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Clell Neil Ammerman
Captain, United States Navy
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From a contemporary press report:

If you pooled all the duty stations and ships Neil Ammerman was assigned to during his 30-year Navy career, you'd have the makings for an adventurous seagoing travel game.

Start as a plebe in 1950 at the Naval Academy in Annapolis, then move on to a patrol boat searching for smugglers and disabled ships on the St. Lawrence Seaway and Great Lakes, then to the military's top security agency in Washington, D.C., for at least one mysterious assignment, then to the Gulf of Tonkin off North Vietnam aboard the guided light cruiser USS Oklahoma City in August 1964 to encounter an Incident," then to a radiation laboratory in Livermore to learn about "nuclear weapons effects," then commander of the USS John S. McCain (named after Sen. John McCain's grandfather) during hostilities off the coast of Vietnam, then to UCLA to rebuild an NROTC program that had been decimated because of anti-Vietnam War sentiment, then to Newport, Rhode Island, to teach at the Surface Warfare Officers School, then to Subic Bay in the Philippines to be chief of staff for the U.S. Seventh Fleet, then to Camarillo and retirement.

And those locations are not all-inclusive.

Ammerman, who retired with the rank of captain in 1984, was Navy blue inside and out. Even in retirement he wrote technical manuals for the sea service. But in the 1990s he was slowed by congestive heart failure, the complications of which took his life on September 30, 1999, at age 67.

A service honoring his memory was held October 2 in the chapel of the Seabee Base at Port Hueneme. On Friday, he was buried with full military honors at Arlington National Cemetery in Washington, D.C.

Though serving in the Navy was basically a public affair, at least one portion of Ammerman's lengthy tour is shrouded in mystery.

In the late 1950s and early 1960s, while living in Maryland, he was assigned to the National Security Agency. During these years, he'd "disappear" for periods of time, including at least one absence of about six months, said his second wife, Pamela, who married him in 1979.

"He spoke Russian fluently," said his academy classmate and longtime friend Allen Christner, a retired Air Force officer now living in Florida. "Somehow he was connected to the Gary Powers affair (the U2 pilot shot down by the Russians in 1960). I remember visiting him and seeing a plaque on the wall from Ike (President Eisenhower). He told me it was for the Gary Powers thing, but that it was still secret and he couldn't discuss it."

In September 1971, Ammerman took command of the destroyer McCain, which patrolled the coast of South Vietnam and shelled Viet Cong positions.

"He said they fired many rounds and, being on a ship off shore, everyone felt relatively safe," Pamela said. "That was until the Viet Cong fired back, hitting ships nearby, killing a friend of his who commanded another ship."

"He felt the same way most everybody did about the war," Christner said. "We didn't go in there to win and the 'graduated response' of (Secretary of Defense Robert) MacNamara's probably killed more men than the Viet Cong did."

Clell Neil Ammerman was born April 3, 1932, in Greensburg, Pennsylania, the son of a state policeman and a mother who was a church organist. A gifted athlete, he starred in track, baseball and football at Greensburg High. He graduated in 1950 in the top 1 percent of his class.

In 1949, Ammerman joined the Navy Reserve. After passing the entrance exam, he was accepted to the Naval Academy on a football scholarship.

"He was my roommate," Christner said. "I was sort of a 'nonreg' person and he was a very 'reg' person -- he went by the book. There were times when we would 'go over the wall' on a Saturday night if you had a girlfriend outside. I could always tell when he was going to do a bed check. He'd get very antsy with me and say, 'You're not going over the wall tonight, are you?' "

Ammerman was the father of five children. One, Craig Ammerman of Channel Islands Harbor, remembers his dad being gone to sea a lot and that the family seemed to pack up and move every two or three years.

He has warm memories as well.

"We did duck hunting at Point Mugu when I was in high school, some camping at San Felipe in Baja California and we'd stay with friends in Lake Tahoe," said Craig, 40. "My fondest memories are sailing his boat, the Nitty Gritty, out of Channel Islands Harbor."

"My husband was a very commanding person," said Pamela Ammerman. "When he walked into a room you knew someone of interest had arrived. He was a very good listener, a fair man. I can't think of anybody who met him who disliked him. I was told that he was the type of naval officer that John Wayne portrayed in the movies, that his men would follow him anywhere."


Posted:  26 October 2001  Updated: 2 September 2005
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