|Captain John F. Fagan Jr. U. S. Navy (Retired) 1925 - 2003
Sailor Rest Your Oar
NSL (Naval Submarine League) Obituary 09-25-2003
John F. Fagan Jr., 78, a retired Navy captain who was a
commanding officer of nuclear submarines and a strategic weapons aide at the
Pentagon, died of congestive heart failure Sept. 17 at a convalescent center
in Newport News, Va. Capt. Fagan, who lived in Annandale for 34 years before
moving to Williamsburg in 2001, was a native of New Orleans and a graduate of
the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis. He received a master's degree in nuclear
physics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
During the early part of his nearly 30-year career in the Navy, Capt. Fagan was commanding officer of the nuclear submarines USS Lewis & Clark and the USS Shark. His other command assignments placed him in charge of the Navy's submarine development group No. 2 in New London, Conn., and the U.S. Navy Nuclear Power School in Vallejo, Calif. At the Pentagon, Capt. Fagan was military assistant to the assistant director of offensive strategic weapons in the office of the director of defense research and engineering. He retired from active military duty in 1971 and became a senior scientist and senior vice president of defense contractor Systems Planning Corp. in Reston. He worked for the company for 17 years.
His wife of 56 years, June Heiderich Fagan, died in 2001. Survivors include three sons, Jon H. Fagan of Newport News and Jay S. Fagan and Jeffrey Fagan, both of Orange Park, Fla.; four grandchildren; and a great-grandson.
"Jack" Fagan - A Naval Officer
Written and prepared by Captain Sanford N. Levey (USN Retired)
There is a lot that you have to learn in order to become a submarine commanding officer - time,
qualifications, training, etc., etc. but perhaps the best education you get is from observing
the Commanding Officers (CO’s) under whom you served. By the time I got my first command,
I had served under ten different CO’s. All of them were wonderful Naval Officers, superb at
ship handling and commanding men, but from none of the others did I learn so much as from
John Fisher Fagan, or Jack.|
Jack was a small person in stature, but large in intellect. He was a native of Louisiana, and entered Tulane University at the age of sixteen. He then decided on a Naval career, applied for, and was accepted at the U.S. Naval Academy. He did well, standing in the top ten in his class, and upon graduation, he applied for and entered the Submarine Force.
Somewhere during the next few years, he managed to have the Navy send him to MIT, where he received a Masters Degree in Mathematics. He then went back to the Submarine Force, and as a Lieutenant Commander, got command of a diesel submarine. As he was completing his tour, the Navy Nuclear Power Program was being greatly augmented, and the first Nuclear Power school was created to train young qualified submarine Officers.
Admiral Rickover asked Jack Fagan if he would head that school, and Jack said “no”. That didn’t natter to the Admiral, who sent Jack anyway. He did his enormously successful job of creating something from nothing, and Naval Nuclear Power School became one of our most difficult and touted schools in which to get post-graduate education.
About this time, I was entering the Nuclear Power program, and after one year of difficult learning, was ordered to the pre-commissioning crew of the USS SHARK (SSN-591), a brand new ship that was being built by the Newport News Shipbuilding and Drydock Company in Virginia. But first, I had to attend a six week course at the Bettis Atomic Power Laboratory near Pittsburgh. It was here that I first met Jack Fagan, and it was here that we learned the details of the new Nuclear Plant we were to test and operate - the second generation after Nautilus, et al. There were six officers and about twenty-five enlisted men in this initial cadre.
After our training, we proceeded to the shipyard, where, we spent eighteen months checking on the shipyard’s work, testing the power plant (and all the other engineering functions) and thoroughly learning the ship. She was one of the early ones to combine the whale shaped hull with lots of power. Until this class of submarines, the boats were essentially surface ships that submerged occasionally for relatively short periods. Shark, on the other hand, was built to run at high speed submerged, and only come to the surface when entering and leaving port.
It was during this period that I first became aware of the wonderful qualities of Jack Fagan. There were two nuclear submarines being built at Newport News at this time, as well as the first nuclear powered surface ship - the USS ENTERPRISE. The other submarine was a Polaris Missile carrying boat, named ROBERT E LEE. Now you would expect that with a name like that, in a Virginia shipyard, she would have priority, but Jack Fagan so impressed the shipyard management that nothing was too good for the SHARK. We, the officers in the wardroom, were invited to join the exclusive James River Country Club, at the shipyard’s expense, although with our workload, there was little time to enjoy this privilege.
Jack was a confirmed smoker, and went through at least three packs of Marlboros per day. Remember that in those days, almost everybody smoked. We were working on a special barge moored close to the boat, since there was no room aboard for offices, etc. As all CO’s did at that time, Jack had to call Admiral Rickover, weekly, to report progress and problems. The CO’s office was one corner of a large space which he shared with the other officers, so we could hear his telephone conversations. One day, during his weekly talk, he reported something the Admiral didn’t like, and we could hear him yell at Jack: “Fagan, who is the dumbest son of a bitch in the Navy?” Jack answered that he didn’t know. And the Admiral said: “You are!!!”, and hung up. Jack just sat there red-faced and burning, smoked about three cigarettes, and told the yeoman to get Admiral Rickover on the phone, which he did. Upon making the connection, Jack said: “Admiral, you’re wrong. There is one dumber son of a bitch than me in the Navy, and he is you - because you picked me for your program!!!”.
