Navy Noel A.M. Gayler, an ace combat pilot during World War II who served as President Richard M. Nixon’s first director of the National Security Agency and retired as commander of all forces in the Pacific at the drawdown of the Vietnam War, died July 14 at the Woodbine nursing home in Alexandria, Va. He was 96 and had congestive heart failure.
Gayler (pronounced GUY-ler), the son of a Navy officer, was one of the most highly decorated Navy pilots of World War II.
He went on to hold many distinguished posts, including service in the office of the chief of naval operations and as a senior aide to the secretary of the Navy. During the late 1960s, his job was to pick strategic targets in Russia in the event of a possible nuclear attack.
From 1969 to 1972, he was director of the National Security Agency, the country’s code-making and code-breaking apparatus based at Fort Meade, Md.
Although Gayler had no prior intelligence experience, he was considered a trusted aide of then-Defense Secretary Melvin Laird, according to the 2009 book “The Secret Sentry: The Untold History of the National Security Agency.”
Gayler was among many top security and intelligence officials who reportedly endorsed a Nixon-led initiative permitting the NSA to eavesdrop on the phone conversations of American citizens at a time of violent campus uprisings.
During court proceedings against The Washington Post for publishing the Pentagon Papers – the Defense Department’s secret history of the war in Vietnam – Gayler assisted the prosecution by providing expert testimony on the classified nature of the documents.
James Bamford, who wrote the 1982 NSA history “The Puzzle Palace,” said Gayler was the agency’s first director to use the position as a ladder rung to higher military office.
Upon his promotion to chief of U.S. Pacific Command – succeeding John S. McCain Jr. – Gayler supervised all combat operations based in the Pacific, including naval air strikes in Vietnam.
One of Gayler’s duties was to greet homecoming American prisoners of war held in Vietnam. Among them was John S. McCain III, a Navy fighter pilot who later went into politics, making a bid for president in 2008 and now serving as a U.S. senator.
Gayler helped oversee the U.S. evacuation from Saigon in April 1975 and helped organize the waterborne transport of tens of thousands of refugees. He retired in 1976.
Noel Arthur Meredyth Gayler was born Dec. 25, 1914, in Birmingham, Ala. He graduated in 1935 from the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, then received pilot training.
During World War II, he wreaked havoc against Japanese planes in the Pacific. He dive-bombed enemy destroyers and strafed bomber planes. He recorded five enemy kills, making him an ace.
For valorous combat during a four-month span in 1942, Gayler received three awards of the Navy Cross – the highest decoration for bravery after the Medal of Honor.
His other military decorations included the Defense Distinguished Service Medal, two awards of the Navy Distinguished Service Medal, two awards of the Legion of Merit and the Bronze Star Medal.
His first marriage, to Caroline Groves, ended in divorce. Survivors include his wife of 24 years, Jeanne Mallette Gayler of Alexandria; five children from his first marriage, Caroline Maness of Charlotte, Deborah Poisot of Austin, Anne Gayler of Monroe, N.Y., Alexander Gayler of Blacksburg, Va., and Christopher Gayler of Los Altos, Calif.; three stepchildren, Scott Landers of Sherman Oak s, Calif., Logan Landers of Encino, Calif., and Jeanne Mattison of Washington; seven grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren.
At the end of World War II, Gayler witnessed the Japanese surrender while onboard the battleship Missouri on Sept. 2, 1945. Toward the end of his military career, he became an advocate against nuclear weapons such as the atomic bombs dropped on Japanese cities.
Gayler said he had been profoundly affected by a visit to Hiroshima shortly after it was bombed. He also participated in atomic weapons tests in the Pacific.
“Nothing that you can read or see in motion pictures prepares you for that,” Gayler said at a National Press Club appearance in 1983. “The more you know about them, the less you like them and the less utility you think they have.”