ANNAPOLIS, Md. (AP) _ Naval Secretary James H. Webb Jr. said he has ordered the Naval Academy to return to striving for excellence.

''Somewhere in the bitter conflict of the Vietnam era, this institution apparently lost its guts or its esteem and backed away from its tradition,'' Webb said.

Webb told more than 4,000 midshipmen Wednesday night said pre-Vietnam War mission statement encourages excellence, and he said he would sign an order Thursday restoring the earlier mission statement.

The language Webb decided to remove said the academy's purpose was ''to prepare midshipmen morally, mentally and physically to be professional officers in the Naval service.''

When Webb was a midshipmen, in the 1960s, the mission statement said leaders and faculty ''must imbue them with the highest ideals of duty, honor and loyalty in order to provide graduates who are dedicated to a career of Naval service ... to assume the highest responsibilities of command, citizenship and government.''

Webb, the 66th secretary of the Navy, took office April 10. He has suggested on various occasions that the academy may focus too much on academics.

A Marine company commander in Vietnam soon after his graduation, Webb earned the Navy Cross, the Silver Star Medal, two Bronze Star medals and two Purple Hearts.

Cmdr. John Craighill of the academy said he thinks the mission change merely is a rallying point.

A 1967 graduate, Craighill said he preferred the statement he, too, read as a student. However, the shorter version did not mean academy leaders stopped striving for excellence, he said.

Midshipman 3rd Class Rick Gesell said he was impressed with Webb's views. ''It will make people think more about what they're doing here.''