Now very few Lieutenant Commanders in the world could get away with this, but Rickover had a sense of humor, and we heard later that he broke up laughing at the exchange. Instead of being fired, Jack went up a notch in many peoples’ eye. We were learning that Jack was one of the few officers in the Navy who would say: “Admiral, you’re wrong”, and unfortunately it hurt him later on.
Jack would accept no performance less than excellent, but he never embarrassed anyone by being nasty about it. His innate politeness (probably from his youth in New Orleans) made people listen to him, and then his intellect was able to persuade the other person. As a result, the Shipyard worked with us in building the best and (at that time) the speediest submarine. While we were undergoing construction in Newport News, another ship of the same type was being built at the Electric Boat Company in New London Connecticut. One of Jack’s tactics was to continually remind the shipyard management that the two ships would both be in the same squadron in Norfolk, and Jack painted the picture of the two boats lying alongside, and people comparing the workmanship. At that time, Newport News was a private shipyard, and even though this was the first submarine they had built in many years, and the first nuclear submarine, they made sure that Shark would be the best - and we were. After eighteen months, and a crew augmentation, we were ready for sea trials, which Admiral Rickover supervised. He did this for every new nuclear ship for many years. As expected, the performance and appearance of SHARK was outstanding, and we were ready to join the Fleet.
As we soon learned, a ship with only one huge screw, and with the rudder ahead of the screw, was a beauty to handle going ahead, but going astern was like trying to herd cats! But Jack figured out what was required to do it, and taught all of the officers. Of course we never cruised astern, but in making a landing at a pier, you had to back the screw to stop the ship. On the older diesel submarine, on which we all had been brought up, it was normal to use a Back Full order to stop, however we soon learned that doing this while coming alongside a pier meant submerging the after half of the ship so badly that the seamen tending lines aft were soon up to their knees. Jack soon conquered this quirk, and we all learned how to do it from him.
During the next two years, SHARK made four “Special Ops”, three of them under Jack. One of these operations was of vital interest to the US, but Jack took no credit for it. In his debriefings, he was always humble and honest.
We were among the first boat to get the new digital Fire Control system. Since World War I, they had been analog computers, and their purpose was to determine the Course, Speed, and range of the ship at which you would shoot a torpedo. This was a fairly straightforward proposition when you could observe the target through te periscope, but became more difficult when all you could do was hear the target with your sonar, and the only information you had was his bearing.
My job was to operate the Fire Control system, and to come up with a “Solution” on the target. There was a periscope in the center of the Control Room where the CO sat, and during our exercises, Jack would sit there, smoking cigarette after cigarette. Of course, we were too deep to use the periscope. About the time that I had a solution on the computer, Jack would say something like; “Try Course 150, at 14 knots”, and we were all amazed, because he would usually be correct. He taught us many tricks for analysis as well as thumb-rules, which helped all of us when we became CO’s. (Out of the eight officers other than Jack, five got command. The two who didn’t were the Medical Officer, and one young officer who wanted to follow a teaching career - the last I heard of him was that he was principal of a high school.)
Jack left to take command of one of the new POLARIS submarines, and I stayed on for another six months. I was the last officer of the original bunch to leave SHARK, and went on to another tour as Executive Officer before I was lucky enough to get my first command.
Jack had left before me and then had a tour in the Pentagon, and his honesty with all, especially those above him, insured that he would not be selected for Admiral, so he left the Navy.
I saw Jack occasionally during the next ten years, at the end of which I retired. One of the first phone calls I got was from Jack, who was Vice President of System Planning Corporation, one of the more prestigious of the think tanks, or Beltway Bandits, as they were called. He put me to work as a Manager of a program that was designed to help TRIDENT submarines, the latest and still-operating missile submarines. It paid well, but I never liked that business, and after a few years, left, and got involved with a retired officer who had studied Accounting upon retiring, and was looking for someone to take over his business. After a suitable period, I decided that I liked that business, and bought it from him.
About that time, Jack left System Planning Corporation, and became an independent consultant. He heard what I was doing, and came to me to help him set up a corporation and do his accounting. He hadn’t changed much, and wanted know why I was taking the steps I needed to get him incorporated, etcetera. I’m sure that had he wanted to, he could have taken over my business. Jack’s wife June, a fine New Orleans lady, who had been his “girl” since high school days, smoked almost as much as did Jack, and it caught up with her. At the time of her funeral, Jack had had one lung removed and was pulling a portable oxygen tank behind him. He didn’t last much longer - closed his business and moved to an assisted-living place in Williamsburg to be near one of his sons, and the only communication I had with him was a few telephone calls. He died fairly soon, and at his interment in Arlington Cemetery, one of the original Shark Officers was heard to say:” The IQ of the world just went down a few points”. How right he was.
Only a seaman realizes to what extent an entire ship reflects the personality and ability of one individual, her Commanding Officer. To a landsman, this is not understandable, and sometimes it is even difficult for us to comprehend - but it is so.
/s/ Sanford N. Levey, Captain, USN, Retired