William Raborn

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William Raborn (1905-1990), who retired as a vice admiral in the United States Navy, had both brilliant achievement and embarrassing failures in his career, demonstrating that this is a world of specialists.[1] He was a seaman, an engineer, and an engineering manager. The high point of his career was leading the crash program that led to the first operational submarine-launched ballistic missile and ballistic missile submarine. The low point was as Director of Central Intelligence.

Raborn was an adaptable officer. During the Korean War, he commanded the escort carrier USS Bairoko, with a crew so new that he was the only officer fully qualified for "underway deck watch" — directing it as a ship at sea, much less in combat. [2]

Early career

Born in Oklahoma, he came to the United States Naval Academy never having seen an ocean; "when he first glimpsed a lighthouse, he though he had seen a ship." He was an undistinguished graduate of the class of 1928, who then served routine tours aboard a destroyer and a battleship. In 1934, he qualified as a naval aviator, and formed a friendship with William Halsey, a fellow student in flight school, who would be a friend and mentor.

His early service in WWII relied on his managerial ability; he ran 40 flight gunnery schools. In 1944, he was assigned as executive officer of the aircraft carrier USS Essex, and received the Silver Star for his efforts in lifesaving and damage control after a kamikaze hit. Even though the ship had eighty men killed, Raborn's repairs were fast enough that her aircraft, out on combat missions, had a deck to which to return.[3]

Senior assignments

After attending the U.S. Naval War College, he became the navy staff deputy for guided missiles, and then commanded the aircraft carrier USS Bennington when she suffered a catastrophic explosion of her older-style hydraulic catapult. Not only was he exonerated of any negligence, he received the Bronze Star for damage control. Even though a major accident, with no negligence found, may end a career, he continued in responsible assignments. The Bennington disaster served as an engineering case study for the Navy.

His senior officers, such as Arleigh Burke, found him meticulous in all he did, but also a good manager of his time — he was not one of the officers who went home with a briefcase full of work. Instead, he would get home, and do battle with beetles; he was known for his magnificent gardens.


In 1955, fighting the other services for authority, the U.S. Navy was authorized to start a ballistic missile program. Burke, then Chief of Naval Operations, gave him a "hunting license" to recruit anywhere in the Navy, and to get support from all other agencies. Burke also authorized him to kill, quickly, any technology that did not progress. The CNO also warned him that it would be a more political job than he had ever had, and, above all, to avoid conflict with Hyman Rickover, head of nuclear propulsion.

Rickover was the Navy's all-time master of bureaucratic warfare, as well as engineering. The U.S., as opposed to the Soviet Union, always assumed a ballistic missile submarine would be nuclear-propelled. This set up conflict between the two powerfully backed admirals.

Director of Central Intelligence

His background included no foreign relations experience, and addressed intelligence only as it pertained to naval operations. Further complicating the assignment was that his predecessor, John McCone, an outspoken and distinguished DCI, a favorite of John F. Kennedy, had clashed with Lyndon B. Johnson. Johnson expected to the information that he wanted, and disliked being contradicted by the CIA, especially over the Vietnam War. Raborn, accustomed to the military hierarchy, was more accommodating.

The CIA's own historians said "Raborn did not 'take' to the DCI job".[4] Raborn resigned on June 30, 1966, having served for only fourteen months as DCI; he was replaced by his deputy Richard Helms.


  1. Michael Wines (March 13, 1990), "William F. Raborn Is Dead at 84; Led Production of Polaris Missile", New York Times
  2. Eisenberg, Michael T. (1993), Shield of the Republic, Volume I (1945-1962), St. Martin's Press p. 223
  3. Eisenberg, p. 661
  4. "John McCone and William Raborn: New Kind of DCI", Directors of Central Intelligence as Leaders of the U.S. Intelligence Community, Douglas F. Garthoff, CIA's Center for the Study of Intelligence