Rear Adm. Robert Waring McNitt, a naval officer whose career spanned two wars and who, after retiring from the Navy, was dean of admissions at the Naval Academy for more than a decade, died Sunday of heart failure at the Ginger Cove retirement community in Annapolis.
He was 97.
The son of an industrial engineer and a homemaker, Robert Waring McNitt was born and raised in Perth Amboy, N.J., where his interest in boats and sailing began as a youngster. He was a teenager when he and a brother built a dinghy, which they enjoyed sailing on nearby Raritan Bay.
As a teenager, he achieved the rank of Eagle Scout. After graduating from Perth Amboy High School in 1934, he was appointed to the Naval Academy, where he graduated in 1938.
As a midshipman, he helped restore the academy's sailing and yacht racing program.
His initial service was in the Atlantic aboard the heavy cruiser USS Chicago, and after a year, he joined the destroyer USS Rhind, where he served for three years as chief engineer.
After graduating from submarine school, he was assigned as executive officer to the USS Barb in the Pacific.
The submarine was under the command of Cmdr. Eugene B. "Gene" Fluckey, who is considered one of the greatest naval heroes of World War II. "Lucky Fluckey," as he was known, and his 80-man crew were credited with sinking 29 Japanese ships, including an aircraft carrier, a destroyer and a cruiser. He later attained the rank of rear admiral.
"He was extraordinary," Admiral McNitt told The Washington Post at the time of Admiral Fluckey's death in 2007.
Admiral McNitt completed five wartime patrols and was decorated with two Silver Stars, one of which was for rescuing Allied POWs who had been aboard a torpedoed Japanese transport.
"In addition to being executive officer on the Barb, Bob's secondary job was serving as navigator. They were the farthest sub out, and when they went to rescue those men, he navigated so precisely that they got right to the area," said retired Rear Adm. James A. Winnefeld Sr.
"In those days, we didn't have all the navigational tools we have now; it was all done by celestial navigation and dead reckoning. And what he did was a marvelous piece of navigation," he said.
"He had to take into account the wind, tide and floating of the wreckage. When they got there, they were able to pull 14 men, who were covered in oil and had been in the water for five days, aboard the Barb," said Admiral Winnefeld.
After the war, Admiral McNitt earned a master's degree in ordnance engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and then served from 1947 to 1949 aboard the carrier USS Midway as a gunnery officer.
While working at the Naval Ordnance Laboratory at White Oak near Silver Spring, Admiral McNitt helped design the Navy's first underwater atomic weapon.
During the Korean War, Admiral McNitt commanded the destroyer USS Taylor, Destroyer Division 322 and Destroyer Squadron 25 in the China Sea.
Land assignments included the Bureau of Ordnance Research Division, the Industrial College of the Armed Forces and serving as director of the Atlantic fleet Anti-Submarine Warfare Tactical School.
From 1962 to 1964, he was assigned to the Naval Academy, where he played a major role in revising the curriculum and hiring the first academic dean.
In the mid-1960s, he was the U.S. representative on the staff of the commander in chief of allied forces in the Mediterranean, stationed in Malta, and commanded Cruiser Destroyer Flotilla 4. He was then assigned as superintendent of the Naval Postgraduate School at Monterey, Calif.
Admiral McNitt retired from active service in 1971, and the next year he was appointed the first civilian dean of admissions at the Naval Academy.
In 1975, Congress ordered that women be admitted to all the nation's service academies, and one of the highlights of Admiral McNitt's career was making sure that this was a seamless transition.
"I had a chance to work with Bob hand-in-glove in the admissions office during his last two years," said Admiral Winnefeld.
"He had to get people who would have the best chance of coping with and surviving the Naval Academy's curriculum, and with the entrance of women, it wasn't changed, and he did a very good job with that," he said.
"If we accept someone, the question is how do we keep him?" Admiral McNitt told The Evening Sun in a 1980 interview. "That's a lot different from the old attitude, which in effect was, 'If he can't hack it, that's his problem.' If you have a good man or woman, it makes sense to keep them. If that means helping them along, then that's what you must do."
Admiral McNitt said the admission committee carefully selected those they brought to Annapolis.
"We have to be flexible in bringing them along. We don't want to lose a potential leader," he said. "But these are the people we hope will stay in the Navy for their careers. This is where the Navy's leaders 30 years from now will come."
Admiral Winnefeld attributed much of his friend's success to his personality.
"Bob was a warm and outgoing man. He had a charm about him, and he had the ability at making someone feel like they were the only person in the room," he said. "He was a brilliant man and had a good team who would go to the limits for him. He was a professional in the finest sense of the word."
He retired as dean of admissions in 1985.
Admiral McNitt never lost his love of sailing and racing.
"While I was in the Navy I raced whenever I could," he told The Baltimore Sun in a 2001 article. "If I was new somewhere, I would head over to the local yacht club and see if anyone needed a crew that weekend."
He was commodore of the U.S. Naval Sailing Association and president of the U.S. Naval Foundation. He was also elected to the Intercollegiate Yacht Racing Association of North America Hall of Fame.
Admiral McNitt wrote "Sailing at the U.S. Naval Academy," which was published in 1996, and was co-author with Paul Stillwell of "The Reminiscences of Rear Admiral Robert W. McNitt,U.S. Navy," which was published in 2002.
He explained in the interview with The Sun the enduring value of the academy's three-week summer sailing program, when several hundred midshipman head off to the Atlantic.
"This is an excellent way to bring people along," he said. "This is an opportunity to learn that everybody on the boat matters, that it's important to look out for one another, to develop a sea sense, to feel humble in the faces of the forces around them."
His wife of 34 years, the former Barbara MacMurray, died in 1971. His second wife, the former Patricia Hicks Miller, died this year after 38 years of marriage.
Services for Admiral McNitt will be held at 10:30 a.m. Wednesday at the Naval Academy Chapel in Annapolis.
Surviving are three sons, James A. McNitt and Douglas W. McNitt, both of Annapolis, and Robert W. McNitt of Johnson City, Tenn.; a daughter, Katherine McNitt Jensen of St. Paul, Minn; a stepson, Peter Hicks Miller of Washington; three stepdaughters, Patricia Anne Miller of Sunnyvale, Calif., Lane Miller of Philadelphia and Hope Miller Heffelfinger of Edina, Minn.; three brothers, James D. McNitt of Naples, Fla., Edward W. McNitt of Portsmouth, N.H., and Douglas McNitt of Chagrin Falls, Ohio; and 10 grandchildren.