When the first of the US Navy’s new stealth destroyers put out to sea for its shakedown cruise last month, it was ironically fitting the warship bore the name of Tulare native son Elmo “Bud” Zumwalt Jr.
Zumwalt and the class of guided missile destroyers named in his honor have much in common–each mark sea changes in Naval operations, and both cast far shorter shadows than they should.
Intended to be the backbone of a modernized Navy, the Department of Defense originally intended to build 72 Zumwalt-class boats. That number was reduced repeatedly by Congress, and now only three of the ships will see service. The USS Zumwalt (DDG-1000), the first to be completed, took to the water last month from the Bath Iron Works in Maine under the command of Captain James A. Kirk, a name that caught the attention of the media and Star Trek fans.
Although the USS Zumwalt is 600-feet long and more than 80-feet wide, displacing more than 14,500 tons and cruising at speeds up to 33.5 knots, its radar signature is similar to that of a small fishing boat. On board are advanced weapons systems, including helicopter drones and advanced missile systems. The USS Lyndon B. Johnson, the third and final Zumwalt class destroyer, will be fitted with laser cannon and rail guns.
“I think it’s going to be a transitional vessel,” retired Master Chief Petty Officer of the Navy James Herdt told the Navy Marine Corps News before the $3.5 billion USS Zumwalt’s launch. “I think it’s going to sort of be the vessel that takes us from the kind of ships that we build today into ships of the future.”
Agent Orange and Discrimination
Admiral Zumwalt, too, was a transitional force in the Navy, as he found himself embroiled in controversy as commander of the naval forces in Vietnam–he was the man who ordered the use of Agent Orange–and later as the youngest chief of naval operations, instituting sweeping changes to eliminate racial and sexual discrimination, and to improve the lives of sailors as the Navy’s most senior officer.
“There’s a good deal of indecision as to whether I am a drooling-fang militarist or a bleeding-heart liberal,” Zumwalt told Playboy in a June 1974 interview.
After taking command, Zumwalt issued “Z Grams” ordering elimination of segregation on naval vessels, relaxing grooming standards and even allowing beer in the barracks of upper enlisted personnel.
“Changes had to be made,” he told the Navy Marine Corps News in an interview shortly before his death in 2000.
‘The US Navy’s Conscience’
His reforms were met by resistance from fellow officers, yet were widely praised by the rank and file, as well as the media. In 1998, Zumwalt was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Bill Clinton for his efforts at parity.
“When historians look back at the century we have just left, ” Clinton said while presenting the award, “they will certainly recall that Bud Zumwalt was (the US Navy’s) conscience.”
Zumwalt saw the reforms as fair, but implemented them primarily as a way to maximize the Navy’s ability to do its job.
“There is no black Navy, no white Navy–just one Navy–the United States Navy,” he said in one of his Z Grams.
‘A Man of Honor’
Retired history teacher Kent McNatt, a veteran of the Vietnam war and a member of Tulare’s AMVETS Post 56, knew Zumwalt and praised him as a man of high integrity.
“The man was a man of honor. He always was,” said McNatt, who taught for 35 years at Tulare Union High School, from which Zumwalt graduated. “He exemplified the word ‘honor.’ For someone to say how they feel about the naming of this class of ship, it’s very appropriate.”
Zumwalt was also personable, McNatt said, and returned frequently to TUHS to speak to students.
“He was a nice guy, very eloquent speaker,” McNatt said. “He was very motivational. He was a tremendous role model.”
Zumwalt’s integrity is perhaps best exemplified by his actions during the Vietnam War, a conflict he personally opposed, but which he fought to win.
“I thought it was the wrong war, in the wrong place, at the wrong time,” Zumwalt said.
That didn’t stop him from sending his own son, Elmo R. Zumwalt III, into the Mekong Delta as commander of a swift boat. Later, when both men suspected Agent Orange was responsible for the cancer that eventually killed Zumwalt III, and likely caused the severe disability of Zumwalt III’s son, Russell, the senior Zumwalt expressed both his anguish, as well as his resolve he would do the same thing again given the same circumstances.
“Knowing what I know now, I still would have ordered the defoliation to achieve the objectives I did,” Zumwalt wrote in his autobiography. “But that does not ease the sorrow I feel for Elmo, or the anguish his illness, and Russell’s disability, give me. It is the first thing I think of when I awake in the morning, and the last thing I remember when I go to sleep.”