By Guest Blogger: Marine Col. (Ret.) James “Jim” G. Zumwalt, son of Adm. Elmo “Bud” Zumwalt, Jr.
Editor’s Note: As the commissioning of USS Zumwalt (DDG 1000) drew near, we knew we wanted to share more information about Admiral Elmo R. Zumwalt, Jr., the 19th Chief of Naval Operations. There was no question whatever we came up with would qualify as a post in our series of Navy Legend blogs. While preparing the other blogs connected with the commissioning we were privileged to create posts based on our conversations with Zumwalt’s three surviving children, Ann Zumwalt, James Zumwalt and Mouzetta Zumwalt-Weathers. During those conversations, Jim shared with us a letter he had written in a campaign to have a postage stamp created honoring his father. Although that bid eventually proved unsuccessful, the letter was a moving testament to the achievements of a legendary Navy leader. Since we can think of no one more qualified to speak about Admiral Zumwalt than his son, this Navy Legends blog post is made up of excerpts from that letter penned by Lt. Col. James G. Zumwalt, USMCR (Retired).
My father’s achievements were so well recognized at the time of his death on January 2, 2000, that seven months later President Clinton—who had earlier presented the Presidential Medal of Freedom to him—announced a new class of warship was to be named after him. The lead ship of that class— USS Zumwalt (DDG 1000) is commissioned today, Oct. 15, 2016 in Baltimore, Md.
Navy ships have long been named in honor of men and women who achieved great accomplishments. USS Zumwalt recognizes a man who dedicated much of his life to leveling life’s playing field for others who were unable to do so for themselves. A military man by profession, Admiral Zumwalt would prove himself not only to be of such an ilk, but a tremendous innovator and great humanitarian as well.
Admiral Zumwalt enjoyed an immensely successful naval career that witnessed a meteoric rise to the U.S. Navy’s top position. At the age of 44, he was the Navy’s youngest Rear Admiral; at 47, its youngest Vice Admiral; and, at age 49, its youngest Admiral and Chief of Naval Operations (CNO).
During a 32-year career that included fighting in three wars, Admiral Zumwalt committed his life to achieving equality for all serving in his beloved Navy. While his life as a junior officer was spent practicing this belief on a local command level, it was not until he became CNO that he was able to implement such beliefs on a service-wide basis through a series of very creative leadership initiatives.
As reported in the Dec. 21, 1970 issue of Time Magazine, which featured him on its cover, Admiral Zumwalt’s initiatives brought the US Navy, “kicking and screaming into the 20th Century.” The article went on to hail him as “the Navy’s most popular leader since World War II.”
The impact of Admiral Zumwalt’s racial equality initiatives is evident today as one of the Navy’s most senior officers is an African-American woman, Admiral Michelle Howard, who credits his policies as having paved the way for her own success.
While the beneficiaries of many of the changes Admiral Zumwalt implemented in the Navy were members of minority groups whose professional growth within the service had been stymied by overly restrictive regulations, he worked diligently to improve service life for all wearing the Navy uniform.
What had prompted his selection in 1970 by President Nixon over 33 more senior admirals was his advocacy for rapid and drastic changes in the way the Navy treated its uniformed men and women. And, once selected, he made their advocacy a reality, undertaking numerous initiatives that included:
- improving living conditions in the Navy
- promoting the first female and first African-American officers to flag rank
- allowing females to become naval aviators
- opening up ratings for Filipino Sailors whose service had long been limited to a steward’s rating
- eliminating demeaning and abrasive U.S. Navy regulations that negatively impacted Sailors’ attitudes without providing a corresponding positive enhancement of professional performance and many more.
The positive impact of Admiral Zumwalt’s changes was tremendous, as evidenced by the effect on re-enlistment rates. These rates were at an all-time low when he took command of the Navy in 1970; when he retired four years later, re-enlistment rates had tripled. His personal papers, on file at The Vietnam Center at Texas Tech University, include numerous letters from Sailors written over the years expressing their personal gratitude for changes he made that impacted so positively on their decision to stay and make the Navy a career.
When Admiral Zumwalt retired from the Navy in 1974, it did not end his service to country. He continued in numerous capacities to fight for the oppressed. Having served as Commander of U.S. Naval Forces in Vietnam during the war, he was of the belief a commander’s responsibility to his men survived the battlefield, prompting him to fight for U.S. government benefits for Vietnam veterans suffering from Agent Orange exposure.
By way of background, Admiral Zumwalt had ordered the use of the chemical defoliant Agent Orange during the war to reduce the high casualty rate his Sailors were suffering. Heavy jungle concealment provided the enemy with the element of surprise in ambushes against U.S. Navy patrol boats operating in Vietnam’s narrow waterways.
The Sailors onboard these boats stood a 72% chance of being killed or wounded during a twelve-month tour. The use of Agent Orange improved survivability, reducing the casualty rate twelve-fold—to just 6%. However, it was not until years later that the adverse long-term health impact of Agent Orange on those exposed to it became known.
