Noel Arthur Meredyth Gayler (1914-2011) served as director of the National Security Agency (NSA) from 1969 to 1972 and as chief of the U.S. Pacific Command from 1972 to 1976. Gayler (pronounced GUY-ler) achieved the rank of admiral in the U.S. Navy and was noted for earning three Navy Cross medals for his actions as a fighter pilot during World War II; he was the first individual to achieve the honor. Gayler earned many awards and citations for his service and later became well known as a dedicated proponent of nuclear disarmament.
Noel Gayler Gayler was born in Birmingham, Jefferson County, December 25, 1914, to Ernest Gayler, a naval officer, and Anne Roberts Gayler; he had two siblings. He enrolled in the U.S. Naval Academy in June 1931, graduated with a commission as a lieutenant commander four years later, and served on several vessels. In March 1940, Gayler began flight training at the Naval Air Station in Pensacola, Florida. He was designated a naval aviator that November and was assigned to aircraft carrier duty in the Pacific.
Gayler’s exploits as a pilot during World War II earned him the Navy Cross, the second highest military decoration for valor in combat awarded by the Department of the Navy, three times between February and May 1942. A lieutenant at the time and flying a Grumman F4F “Wildcat” fighter plane off the USS Lexington (CV-2), his first two awards were for downing several aircraft and attacking several Japanese destroyers while under fire. The third was awarded for defending the Lexington during the May 1942 Battle of the Coral Sea, shooting down two Japanese planes and damaging two others; the ship was sunk, however. Gayler was credited with five aerial victories against Japanese planes, earning him the moniker “ace.”
USS Lexington During the war, Gayler held a number of positions within the Department of the Navy. In June 1942, he was transferred to Naval Air Station Anacostia, in Washington, D.C., where he trained new pilots. He became a test pilot at the Naval Air Station Patuxent River in St. Mary’s County, Maryland, from June 1943 to June 1944. Soon returning to combat, Gayler led fighter squadron VF-12 flying the Grumman F6F “Hellcat” on board the USS Randolph (CV-15) while under the command of fellow Alabamian Charles Crommelin, until February 1945. From March to November 1945, Gayler was the Air Operations Officer for the Second Carrier Task Force. He flew over Hiroshima, Japan, less than a week after it was destroyed by the first atomic bomb used in warfare, an experience that profoundly affected him. Gayler also was present during the Japanese surrender aboard the battleship USS Missouri (BB-63) on September 2, 1945.
Gayler achieved numerous high-ranking positions after the war. From February 1946 to April 1948, he served as the deputy director of the Navy’s Special Devices Center, the Navy’s main technological research center. Gayler then served as the Operations Officer of the escort carrier USS Bairoko (CVE-115) until September 1949. He was made head of the Fighter Design Branch of the Navy in October 1949, serving until June 1951, when he became commanding officer of VX-III, the Navy’s experimental jet fighter squadron, based in Atlantic City, New Jersey.
Later, through the 1950s and into the 1960s, Gaylor again earned a variety of promotions and served in a variety of posts. He commanded the USS Greenwich Bay (AVP-41), a seaplane tender, from January 1956 to February 1957 and then served as the operations officer for the Commander in Chief of the Pacific Fleet until that June. He also commanded the aircraft carrier USS Ranger (CV-61) from May 1959 to June 1960 and then served as the U.S. Naval Attaché in London. Gayler was assistant chief of Naval Operations for Development from August 1963 until August 1967 and directed bombing campaigns during the Vietnam War. As deputy director of the Joint Strategic Target Planning Staff at the Offutt Air Force Base in Nebraska from September 1967 until July 1969, he was responsible for selecting targets for nuclear strikes, among other duties.
Pres. Richard Nixon named Gayler, then a vice-admiral, as the sixth director of the NSA, the intelligence agency primarily focusing on code-breaking and intercepting foreign communications for the Department of Defense. He held this position from July 1969 until August 1972. He then was named Commander in Chief of the United States Pacific Command (CINCPAC), the leader of all U.S. forces from the west coasts of North and South America to the Indian Ocean, and promoted to the rank of full admiral. He oversaw the end of the Vietnam War and personally welcomed into freedom former American prisoners of war, including naval aviator Jeremiah Denton Jr. of Mobile. During this time, Gayler served as the U.S. military advisor to the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO), a collective defense organization created primarily to contain further Communist expansion in Southeast Asia. Gayler was CINPAC until his retirement from the Navy in August 1976.
Gayler was noted for his staunch opposition to nuclear weapons that stemmed from his flight over Hiroshima in 1945 and later observations of nuclear tests. He said he was horrified by the sight and advocated for the elimination of nuclear weapons in speeches, editorials, and television appearances. In 1986, he served, alongside such notable figures George Kennan, Robert McNamara, and John Kenneth Galbraith, on the American Committee on East-West Accord, which worked for nuclear disarmament and promoted better relations with the Soviet Union.
Gayler received numerous military decorations during his career with the Navy. In addition to the three Navy Crosses he was awarded during World War II, Gayler was awarded two Legions of Merit, the Bronze Star Medal, two Navy Distinguished Service Medals, and the Defense Distinguished Service Medal. He died of heart failure in Alexandria, Virginia, on July 14, 2011, and was buried in nearby Arlington National Cemetery. His first marriage, to Caroline Groves, produced five children but ended in divorce. He had married Jeanne Mallette in 1987.
Bamford, James. The Puzzle Palace: Inside the National Security Agency. New York: Penguin Books, 1983.
Grossnick, Roy. United States Naval Aviation: 1910-1995. Washington, D.C.: Department of the Navy, 1997.
Marolda, Edward. By Sea, Air, and Land: An Illustrated History of the U.S. Navy and the War in Southeast Asia. Washington, D.C.: Naval Historical Center, 1994.