“When I first saw Mouza at that dinner party in Shanghai, my heart literally stopped,” Admiral Elmo “Bud” Zumwalt Jr.
recalled. “She was a tall, beautiful, poised young woman with a radiant smile that filled the room. I was transfixed by her.”
Mouza Coutelais-du-Roche was born in Harbin, Manchuria, the northern province of China, in 1922. Her parents had fled from Siberia in 1921 during the Russian Revolution, settling in the Russian community in Harbin. Harbin was rich in culture but lacked advanced hospitals. When Mouza’s mother Anna was diagnosed with cancer, she traveled to Beijing for surgery. After the procedure, Mouza accompanied Anna to rest at the home of Mouza’s aunt in Shanghai.
Anna passed away in 1942, but Mouza remained in Shanghai. She could not go home to Harbin because Soviet troops had occupied Manchuria at the end of World War II
. After the Japanese surrender, Mouza joined a crowd in Shanghai that welcomed Ataka, a captured Japanese gunboat sailed by a small U.S. Navy crew. On 1 October 1945, Mouza hosted a dinner party for several of the American sailors, including Ataka’s captain, 24-year-old Lieutenant Zumwalt.
It was love at first sight for Mouza and the young lieutenant. Bud had brought a bottle of scotch to the party. Mouza spoke Russian to her aunt, pretending to explain the drink, while actually saying Bud was “the most handsome, romantic man” she had ever seen. “Bud thought I was terribly impressed with the Scotch because it was so hard to get,” Mouza recalled. “But I knew then that a good man was infinitely harder to get than a good bottle of Scotch.”
Bud sat next to Mouza during the dinner and was impressed by her fluency in four languages: Russian, French, Chinese, and Japanese. He proposed a deal: Mouza would teach him Russian, and he would teach her English.
For 10 days, the pair tutored each other and spent time picnicking, dancing, and eating supper at the home of Mouza’s aunt. “Despite the fact that I spoke very little English and he very little Russian, we did speak the international language of love,” Mouza later wrote.
On their seventh day together, Zumwalt recited two lines of poetry to Mouza: “Come live with me and be my love / And we will all the pleasures prove.” At first, Mouza thought Bud was asking her to live with him and was upset. When he explained he was proposing marriage, she knew she would say yes. In fact, she had known she would accept a proposal after their third date.
Several obstacles stood in the way of a happily ever after. First, Mouza was already engaged to an Italian marine named Bruno, but she had not heard from him since he was captured by the Japanese. When Bruno was freed, he had tried to reach Mouza in Shanghai, but authorities had forced him to return to Italy. Bud tried to find out what had become of Bruno but had no luck. Years later, while deployed in the Mediterranean, Bud would find Bruno happily married in Venice. The two men would become lifelong friends, sending each other Christmas cards and gifts.
Another challenge facing Bud and Mouza was that the Russian Orthodox church required Bud to provide witnesses who had known him for five years. Two of Bud’s shipmates appeared before the bishop and “stretched the truth.” Then, Bud and Mouza were required to wait two weeks for the ceremony on 1 November. The delay was a problem, as Bud was set to leave Shanghai on 23 October. He convinced the church to set the date for 22 October.
On the morning of the 22nd, Bud and Mouza visited her mother’s grave, then had a civil ceremony at the American embassy followed by a ceremony in the Russian Orthodox church, which was attended by 150 of Bud’s shipmates. Bud and Mouza each lit a candle to see whose would burn out first, a Russian Orthodox tradition that revealed who would die first. When Mouza’s flame winked out before Bud’s, she was happy, because she did not want to outlive him. Nor did she want to be separated from him for very long.
At 0400 on 23 October, Bud said goodbye to Mouza. Three hours later, he returned with good news. He had been assigned to another ship, which did not depart for its five-month deployment until early December. When Bud said goodbye to Mouza for the second time, she was pregnant with their first child.
“My darling Mouzatchka, we have only been apart 24 hours and already it seems like torture,” Bud wrote on his first morning away from Mouza.
Bud wanted his child to be delivered by his father, a doctor, but Mouza needed a visa to enter the United States. While docked in New York, Bud took the train to Union Station in Washington, DC, walked into the office of the assistant secretary of state for far eastern affairs, and showed him the New York Times article announcing the passing of the War Brides Act, which allowed foreign spouses of service members to enter the United States. On 1 March, Mouza sailed from Shanghai. Her father André remained trapped in Soviet-occupied Harbin and would die from pneumonia in 1946. Mouza never had the chance to see him again.
On 30 July 1946, Mouza and Bud’s first son, Elmo, was born. The birth certificate read: “child, Elmo Russell Zumwalt III, father, Elmo Russel Zumwalt, Jr., delivering physician, Elmo Russel Zumwalt.”
Mouza struggled to adjust to the culture of her new country. “Everything was very strange to me,” she recalled, including drinking water from the tap without boiling it first and paying with written checks. Bud would write checks in advance that Mouza would sign, and Bud’s sister glued coins to a piece of cardboard that Mouza carried to remember the difference between the nickel and the dime.
