want to be around when she’s complete,” Ignatius said.
Ignatius gave this advice to future sailors of the USS Paul Ignatius:
•Whatever you’re doing, whether it’s a minor task or an important task, do it as well as you can. If you do it well, people begin to notice and things kind of happen in your favor.
•Don’t be afraid to ask questions. Ask questions and examine.