By Sandy Gall, Communication and Outreach Division, Naval History and Heritage Command
It’s a somewhat rare event to know when history is about to happen. Even rarer that you get to plan for it, but when our office learned the commissioning date for the USS Zumwalt would be October 15th, we knew it was going to be big and we knew we had a responsibility as the Naval History and Heritage Command, to share with the American people the remarkable story of how this man changed — revolutionized — the Navy. As part of that preparation, earlier this year, I had the great honor to interview Zumwalt’s three surviving children. After spending months researching Zumwalt, scouring our archives, looking through our photo collection, and transcribing his Z-grams, I didn’t think I’d learn much more than I already knew. I was wrong. The interviews were moving and enlightening. Each gave me unique insight into how one man shaped the Navy we know today. I interviewed Jim second, and he was able to shed more light on how his dad viewed service, and how he took great care of his Sailors.
Sandy: What would you want Sailors to remember about your dad?
Jim: Humanity. Here was someone who strove at every level of leadership, whether a department head or commanding officer and ultimately the head of the Navy, to do everything he could to improve life for his Sailors. He regretted that it took him so long to get to a position that could do it for the entire Navy, although he was still the youngest CNO to date. At every level he ascended to, he would always implement that approach and it, this notion of taking care of your Sailors, continued after he retired.
How did he remain active in pursing better lives for his Sailors upon his retirement?
He was very active in the Agent Orange issue. And he fought hard to get the effects recognized. When he first took the issue on, the VA [Veteran’s Affairs] did not recognize any correlation between exposure and the number of cancers our Vietnam veterans were suffering from. My father did a pro-bono report that identified a couple dozen cancers he felt were correlated to exposure. That report forced the VA to revisit the issue. And an interesting thing was the VA, after setting up a panel—at my father’s suggestion—of independent doctors to review the correlation, immediately recognized that three of the two dozen cancers correlated to Agent Orange. Today I believe there are 16 of the original two dozen my dad identified. Here was someone with no medical background who did this study and was able to determine the cancers correlated to exposure. Now the medical community agrees and has approved 15 or 16 of those cancers.
He firmly believed a wartime commander’s responsibility to his people did not end when the guns on the battlefield grew silent. He felt duty-bound the rest of his life to work for them.
He made a trip to Vietnam after the war to see about getting the Vietnamese government to do a study about Agent Orange. My dad was the most senior war commander ever to return to Vietnam, motivated by a sense of responsibility and compassion for those who so nobly served there. He firmly believed a wartime commander’s responsibility to his people did not end when the guns on the battlefield grew silent. He felt duty-bound the rest of his life to work for them. He was still doing so when he was hospitalized—suffering from another cancer related to military service, Mesothelioma—during the last months of his life. I have a lot of respect and admiration for what my father did.
I know your family was personally touched by the effect of Agent Orange. How did that affect your dad’s commitment?
My brother’s illness and 1988 death from one of these agent orange-related cancers really drove home the fact our veterans were coming home and dying. Just like when my father commanded the naval forces in Vietnam and looked for ways to reduce friendly casualties during the war, he wanted to do the same with the veterans who had been exposed to Agent Orange. Obtaining funding to establish a bone marrow registry became a natural way for him to do that. So he set it up as a conduit to help these ailing veterans find bone marrow matches to give them hope.
I don’t know if it’s relevant but are you familiar with how and why my father used Agent Orange?
During Vietnam? No, was that his call?
When he took over command of the forces there, they were aggressively working to cut off the resupply routes the enemy was using. The effectiveness of that effort was reflected by the significant reduction of casualties for U.S. Army ground forces. But because these Navy boats were operating in very narrow waterways with heavy vegetation on the river banks, the boats would find themselves in the middle of an ambush before they could respond. Statistically, if you served a one year tour in Vietnam with the Brown Water Navy, you stood a 72% chance of being killed or wounded. Obviously those were unacceptable odds. My father knew Agent Orange was available to defoliate these river banks for hundreds of feet along the rivers, thus denying the enemy close-in concealment, so he had his staff check with the chemical companies to make sure there were no harmful human effects. Agent Orange had been used by the Army around their firebases in Vietnam. After my father’s staff was assured by the chemical companies it was not harmful to humans, they had it sprayed. I don’t know if you’ve seen pictures of the de-foliation of these river banks, but it basically stripped trees of their leaves for several hundred feet on both sides. The impact was immediate as the casualty rate dropped from 72% to 6%. From a military standpoint, it was a great lifesaver, but it wasn’t until years later that we learned that Agent Orange was carcinogenic.
My father’s investigation into the matter uncovered that the chemical companies did know it was harmful and they were still providing it to the U.S. Defense Department. It’s one of those terrible and unnecessary tragedies of war where a weapons manufacturer knew about the dangers to the user of his product but failed to reveal it.
That must have been devastating for your father and your entire family.
I’ve learned when tragedy strikes in life, there are two ways to handle it. One is to allow negative energy to consume you; the other is to turn it into positive energy to do something purposeful. My father did the latter and threw himself in the Agent Orange issue. The bone marrow registry is one of the positive things that reflected that.
Although the Navy recognized him as a visionary, he was more than a visionary for the Navy—he was a visionary for humanity.
How do you see his legacy continuing today?
Obviously, the ship continues that legacy. I think it’s also seen today in the diversity represented by the Navy of today. For example, when he was CNO, Filipinos were not allowed to serve in any ratings other than stewards. He knew there was no basis for this and opened up all the ratings to Filipinos. Today we have Filipino flag officers. We have Michelle Howard who was the number two admiral in the Navy, VCNO, a four star African American female. I followed her career and when she was awarded the fourth star I sent her an email congratulating her. In it, I told her there was an angel with bushy eyebrows smiling down upon her. She immediately wrote back and thanked me and then attached a speech she had given a few months earlier in which she recognized my father’s contributions to giving the Navy the diversity it has today.
(Note: About those eyebrows…they are a family trait. Jim Zumwalt has them too and when he was in the Marine Corps was teasingly accused of having non regulation eyebrows, though he was never shown that regulation…)
What would your dad think of the ship and the class?
He’d be very humbled to be recognized in this way. What he did came very natural to him. He wasn’t committed to showing others what he was; he was committed to the humanity of mankind. And I don’t think you could have a more appropriate ship named for him. Just like my father, there has been some controversy, but there’s no denying it’s a modern ship, and my father is recognized for modernizing the Navy in the 1970’s. Improving life for his Sailors was important to him and the habitability of this ship reflects that… again, taking care of his Sailors was always high on his priority list, and the living quarters on the ship are unbelievable. On other destroyers you have 30-40 Sailors living in one compartment; on USS Zumwalt you have four-man state rooms for Sailors, each with their own head. Everything onboard this ship reflects, in various ways, what my father was all about.
And let me just add that the commanding officer, Captain Jim Kirk, has done a fantastic job giving this ship life and the crew spirit, imbuing the latter with many of my father’s leadership traits. Every Sailor who reports onboard knows what they are expected to live up to: the high standards my father set for himself and his Navy. Kirk has even set up a museum onboard the ship dedicated to my father. Each Sailor is required to watch a video to help them better understand who Elmo Zumwalt was and what he accomplished.