In the early 1970s, the military’s recruiting and retention efforts drew even greater scrutiny in anticipation of President Richard M. Nixon
’s announcement that the United States would end the draft, even as operations continued in support of the Vietnam War
. The Department of Defense set July 1, 1973, as the target date for the transition to an all-volunteer military force. Although the Navy did not take draftees at the time, it was estimated that as many as one-third of those who joined the Navy were reacting to the draft. For many, the Navy and Air Force were viewed as better alternatives to the Army, which was taking the brunt of the casualties in Vietnam. Making the Navy more attractive to prospective enlistees and to those already serving was a motivating factor behind many of the programs and incentives that surfaced leading up to an all-volunteer force.
During this time, “crackerjacks” and the accompanying 13-button “bell bottoms,” the traditional uniform worn by Sailors through the grade of E-6, came under renewed fire. Although “bells” had been the subject of change for many years, a Navy-wide survey was conducted in late 1970 by the Navy Personnel Research and Development Laboratory. Among the 1,200 officers and 1,700 enlisted personnel polled, the results showed that 80 percent of the enlisted Sailors favored some sort of uniform change. Junior officers also overwhelmingly supported a change to an officer-type uniform for all Navy personnel. It was significant to note that the Navy-wide poll showed that 92 percent of all officers and chief petty officers (CPOs) were happy with their present service uniform—service dress blues.
Master Chief Petty Officer of the Navy (MCPON) John “Jack” D. Whittet
supported a change and reported to Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) Adm. Elmo R. Zumwalt Jr.
that Sailors were complaining that “bells” did not make them feel like men. At the same time, the CNO was getting letters from spouses who said they were “embarrassed to go to the store or to church with their husbands dressed like little boys.” They wanted to know why their husband couldn’t wear suits like grown men. With anti-military sentiment growing throughout the country, Sailors were often made into targets and ridiculed while wearing their “crackerjacks.”
On June 13, 1971, Z-Gram 87
, issued by Zumwalt, went to the Fleet, advising the service of a uniform change that would put recruits through admirals into the same type of uniform. The new uniform would be issued to recruits beginning July 1, 1973, and all Sailors would be required to acquire and wear the new service dress blues by July 1, 1975. Winter- and summer-weight versions were authorized. Also announced was the pending demise of the khaki service dress uniform for officers and CPOs, and service dress white uniforms for CPOs, with the same effective date. With the changes to service dress blues, considerable attention was made on the selection of buttons and hat insignia so that there would be no problem distinguishing an officer or CPO from a Sailor in the lower enlisted grades. The uniform worn by lower-grade enlisted personnel (E-1 through E-6) had silver buttons, while officers and CPOs wore gold buttons. The headwear for lower enlisted grades, was the same as the currently issued CPO/officer combination cap or “hard hat,” except a new silver hat insignia (eagle and the letters “USN”) and silver chin strap buttons was worn by E-6 and below. Rating insignia, chevrons, and service hash marks didn’t change and were worn on the left sleeve of the coat in the same manner as they were worn on the jumper. Zumwalt noted that the changes would “bring the Navy into line with its sister services by providing one uniform from seaman to admiral. Finally, it represents my most earnest desire for one Navy, united in purpose, striving for common goals.” The June 15, 1971, edition of the New York Times
actually covered Z-Gram 87 in an article titled “Navy to Scuttle Old Sailor Suit.” In covering initial reactions from the Fleet and perhaps anticipating some of the debate that was to come, the same paper published a follow-up piece the next month (July 25): “Sailors Unhappy about Shedding Bell-Bottoms; Officers Want to Keep Their Uniforms Distinctive.”
The regulations change that were introduced would later become known as the “salt and pepper” uniform (white shirts worn with navy blue trousers or skirt). It also heralded the beginning of more than a decade of upheaval in Navy uniform guidance. The dungaree working uniform was also changed from denim to a 50-50 blend of cotton and nylon with a light blue, two-pocket, front-buttoning work shirt and dark blue trousers that had straight legs and fore-and-aft creases. The new uniform was designed to be more attractive for wear at Navy base exchanges, commissaries, and from and to duty, although the nylon-blend working uniform was to prove problematic aboard ship due to its potentially flammable properties. In general, the high synthetic content of the material used for all of the new uniform items affected their fit and comfortable wear adversely.
Leading up to the uniform change, a number of Z-grams were issued to the Fleet to boost the effort to make the Navy more appealing to prospective recruits. For instance, during the late 1960s and early 1970s, long hair and beards were fashionable among the male civilian population. Although civilian-style long hair was never authorized, relaxation of haircut standards and the wearing of beards and sideburns were addressed with the issuance of Z-Gram 70
. The order specified that “it shall be well groomed and neatly trimmed.” However, many were critical of Zumwalt’s order. Zumwalt defended his policy by pointing out that Navy regulations had always authorized beards, but many commanding officers would not allow them. “My Z-gram just really said obey the regulations on neatly trimmed beards,” he said. “All my living CNO predecessors came in to remonstrate with me on beards. I took great pleasure in taking them the portraits of our mutual predecessors in the Navy with long beards and I told them we were just getting a little more conservative.”
Even with all the new changes meant to make life better for Sailors, some chose to abuse the new regulations. In an August 1971 interview with All Hands
, Whittet chided “a few thoughtless individuals” who were “abusing the trust and respect given them” through the new guidance. “The new Chief of Personnel and my office receive a large number of letters and phone calls from ‘concerned people’ about the continued violation of uniform regulations. A few thoughtless Sailors still persist in using the dungaree working uniform as a liberty uniform.”
“Old salts” throughout the Navy resisted many of the changes that Zumwalt initiated. However, a poll conducted in the spring of 1971 showed that 86 percent of enlisted personnel and 80 percent of officers approved of the new policies. The majority of those not happy with the new order were senior personnel, both enlisted and officer. The rapidity and volume of change, rather than the changes themselves, created much of the opposition. Commanding officers and senior enlisted personnel had great difficulty in absorbing and interpreting the rapid influx of Z-grams into command policy. A perception grew in the Fleet that Z-grams were directed at the Sailors, bypassing the traditional chain of command. Commanding officers, accustomed to running their ships under established guidelines, were irritated by the CNO’s intervention. Senior petty officers found themselves caught between junior personnel eager to push the limits to the new regulations—in particular, the revised grooming standards—and officers who sought to maintain discipline and authority. Zumwalt defended his programs as an effort to “instill at all levels an attitude which clearly recognizes the dignity and worth of each individual treated with respect and accorded the trust, confidence, and recognition each human being wants and deserves”
When Zumwalt left office on July 1, 1974, he rescinded all 121 of his Z-grams, hoping his policies would continue after his departure. Although many of his policies are still intact today, such as better opportunities for minorities and women, the uniform change that came with Z-Gram 87 did not stand the test of time. In 1986, the bell bottom 13-button trousers and the “crackerjack,” returned following a campaign advocating a return to naval tradition. Other changes, including the eventual introduction of a more practical (and safer!) version of the enlisted shipboard working uniform, were to follow.