Retired Vice Adm. William E. Ellis, 73, a highly decorated pilot in World War II who became assistant chief of naval operations and commander of the 6th Fleet, died of cancer Sept. 26 at a hospital in Norfolk.

In World War II, Adm. Ellis participated in the allied invasion of North Africa.

A year later he was in the Pacific. His decorations included the Air Medal, the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Navy Cross, which ranks second only to the Medal of Honor in awards for valor.

He earned the Air Medal while commanding an air group aboard the carrier Intrepid and the Distinguished Flying Cross while acting as target coordinator for planes from the Intrepid and the carrier Bunker Hill against Japanese merchant ships near the Philippines.

He was awarded the Navy Cross for his work in October 1944 as target coordinator for initial air strikes against a major Japanese naval task force in the Sibuyan Sea. The citation read in part:

"He boldly circled within perilously close range of powerful enemy antiaircraft fields and coolly directed the attacks. Flying approximately 10 hours a day throughout three days of furious action, he skillfully led coordinated strikes against one force consisting of 13 destroyers, eight cruisers, and four battleships, and a second force of enemy carriers. His brilliant leadership and aggressive initiative and daring combat tactics were in large measure responsible for the success of this decisive engagement."

In the 1950s, Adm. Ellis' assignments included the Naval War College, from which he graduated, various staff posts in Washington, command of the aircraft carrier Forrestal and duty as chief of staff of a carrier division.

From 1962 to 1964, he was assistant chief of Naval operations for Air. He spent the next two years as commander of the 6th Fleet in the Mediterranean. He was chief of staff to the Supreme Allied (NATO) Commander, Atlantic, at the time he retired on Oct. 1, 1968.

While commanding the 6th Fleet, Adm. Ellis directed recovery of a hydrogen bomb that had been lost off the coast of Spain in an airplane crash. He received a Distinguished Service Medal for this.

On his retirement, he received a second DSM for directing the planning of NATO's Standing Naval Force Atlantic.

Adm. Ellis, who lived in Norfolk, was born in North Carolina. He was a 1930 graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis and earned his wings at the Naval Air Station at Pensacola, Fla.

Before the war, he served aboard the battleships Colorado and Mississippi and the carriers Saratoga and Enterprise.

Survivors include his wife, the former Barbara E. Decker, of Norfolk; a son, retired Navy Cmdr. William E. Jr., of Orange Park, Fla.; a brother, Charles B. Jr., of Burlington, N.C.; three sisters, Mary Green of Tampa, Fla., Gertrude Henderson of Burlington, and Ruth Leggett of Lynchburg, Va., and two grandchildren.