Then, there were the difficulties of life as a Navy spouse. While at sea, Bud received letters from his brother Jim about Mouza’s loneliness. “Whatever you do, make Mouza happy, Bud. If you can do that you shall be successful from now on,” Jim wrote.
The first two years, the Zumwalts moved 12 times. Instead of a crib, a drawer pulled out of a piece of furniture served as a bed for baby Elmo. Finally, in 1948, Bud received a shore assignment as a professor of naval science at the University of North Carolina. At long last, Bud and Mouza could live together. When Bud’s shore duty ended two years later, Mouza had become more confident at navigating American culture.
Bud was at sea for 14 years of his 54-year marriage to Mouza, who moved with their four children over 40 times. Mouza’s difficulties adapting to Navy life, especially long separations from Bud, instilled her with empathy for the struggles of her fellow Navy families. When Bud had command of Arnold J. Isbell (DD-869)
from 1955 to 1957, Mouza mentored the spouses of Isbell’s officers. Isbell had a higher retention rate of reserve officers than any neighboring destroyer, which Bud credited to Mouza.
, Mouza spent her time at Clark Air Force Base hospital in the Philippines, comforting service members wounded in combat. She also visited the families of Navy prisoners of war and sailors missing in action. Mouza knew the fear experienced by Navy families because her oldest son, Elmo III, was risking his life commanding a Swift Boat on the rivers of Vietnam. Later, in 1971, Mouza christened the destroyer escort Brewton (DE-1086)
after Lieutenant (junior grade) John C. Brewton, a Navy SEAL who died from injuries in Vietnam.
In 1970, Bud became the youngest ever Chief of Naval Operations (CNO). Mouza’s mission to support spouses was now Navy-wide. She accompanied her husband on trips, meeting with wives of both American and allied sailors, lifting their spirits, and informing her husband of their challenges. In Washington, DC, she organized meetings at Admiral’s House for fellow spouses to share their opinions.
Mouza also sat on focus groups addressing race relations in the Navy. Living in the United States as a Russian during the Cold War
, Mouza was no stranger discrimination. Her children said that people made fun of her accent, and some avoided her entirely. While Bud was on shore duty in North Carolina, the founder of the Navy wives’ club had decided Mouza could not join because she was not a college graduate. Bud called this “her southern way of discriminating against my foreign wife.”
When Bud and Mouza had first married, Mouza had worried her foreign background would hurt his career. Far from it, Mouza’s Russian language skills came in handy. On one occasion, Mouza hosted the wives of visiting Russian naval attachés. Part of her assignment was to write a report for Bud on everything the wives had discussed. Mouza recorded how, when one Russian husband was late to pick up his wife, the wife quipped, “If any other woman had asked him to be here at 1:15, he would have been here at 1:10.” “So, my dear husband, you see, men are the same the world over,” Mouza concluded.
On another occasion, at a dinner hosted by Secretary of the Navy John Warner, Mouza translated President Richard Nixon’s speech about the mining of Haiphong Harbor for the number two Russian admiral and his staff. Bud recalled that Mouza influenced the Russians’ positive opinions by adding “good, good” at the end of each sentence. In 1971, Parade magazine called Mouza the CNO’s “most reliable and secret weapon.”
In 1983, Bud and Mouza’s oldest child, Elmo III, was diagnosed with lymphoma. Two years later, doctors discovered Elmo also had Hodgkin’s disease. While commanding his Swift Boat in Vietnam, Elmo was exposed to Agent Orange, the chemical Bud had ordered sprayed to defoliate riverbanks and reduce fatalities from Vietcong snipers. At the time, Bud had believed Agent Orange was safe to use.
After a five-year battle that included a bone marrow transplant, Elmo III passed away at the age of 42. Bud dedicated the remainder of his life to supporting veterans and their children who had been harmed by Agent Orange. Mouza joined her husband in starting the Marrow Foundation, which registered bone marrow donors and raised funds for transplants. In addition, the Mouza Zumwalt Good Deed Fund supported self-employed people in need of bone marrow transplants.
“I can’t imagine what life would have been without her,” Bud wrote of Mouza. He never had to. The prediction of the Russian Orthodox candle tradition turned out to be incorrect. In 2000, Bud passed away from mesothelioma with Mouza at his side, the walls of his hospital room covered with pictures of their life together.
“As I stroke his hair, it is not the gray that has set in over the past many years that I see—it is the ever-young, dashing Navy lieutenant who swept me off my feet when I first met him in Shanghai, China, in October of 1945,” Mouza wrote on Bud’s final days. Mouza passed away five years later at the age of 83. She was buried beside her husband at the U.S. Naval Academy. Engraved on her tombstone are the words HIS STRENGTH.
Read NHHC’s recent publication Our Greatest Strength: Navy Wives and the Manpower Crisis in the 1970s U.S. Navy
to learn more about Bud and Mouza’s mission to support Navy families.