Retired Air Force Maj. Gen. John D. Lavelle, 62, commander of the 7th Air Force who ordered unauthorized strikes against targets in North Vietnam during 1971 and 1972, died yesterday at Northern Virginia Doctors Hospital in Arlington after an apparent heart attack.
He was stricken at the second tee of the Fairfax Country Club early yesterday afternoon while playing golf.
Sen. John Stennis (D-Miss), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said in October 1972 at a committee hearing that Gen. Lavelle "had not obeyed orders; that he went beyond the rules" when he ordered "protective reaction" strikes against targets that did not fall within this category under presidential ground rules and then falsified flight mission records.
The protective reaction policy in force during most of the time the violations occurred forbade American pilots to bomb North Vietnam unless fired upon by antiaircraft missiles or "painted" by fire control radar.
Testimony was brought before Congress that 7th Air Force pilots were ordered through secret communications from Gen. Lavelle's Saigon headquaters to bomb targets in North Vietnam whether fired on or not.
Gen. Lavelle told Congress that he felt under pressure to be aggressive in fighting the air war, but stopped short of saying that any superior told him to go ahead and break the "protective reaction" rule.
He told Congress that he stretched the protective reaction rule but did not intentionally break it.
A house of Representatives committee later found that the bombing rules were liberalized soon after these incidents, a that Gen. Lavelle's decision to stretch the rules were to give his pilots a fighting chance against improved enemy weapon systems.
However, a report issued by the House Armed Services Committee in December 1972, said, "While the question of whether Gen. Lavelle exceeded his authority in directing the air strikes might be debated, there appeals little doubt that as commander of the 7th Air Force he must bear responsibility for the false reports filed" on "at least four of those strikes."
His actions brought about the controversy surrounding his retirement. Gen. Lavelle a four-star general, was retired at two-star rank. In a 12-to-2 vote, the Senate Armed Services Committee, for the first time in modern U.S. military history, decided that a four-star general would be retired at a lesser rank.
While the members respected the military and resented the burden put on American commanders in Vietnam like Gen. Lavelle, they respected the military code more. Military orders, nowever burdensome, must be obeyed.
Gen. Lavelle was born in Cleveland. A 1938 graduate of John Carroll University, he enlisted in the Army Air Corps in 1940.
After service in World War II, he commanded a supply group in Japan in the early 1950s, was secretary of the Air Force Weapons Board at the Pentagon from 1959 to 1961, and served with NATO forces in Europe. He was vice commander of Pacific Air Force with headquaters in Hawaii at the time of his appointment to the 7th Air Force in 1971. He retired in April 1972.
Survivors include his wife, Mary J., of the home in Oakton; four sons, "John D., of Fredericksburg, Michael J., of Gaithersburg, Timothy W., of Alexandria, and Dennis K., of St Louis, Mo.; three daughters, Barbara A. Foster of Leesburg, Geraldine M. Enole of St. Louis, and Patricia E. Evans of Miami, Fla.; a sister, and nine grandchildren.