In a bitter irony of the Vietnam War, one of those so exposed, later succumbing to Agent Orange-related cancers, was Admiral Zumwalt’s namesake and my older brother—Elmo R. Zumwalt III. A book, entitled “My Father, My Son,” tells the story of the love and devotion that existed between the two men as, together, they fought the unsuccessful battle for young Elmo’s survival. In 1988, the book became the basis for a made-for-TV movie of the same title starring the late Karl Malden.
Until Admiral Zumwalt led the charge for benefits for Vietnam veterans afflicted by Agent Orange exposure, not a single cancer had been recognized by the Veterans Administration as having a causal relationship. Appointed by the Secretary of Veterans Affairs to conduct a pro bono study on the linkage of Agent Orange to cancers, Admiral Zumwalt analyzed dozens of medical studies—studies that had found no correlation—until he showed how such studies were flawed—a phenomenal undertaking for someone with no medical background.
Additionally, Admiral Zumwalt discovered the U.S. government’s medical review board, responsible for determining if such correlations were supported by existing medical evidence, lacked credibility in this role as its members included physicians with personal ties to the very chemical companies that had manufactured Agent Orange.
Today, medical evidence has established that more than two dozen cancers are linked to Agent Orange exposure. And, as a direct result of Admiral Zumwalt’s tireless efforts, Vietnam veterans are now receiving medical benefits.
Admiral Zumwalt’s sense of duty and responsibility to his fellow human beings spurred him on to other great achievements. He was founder of The Marrow Foundation, which raised funding to undertake the matching of bone marrow donors and recipients. He served briefly as a U.S. ambassador to the American Red Cross in Geneva. In the years after the Vietnam War, he worked diligently to win the early release of his good friend and South Vietnamese counterpart in Vietnam during the conflict, Commodore Tran van Chon, from a communist re-education camp.
During his lifetime, Admiral Zumwalt gave extensively of his own time and energy to pro bono efforts. These included serving on the Board of Directors of charitable organizations such as the Phelps-Stokes Fund, Presidential Classroom for Young Americans Organization, National Marrow Donor Program, and Vietnam Assistance to the Handicapped Foundation; serving as the Chairman of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, the National Council of the Vietnam Center at Texas Tech University, and the U.S. Navy Memorial Foundation; serving as a member of the President’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board and the International Consortium for Research on the Health Effects of Radiation.
One of Admiral Zumwalt’s last contributions was to establish the National Program for Countermeasures to Biological and Chemical Threats at Texas Tech University, which later was named after him. This is a multidisciplinary academic research program that today conducts cutting-edge work to investigate and develop new strategies and technologies to protect military forces from such threats.
Tragically, Admiral Zumwalt would succumb to a service-related “environmental cancer” brought on by exposure to asbestos during his naval service. In the early morning hours of the new millennium, at the age of 79, he passed away on January 2, 2000.
At Admiral Zumwalt’s funeral on January 10, 2000, in addressing a standing room only Chapel service at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md., President Bill Clinton described him as truly being a “Sailors’ Admiral.”
Among the numerous tributes made after his death was one entered into the January 24, 2000 Congressional Record by Senator Russell D. Feingold of Wisconsin who said: “Admiral Zumwalt crusaded for a fair and equal Navy. He fought to promote equality for minorities and women at a time of considerable racial strife in our country and at a time of deeply entrenched institutional racism and sexism in the Navy…Admiral Elmo Zumwalt was a great naval leader, a visionary and a courageous challenger of the conventional wisdom. We will not see the likes of him again. We mourn his passing and salute his accomplishments.”
Because of Admiral Zumwalt’s commitment in life to improving the lives of others, a number of awards bearing his name—recognizing his accomplishments as a humanitarian and a visionary—exist today, not only in the U.S. Navy, but in the private sector as well. The positive impact Admiral Zumwalt had as one of this Nation’s great military leaders and humanitarians was recognized by two major events—one occurring during his lifetime and one following his death.
First, in 1998, Admiral Zumwalt was presented with the Nation’s highest civilian honor by President Clinton—the Presidential Medal of Freedom—for service both to his Navy and country.
In part, the citation read, for “exemplifying the ideal of service to our country, both in wartime and in peacetime. He not only created a higher quality of life for sailors during his service in the Navy, but also fought tirelessly for veterans afflicted with medical conditions resulting from service to their country.” President Clinton called Admiral Zumwalt “one of the greatest models of integrity and leadership and humanity our Nation has ever produced.”
Second, on July 4, 2000, at an Independence Day celebration onboard the aircraft carrier USS John F. Kennedy (CV 67), President Clinton announced a new class of warship—one unlike any other ever built, representing the greatest technological advancement in the history of ship-building—would be named after my father, with the first ship of the class to be named USS Zumwalt.
As USS Zumwalt enters the fleet, it ushers in a whole new era in U.S. naval history. Future ships of the 21st century Navy will incorporate many of the design features and unique capabilities for which USS Zumwalt has broken new ground.
One of my father’s favorite quotes was Edmond Burke’s admonition, “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.” My father lived his life by this creed. Not a minute of it was wasted doing “nothing.” His life was dedicated to helping his fellow man.