Adm. Elmo R. Zumwalt Jr., 79, chief of naval operations

In the 1970s, he ordered Navy to end racial bias, let women serve on ships


Adm. Elmo R. Zumwalt Jr., who as chief of naval operations in the early 1970s ordered the Navy to end racial discrimination and demeaning restrictions on sailors, then faced a haunting personal tragedy that he linked to ordering the use of the defoliant Agent Orange in Vietnam, died yesterday at Duke University Medical Center in Durham, N.C. He was 79 and lived in McLean, Va.

The cause was complications from surgery for a cancerous chest tumor.

In July 1970, when Admiral Zumwalt, then 49, became the youngest man to serve as the Navy's top-ranking uniformed officer, re-enlistments were plunging in the face of an unpopular war in Vietnam.

Hoping to make naval service an appealing career again, Admiral Zumwalt issued 121 directives over the next four years, highly publicized Z-grams that sought to change the way the Navy had done things for almost two centuries.

Critics, including many retired admirals, said Admiral Zumwalt had created a permissive atmosphere endangering shipboard discipline, and these accusations were fueled by racial incidents on the aircraft carriers Kitty Hawk and Constellation in 1972. Admiral Zumwalt believed that the antipathy toward his changes reflected racial prejudice, and in November 1972 he summoned senior officers to the Pentagon and accused them of ignoring his directives on race relations.

Despite resistance, he made progress as chief of naval operations. Re-enlistments by first-term sailors rose sharply, the number of black personnel increased, and the first black admiral, Samuel L. Gravely Jr., was appointed.

Admiral Zumwalt retired in 1974, but a decade later was back in the public eye, enmeshed in family anguish arising from the Vietnam War.

While serving as commander of American naval forces in Vietnam from 1968 to 1970, he had ordered the spraying of the defoliant Agent Orange in the Mekong Delta, seeking to deny cover to enemy snipers on the riverbanks where his patrol boats operated. One boat commander was Lt. Elmo Zumwalt III, his son.

The two wrote a book, "My Father, My Son" (Macmillan, 1986), telling of the younger Zumwalt's battle against cancer that both men attributed to Agent Orange's toxic byproduct, dioxin.

The story was made into a CBS television dramatic production with the same title, which was broadcast in May 1988. Three months later, Elmo Zumwalt III died of cancer at 42, leaving a wife and two children.

Elmo Russell Zumwalt Jr. was born Nov. 29, 1920, in San Francisco, the son of doctors, and was raised in Tulare, Calif., where he was given the nickname Bud. He would carry it throughout his career. He graduated from the Naval Academy in 1942, won a Bronze Star on a destroyer in the Battle of Leyte Gulf in the Philippines in 1944 and served on the battleship Wisconsin in the Korean War.

In the early 1960s, he came to the attention of Paul H. Nitze, the veteran Washington foreign-policy adviser, after writing a paper on Soviet politics at the National War College.

During the Cuban missile crisis he was an aide to Nitze, who was assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs, and when Nitze became secretary of the Navy in 1963, Zumwalt became his executive assistant. On Nitze's recommendation, Zumwalt was named a rear admiral in 1965, at 44 the youngest officer ever to attain that rank.

In 1968, Admiral Zumwalt was promoted to the three-star rank of vice admiral, ahead of 130 flag officers, and was named the commander of Navy forces in Vietnam.

Admiral Zumwalt, who had opposed American ground involvement in Vietnam since the early 1960s and would later write how "I thought it was the wrong war, in the wrong place, at the wrong time," oversaw the "brown water Navy." That was a flotilla of more than 1,000 armed small boats deployed in the Mekong Delta to deny Viet Cong and North Vietnamese soldiers use of thousands of miles of waterways.

Returning to Washington, Admiral Zumwalt took on another formidable task -- remaking the Navy. "When I became chief of naval operations, racism and sexism were still an integral part of the Navy tradition," he said. The Navy had never had a black admiral; black officers had few prospects for advancement; and women were not permitted to serve on ships.

In December 1970, Admiral Zumwalt issued what he would call his most important directive, "Equal Opportunity in the Navy."

It required ship, base and aircraft commanders to appoint a minority group member as a special assistant for minority affairs, demanded that the Navy fight housing discrimination against black sailors in cities where they were based, ordered that suitable cosmetics and food for black personnel be stocked in Navy exchanges and required that books by and about black Americans be made available in Navy libraries.

"There is no black Navy, no white Navy -- just one Navy -- the United States Navy," Admiral Zumwalt said.

Another Z-gram permitted women to serve on ships. Because women were barred by law from ships that could be engaged in combat, a hospital ship, the Sanctuary, was designated in 1972 to break tradition, but not without protests from wives of career enlisted men.

Admiral Zumwalt also drew up a Z-gram he first called "Mickey Mouse, Elimination of," but renamed "Demeaning and Abrasive Regulations, Elimination of," an effort to remove some restrictions on sailors' personal freedom.

He gave a go-ahead for beards and mustaches, which were permitted but generally frowned on, and he allowed sailors to have sideburns, which he himself wore to maximum authorized length, the middle of the ear lobe.

And he made recruitment advertisements peppier, in a 1970s sort of way -- one described the Navy as the place "where the mod look began."

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.