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Hawaii loses two military heroes, advocates in Irwin K. Cockett Jr. and Ronald J. Hays

Retired Brig. Gen. Irwin K. Cockett Jr. spoke during a Veterans Day ceremony at Punchbowl, the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific in 2014.

LAURIE DEXTER/U.S. NAVY

By WILLIAM COLE | The Honolulu Star-Advertiser | Published: January 24, 2021

(Tribune News Service) — Two Vietnam War heroes who went on to wear the stars of admiral and general are being remembered for their longtime contributions to Hawaii.

Retired four-star Adm. Ronald J. Hays, who was vice chief of Naval operations from 1983 to 1985 and head of U.S. Pacific Command on Oahu from 1985 to 1988, died Jan. 11 at the age of 92, the Pearl Harbor Aviation Museum said.

Meanwhile, Kauai-born retired Brig. Gen. Irwin K. Cockett Jr., who served on active duty and later commanded the Hawaii Army National Guard, died Nov. 5 at the age of 90.

As an Army soldier, Cockett received a rare Silver Star from the Navy for "conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity " in action on May 14, 1965, when he was a helicopter aircraft commander with I Corps in Vietnam.

When a Marine Corps reconnaissance patrol came under heavy fire from a larger Viet Cong force, then- Maj. Cockett landed his Huey helicopter "under intense fire " and evacuated five Marines, two of whom were wounded, his Silver Star citation states.

Cockett returned and landed again, set up his crew chief and gunner in firing positions outside the chopper, and on foot located other Marines and helped load one dead Marine onto the helicopter before returning all to a Danang airfield.

Cockett, a Native Hawaiian, attended Kamehameha Schools, and related to The Garden Island in 2001 that his future military career did not get off to a good start.

"They had mandatory ROTC. I was a real screwup, " he told the newspaper. "My professor of military science, Capt. Mahikoa, called me in one day and said, 'You are one of the most worthless Hawaiians I have ever seen and you will never make anything of yourself.' "

Cockett recalled that "one of the joys of my life " was to buy that man a drink when Cockett was a brigadier general.

He served as an enlisted infantryman in the Korean War, later went to officer candidate school and as an officer had a noncombat tour with 10th Special Forces before embarking on three combat tours in Vietnam, The Garden Island reported.

The Oahu resident ran the state Office of Veterans Services, said retired state adjutant general Maj. Gen. Robert G.F. Lee.

"He was a person you could count on heading Veterans Services, " Lee said. "I never had to worry about Irwin Cockett and his organization taking care of the veterans."

Shipyard advocate Hays, meanwhile, was a 1950 Naval Academy graduate who chalked up three Silver Stars, seven Distinguished Flying Crosses and 18 air medals.

He became commanding officer of an A-6 Intruder squadron and introduced the aircraft to combat in Vietnam, leading 162 missions into high-threat target areas in North Vietnam, the Naval Academy said. Hays served four years in the Vietnam theater.

Hays became vice chief of Naval operations in 1983, and in 1985 took over the Hawaii-based Pacific Command.

Under his watch in 1987, U.S. Navy A-6E aircraft began staging mock bombing attacks against the Soviets by flying within 90 miles of the city of Petropavlovsk in retaliation for Russian military flights near Alaskan borders.

The Pearl Harbor Aviation Museum said Hays was instrumental in securing the Battleship Missouri Memorial in Hawaii and in the effort to open the aviation museum on Ford Island. He was chairman of the aviation museum's board of directors from 2000 through 2013.

The Honolulu man is credited with a major role in helping keep open Pearl Harbor Naval Shipyard when it was eyed for closure. " Ron Hays was a key partner along with Adm. (Tom ) Fargo to help secure " the shipyard, Lee said.

In a 2005 letter to Anthony Principi with the defense base closure and realignment commission, Hays noted the "tyranny of distance " in the Pacific and said those vast distances are generally underappreciated.

"We are fortunate to have naval forces homeported in Hawaii and Guam because they are in the best position to cope with the distances involved when they're responding to our national security interests," Hays wrote. "These forces depend on the Pearl Harbor Naval Shipyard to provide essential preparedness and operational readiness."

Without a shipyard in the mid-Pacific, "readiness, responsiveness, effectiveness and quality of life for our people would suffer, " he said.

Pearl Harbor Aviation Museum said it was "with great sadness " that it shared the news of Hays' death. "He was ever the perfect gentleman who always led from the front, " the museum said.

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Retired Adm. Ronald Hays, left, Richard May Jr. and Rear Adm. Dixon Smith, commander of Navy Region Hawaii, shared a laugh before the Ford Island Control Tower blessing ceremony in February 2011.
MARK LOGICO/U.S. NAVY