Joe Rizza, 97

Services for the retired rear admiral and Shores resident will be held Saturday at Resurrection Lutheran. He rubbed elbows with luminaries from Reagan to Lana Turner, and the infamous too.

In the wake of World War II and at the height of the Cold War, Joe Rizza ended a brilliant career at sea in the Merchant Marine and U.S. Navy to which few, if any, could lay claim.

Yet he wasn’t done. He went on to build another sterling career for himself as a major player in foreign policy and as an educator, with far-reaching results. 

As an expert in international political military policies, Joe played a dominant role in U.S. foreign policy as adviser to the highest office in the land, the President of the United States. 

Rizza had a reputation worldwide for his unbiased and objective work, and the integrity, honesty and credibility he consistently brought to the table. During his wartime service he was the epitome of leadership, ethical comportment, and complete grace under fire. 

Joe died Oct. 5, at Sharp Coronado Hospital from congestive heart failure. He was 97. Services will be held at Resurrection Lutheran Church of Coronado at 2 p.m., Saturday, with a reception to follow. 

Until the end, Joe remained an active presence at both Coronado Roundtable and Coronado Rotary – two organizations he was very proud of. Admiral Rizza retired in 1983 after 50 years of a distinguished professional life encompassing three related careers – Merchant Marine officer (1934-42), Naval Officer (1942-72), and President and champion of the California Maritime Academy (1972-83) in Vallejo.

He left the service at the rank of Rear Admiral, Maritime Service (Ret.); and Captain Navy (Ret.). 

Joseph P. Rizza was born in Johnstown, Pennsylvania on Jan. 30, 1915 as one of two sons and a daughter of Italian emigrants. The Rizza boys had to work hard to get their shot at education and a career; at 18 Joe worked six days a week in steel mills for long hours and little pay, while awaiting acceptance to the Pennsylvania Maritime Academy. 

He graduated with distinction from the academy in 1936, and later the University of Washington, where he was selected Phi Beta Kappa and was graduated in 1951, cum laude in political science. He earned a Master’s Degree in Political Science from the Boston University Graduate School in 1958 while pulling double duty in the evenings and on weekends on the faculty at the Naval War College in Newport, RI. 

After graduating from the Maritime Academy Joe sailed with the U.S. Lines Steam Ship Company out of New York, rotating between the Trans-Atlantic passenger liners and around-the-world flag cargo liners for six years. He rose to become the youngest Coast Guard-licensed Master Mariner in the company. 

At the onset of WWII Joe was called to active duty in the Navy and participated in major amphibious assaults of the Pacific Theatre. For the next 31 years he made the Navy his life and his career. 

After a brief assignment as a nautical scientist with the Naval Hydrographic office in Washington D.C., Joe served in the newly commissioned USS Leedstown, a 500-foot attack transport as navigator and operations officer. 

In 1944, Joe found himself executive officer of another new commission, the attack transport USS Banner. Here he partook in additional, crucial amphibious assaults throughout New Guinea, the Philippines, and Okinawa. A narrow miss by a kamikaze attack haunted his dreams and plagued Joe with severe back pains for the rest of his life. 

He later served as executive officer on the destroyers USS O’Brien and the USS Lloyd Thomas, and commanded the destroyer escort USS Spangler in the Pacific Fleet. Rizza also commanded the destroyer USS Gregory and the attack transport USS Mountrail. 

Rizza served on the faculty of the Naval War College as an instructor and Chairman of the Strategy and Tactics Department before returning to sea in command of Destroyer Escort Squadron Three, an Anti-Submarine Warfare squadron in the Pacific Fleet. In 1960 he served in Seoul, Korea where he assumed command of the U.S. Naval Advisory Group, Republic of Korea Navy for three years, and played a central role in building that country’s Navy. 

From 1964-66 Captain Rizza served on the Joint Chiefs of Staff as a Far East Politico-Military Planner in the Plans and Policy Directorate. He was awarded the Joint Service Commendation Medal for outstanding performance in this assignment. 

During this period, and based on his vast experience in dealing with other countries and their leaders, Joe wrote five classified foreign policy papers for the Joint Chiefs, including “The Future of the Ryukyus,” which caused great concern regarding the future of Japan and Okinawa and “The Future of the Trust Territories of the Pacific Islands,” which became U.S. policy for island nations creating the option of joining the U.S. or seeking sovereignty post WWII.

Rizza commanded Destroyer Squadron 24 from 1966-68. During this tour he served two deployments as Screen Commander in the Sixth Fleet and the Mediterranean attack carrier striking force, which consisted of 12 destroyers. 

At this time Joe was invited to attend a gathering hosted by Princess Grace of Monaco. Joe had been on intense operations for three days and nights, but wasn’t about to miss a chance to meet the former actress and member of European royalty.

They became fast friends and the princess put her personal car at Joe’s service during his stay in Monoco. Such celebrity/political encounters were not uncommon in his position.

Before World War II he met a powerful German politician named Adolf Hitler. Rizza dined with King Ibn Saud of Saudi Arabia in his desert palace. He interviewed General Franco, President of Spain, broke bread with Mobuto, ruler of Zaire in the Congo, studied under Henry Kissinger, lunched with Africa’s Idi Amin, and interacted with most of the presidents in office during his professional career. 

In 1968 Joe Rizza was hand-selected by Admiral Elmo Zumwalt to be his Chief of Staff, Commander U.S. Naval Forces Vietnam/Chief, Naval Advisory Group, MACV, overseeing all allied navies participating in the Vietnam War. 

Rizza accepted an invitation by ov. Ronald Reagan in 1972 to take over as President of the beleaguered California Maritime Academy in Vallejo. While there he achieved the transition of the academy into the 21st century. Always on the cutting edge, Rizza opened the school’s doors to women and saw the first female applicants graduate. 

The three-year course of study at the academy was expanded to four years, and the California Maritime Academy became an accredited institution of higher education, subsequently joining the California State University system. When he retired in 1984 the auditorium at the California Maritime Academy was named for him, with a large painting of him placed on the wall in the foyer.

Over his long career Joe belonged to numerous organizations, including the Council of American Master Mariners, Rotary International, Vallejo Chamber of Commerce, Propeller Club of the U.S., Navy League San Diego County, Coronado Roundtable, World Affairs Council-San Diego, San Diego Civil Service Commission and Propellor Club Port of San Diego. 

Joe’s biography, The Life & Times of Joe Rizza: Friend of All the World, was published the year before his death. The book is available to read online, free, at www.blurb.com/books/2471487.

Joe Rizza was married to the late Marie Antoinette Follin (the actress had the stage name of “Dona Clara”). Upon his marriage to Dona Clara, Joe adopted her daughter Barbara, and subsequently raised their two grandchildren as his own. Joe is survived by his current wife, Fran Rizza of Coronado, grandchildren Phillip Monroe of San Diego, and Michael Monroe of Moraga, CA, and six great grandchildren. 

His remains will be interred at Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery at 11:30 a.m. Dec. 7. In lieu of flowers the family asks that donations be made in his memory to the Coronado Rotary and Coronado Roundtable.


This obituary was created by Joe Ditler and LivingObituary.com.


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