Retired Vice Adm. Ralph S. Riggs, 85, who won the Navy Cross and several other decorations as a destroyer commander in the Pacific during World War II, died of respiratory arrest Tuesday at the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda.He had been hospitalized for the last three months with chest injuries suffered in a traffic accident.
Adm. Riggs participated in 13 major Pacific battles during the war, beginning with the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. In the first six months of 1942, he commanded a destroyer division in action off Bougainville island and in the battles of the Coral Sea and Midway.
For his achievements in these engagements, Adm. Riggs, who was then a captain, received the Bronze Star. The citation read, "When Japanese aircraft viciously attacked his group and two planes attempted suicide dives, [he] skillfully maneuvered his flagship close aboard the [aircraft] carrier, thereby enabling his ships' devastating gunfire to blast both planes into the sea. With the enemy attempting to land on our carriers during a night engagement in the Coral Sea, his division again sent up a relentless barrage to beat back the attackers. . . . Later he conducted effective screening operations for our carrier task force at Midway . . ."
On March 26, 1943, he won the Navy Cross -- after the Medal of Honor, the nation's highest decoration for gallantry in the Naval service -- for the part he played in an action off the Komandorski Islands. He was part of a U.S. task group that was attacked by a stronger Japanese force that was trying to land troops and supplies in the Aleutian Islands.
The commendation said in part that Adm. Riggs "engaged in a fierce running battle for 3 1/2 hours with an enemy force twice the strength of his own, [maneuvering] his destroyers so skillfully that he undoubtedly saved a heavy cruiser of the task group . . . in serious difficulty." It concluded, "His bold attack was a deciding factor in turning back the Japanese force. . . ."
From July 1943 to March 1944, Adm. Riggs served as chief of staff and aide to the Commander of Destroyers, Pacific Fleet. He was awarded the Legion of Merit for "contributing to the reliability and efficiency of destroyers in carrying out extensive operations against heavily fortified Japanese strongholds and to the sustained drive to extend U.S. control westward. . . ."
In March 1944, he was named captain of the battleship South Dakota and won a second Legion of Merit for the eight months he served aboard her. From November 1944 until the war was over, he commanded cover and support groups of light cruisers and destroyers. Among other places, he saw action in the Southern Philippines and earned a second Bronze Star and a third Legion of Merit.
After the war, Adm. Riggs returned to the United States and subsequently served as assistant chief of Naval operations of the Naval Reserve. He was director of the Naval Reserves in 1951 when he retired at his own request.
He then became a general partner in the New York Stock Exchange firm of Burton, Cluett and Dana. He established a Washington office for the company and retired in 1968.
Adm. Riggs was born in Paris, Tex., and grew up in Amarillo. He graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis in 1917 and served aboard a cruiser and destroyers escorting troops to France in World War I. His assignments between the wars included various appointments ashore, including the Naval War College and Washington, and service aboard several ships.
A resident of Potomac, Adm. Riggs was a member of the Army & Navy Club, the Metropolitan Club, the Chevy Chase Club and the Burning Tree Club. He was a life member of the Naval Academy Alumni Association.
His wife of 52 years, the former Kathryn Pew, died in March.
Survivors include a son, Ralph S. Jr., of Baltimore; a sister, Kate Wheeler of Amarillo, and two brothers, Newton and Harry Riggs, also of Texas.