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4 generations in the U.S. Navy: This Hampton family has seen 100 years of submarine history

Father and son, Lt. Adam Will and retired Capt. Alex Will, pose for a portrait on the front steps of the Will home in Hampton, Va. on Thursday, July 6, 2023. Adam is the fourth generation of Navy submariners to hail from the Will family following his father, his grandfather, Capt. John Will Jr., and great-grandfather, 4-star Admiral John Will Sr. (Kendall Warner/The Virginian-Pilot/TNS)

The grooves of the Will family’s gold-plated dolphins have tarnished. But the submarine warfare insignia, having been pinned to the chests of four generations, shines nonetheless.

The dolphins have been handed down from Will to Will for 100 years, bearing witness to major conflicts and events — World War II, the Cold War, the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Iraq War — and the U.S. Navy’s shift from diesel ships to nuclear powered warfighters. That century of Naval submarine history is mapped out on walls of the family’s Buckroe home in Hampton.

“This is submarine history, but it is our history too,” said Alex Will, a retired captain and third-generation submariner.

Alex was pinned with the dolphins in 1988 when he was 26. The insignia, which is given to qualified submariners, belonged to his father and his father’s father.

More than three decades later, those same dolphins belong to his son. Adam Will, 27, was pinned in May 2021 while assigned to the Norfolk-based USS Washington, a Virginia-class fast attack submarine. Although the Navy can’t confirm it, Adam may be the only fourth-generation submariner.

“It is a very special feeling,” Adam said. “When I look at the photos at home, and see what my great-grandfather, my grandfather and my dad have done, it is admirable. But I don’t think of it as continuing a legacy — I am just doing my job.”

Engraved on the back of the dolphins is the name of the first Will to join the silent service. John Will Sr. was one of the Navy’s first submarine officers in the years before World War II, with his commissioning dating to 1923. He commanded three diesel S-class submarines and the fleet submarine Porpoise before World War II.

“Four generations, in any profession is noteworthy, particularly when that service is so important to our nation’s defense,” Alex said. “In my grandfather’s day — World War II — submarines were critical to the outcome of that war, they were vital to winning the Cold War, and are arguably the most essential weapon system in these times of strategic competition.”

John Mylin Will Sr. also commanded submarine divisions in the Pacific and Military Sealift Command, achieving the rank of vice admiral. Upon his retirement in 1959, he received a “tombstone promotion,” and retired as a 4-star admiral. He died in 1981.

The second Will was the late Capt. John Will Jr., Adam’s grandfather. John Will Jr. began his Naval career in 1953 as the Navy was on the cusp of introducing nuclear-powered propulsion.

“My dad wanted to go to the Naval Academy. As a kid, he moved around with his mom and dad so much that he went to 28 schools growing up. He wrote an essay about wanting to be a midshipman in the U.S. Naval Academy and he turned it in every time he changed schools,” Alex said with a laugh.

John Will Jr. first worked on two destroyers and later entered the nuclear training program to transfer to submarines.

In 1989, John Will Jr. told The Beacon: “I know I’m prejudiced, but I feel the nuclear submarine fleet is the current backbone of the Navy … Not to take anything away from carriers or battle groups, but I think subs are slowly growing in prominence.”

John Will Jr. went on to be the first commanding officer of the USS Puffer (SSN 652), putting it in commission in 1968. He then served the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations as head of submarine research and development and returned to the Pentagon as a military advisor to the Department of Defense’s Office of Naval Warfare.

“We are all submariners but it is an interesting distinction because my great-grandfather was a diesel boat guy, but in the ’50s my grandfather shifted and spent his entire career as a nuclear officer.” Adam said. “And then my dad and I followed that directional shift and became nuclear officers.” 

In 1985, Alex Will was commissioned as an officer and assigned to fast attack submarine USS Silversides, continuing what was affectionately dubbed “a family tradition.” Alex served aboard the Norfolk-based submarine for three years before completing two years of shore duty and transitioning to the Navy Reserve. He retired as a captain in 2016 after a 30-year career.

While Alex left the active duty force, he still worked closely with submarines. He spent many years in the SSGN Program Office, overseeing the conversion of the capabilities of four Ohio-Class guided-missile submarines from launching nuclear missiles to launching guided missiles.

The Wills, Alex said, have always been drawn to subsurface warfare.

“It seems our family has always been connected to the submarine force in some way, shape or form,” Alex said. “Even my oldest brother, he is an engineer, he works on acoustic programs. That is very important to the submarine force because our eyes and ears down there are the acoustics. There are no windows. Listening is all you’ve got.” 

Even so, it came as a surprise to him when his son asked about pursuing a Navy Reserve Officers Training Corps scholarship before heading to the University of Virginia in 2014. The program offers college tuition to qualifying students who sign on to be commissioned as a Navy officer upon graduation.

“We have never pushed the military to our boys,” Alex said. “It was my thing, and it was my dad’s thing. But we never said, ‘Hey, why don’t you go into the military?’

“So when Adam was applying to colleges and writing essays, he said he might go for an ROTC scholarship, and we were like, ‘Where did that come from?’ Joining the military had not been uttered by him up until that point.”

Adam graduated from UVA in 2018 and went through two years of intensive nuclear training before he was commissioned in 2020. He was pinned with his dolphins in 2021.

“The Washington has a colloquial name — the Blackfish — and when we get pinned underway, we get pinned with black fish (dolphins), instead of silver or gold,” Adam said. “But because I was pinned with my great-grandfather’s dolphins, I was the only one with gold dolphins.” 

Adam was attached to the Washington for three years, and estimates he spent more than half of that time submerged.

“But the camaraderie you gain down there is …” Adam began. “It’s like 140 guys cooped up. Everyone comes from different backgrounds — not one person looks like the other. So, being able to understand where people come from, what their strengths are, what their weaknesses are, and be able to build a cohesive team, it’s a pretty incredible thing.” 

Adam concluded his first sea tour aboard the Washington in March, and is now assigned to U.S. Submarine Forces Atlantic.

As for whether or not the Will family legacy will continue for a fifth generation, Adam said virtually the same thing his father told The Beacon in 1989.

“I am single, so I have not really thought about it. But if my future son or daughter wants to be a submariner, they will have my full support.”


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