Admirals lead Saturday's parade

Two of Oak Harbor’s most honored Navy admirals have shared their lives for a long time, so there’s no reason they can’t share the honor of being named grand marshal of the 4th of July Parade on Saturday.

Admiral John “Jack” Christiansen and Admiral Lyle Bull fit all the stereotypes of old admirals: Crusty, opinionated, independent, knowledgeable, not afraid to curse colorfully for effect. Throw in affable and fun -loving and you’ve got a portrait of two great Americans, both of whom were awarded the Navy Cross, that service’s highest combat medal.

Christiansen, 81, is the elder, a fact which Bull, 66, won’t let him forget. Christiansen came of age militarily during World War II, while Bull first went to war Vietnam.

“He’s my mentor,” said Bull.

Christiansen retired from the Navy in 1975, while Bull retired in 1993.

Christiansen had commanded the carrier USS Constellation, the same ship Bull flew from in Vietnam as a navigator/bombardier of the fabled Intruder, a medium- range attack jet once based at Whidbey Island Naval Air Station. Both of their lengthy resumes include Commander, Carrier Group 7.

Christiansen never graduated from high school, having dropped out to join the Navy in 1940. “I wanted to fly,” he said, recalling that the recruiter misled him. After signing up, he quickly learned the truth about enlisted personnel: “You can’t go to flight school and fly like goddam officers,” he said.

Instead of flight school, Christiansen found himself in Newfoundland, loading ammunition onto a ship Dec. 7, 1941. That’s when his boss told him what had happened in Hawaii. He still remembers the exact words: “The Japs have bombed Pearl Harbor, but that’s no goddam reason to stop work!”

But the war opened the door for non-officers to work their way up to becoming pilots, and that’s what Christiansen did. He flew one of the four planes that sank the Japanese battleship Nagato. “I went in high, in an F-6,” he said. “When you dive bomb you can’t see your bomb hit … but after the war they gave out medals.”

Following the war, he left the service to earn his college degree and then his law degree, but he found the legal profession boring. “It’s dull as hell,” he said. ‘I was delighted when the Korean War started.”

Bull, like Christiansen, did not start his Navy career as an academy-educated officer, but worked his way up through the ranks. As an Intruder navigator/bombardier, Bull flew on the most dangerous missions of the war. “I lost one-third of my squadron on each of three cruises,” he recalled.

He was involved in what became the most famous single flight of the war, an adventure which provided the plot for the best-selling book, “Flight of the Intruder.” Lt. Lyle Bull and the pilot, Lt. Cmdr. Charles Hunter, were chosen for a solo night flight to Hanoi to bomb a crucial target defended by 500 anti-aircraft guns, two dozen SAM missile sites and enemy planes.

It was a harrowing flight, but successful. “We got it,” Bull said of the target.

Both men went on to long, illustrious military careers, involved in real wars and the political wars in the Pentagon. Each retired as a two-star admiral, the highest rank achievable without a political appointment. And they’re proud of it.

Neither likes the way today’s Navy operates, due to the reluctance of admirals looking for another star to stand up to politicians. “Abject subservience is the problem in the military,” said Christiansen, who like Bull has likely never minced a word in his life.

Bull concurs, saying that younger sailors today lack the support they need from those on high. “Military flag officers have allowed their integrity to be compromised by money,” he said, referring to generous retirement pay. “At three or four stars, you have to sign up to the president’s policies.” Policies such as allowing female sailors in combat roles shouldn’t be accepted, the old admirals say.

Christiansen said lower ranking officers were more outspoken in his day. “If Lyle (Bull) didn’t think it’s a good idea, he’d damn well tell me,” he said.

Neither admiral has an unkind word to say about modern sailors, however, and they think they sometimes lack support when they get in trouble. “We’ve got the greatest young people I’ve ever seen,” Bull said. “But Jack (Christiansen) protected me, and I protected my warriors. Now, if a kid makes a mistake you court martial him.” Again, they say this stems from admirals following the political line.

Policy issues aside, Admirals Christiansen and Bull remain true believers in America and the men and women who defend it. That’s why they say they’re proud to be leading the Oak Harbor 4th of July Parade on Saturday.

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