Adm. Elmo Zumwalt Transformed The Navy For The 21st Century

Bud Zumwalt earned a Bronze Star for valor in World War II, was an officer on a battleship during the Korean War and commanded America’s Navy in the Vietnam War.

It all prepared him to challenge the Pentagon bureaucracy when he was made the youngest chief of naval operations in history at 49, promoted over 33 more senior officers.

In 1970, the Navy was drifting toward the shoals with a demoralized crew, deteriorating quality of life and outdated policies.

Zumwalt confronted those who benefited from the status quo, which included discrimination against minorities and women.

“His sailors called him Zorro because he never stopped fighting for them and didn’t care that it might derail his career,” Larry Berman, author of “Zumwalt,” told IBD. “He was a trailblazer with the courage of a lion, who used his power to combat injustices and face down adversaries who were on the wrong side of history.”

As he towed his beloved Navy toward the 21st century, Time magazine called him its “most popular leader since World War II.”


Adm. Zumwalt took over as chief of naval operations in 1970, the thick of the Vietnam War.

California Kid

Zumwalt (1920-2000) was born in San Francisco to physician parents who expected him to follow in their footsteps.

The family moved to Tulare in central California, and he was a high achiever, but his parents were concerned about his growing obsession with girls after he tried to elope with a classmate.

They decided that he needed discipline before he went to medical school and nudged their congressman to appoint him to attend the Naval Academy at Annapolis, Md.

He entered in June 1939, three months before the German invasion of Poland. The rising demand for officers to prepare in case America went to war resulted in the program being reduced from four years to three, and he graduated with soaring honors in June 1942.

At the same time, he married Jane Carey, but they didn’t know each other well and would divorce in less than two years.

With America now in the thick of World War II, Zumwalt experienced his first combat in June 1943 on the destroyer Phelps as officer of the deck, the skipper’s right hand, during bombardment of Japanese positions on the Aleutian Islands of Alaska.

Promoted to lieutenant junior grade and transferred to the destroyer Robinson, he was in charge of its combat information center. It held a radar screen that showed ship positions in half a dozen clashes with the Japanese navy from Saipan to Guam.

Amid The Battle

Especially crucial was the Battle of Surigao Strait in October 1944, part of the Battle of Leyte Gulf in the Philippines, the largest naval action in history.

The Robinson was one of the rare destroyers that survived close-up torpedo attacks. Zumwalt’s urgent warning kept it from crashing and sinking in the smoke of battle.

His heroism earned him a Bronze Star. His radio man later wrote, “(Zumwalt’s) quiet strength and obvious calm, whether during a torpedo run, kamikaze attacks or retaliatory fire from hostile shore batteries, never failed to reassure me.”

After the war ended in the summer of 1945, the Robinson accompanied minesweepers up the Yangtze River of China to accept the surrender of Japanese vessels.

Along the way, Zumwalt asked a Russian, Mouza Coutelais-du-Roche, to help him improve his Russian skills in exchange for helping her English. They married in October and would have four children, with the family moving over 40 times during his career.

After serving as an executive officer on two peacetime ships, he spent 1948-50 teaching naval science to the University of North Carolina. There he became friends with Gen. George Marshall, the former Army chief of staff and secretary of state who predicted that the West’s disarmament would result in another war soon.

Zumwalt was promoted to lieutenant commander in 1950 and took over the destroyer Tillis operating out of Charleston, S.C.

On To Korea

A year later, he became navigator for the battleship Wisconsin as it provided combat support for Marines during the Korean War.

On returning stateside in 1952, he attended the Naval War College in Newport, R.I., took ship commands and ran the Navy Bureau of Personnel in Washington, D.C.

Now he was making decisions on who had shore and ship assignments. The Navy was losing thousands of men every year due to long deployments. He created a better balance, which caught the attention of the Navy brass.

One who caught on was the head of the nuclear force, Adm. Hyman Rickover. He assigned this talent to command the guided missile frigate Dewey, in 1959. It was the beginning of two decades of head butting between them.

“Rickover and Zumwalt were similar in many ways — brilliant, tireless, blunt, arrogant, farsighted and vain,” said Berman. “Rickover was almost an autonomous power, but Bud wasn’t intimidated.”

In 1961 he was promoted to captain and entered the National War College in Washington.

The next year, he graduated, and Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Paul Nitze chose Zumwalt to be his aide.

They worked closely with President Kennedy during the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962 and in negotiating the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty with the Soviet Union, which was signed in August 1963.

Word To The Wise On Vietnam

Two months later, Nitze was appointed secretary of the Navy, and Zumwalt went with him. They soon prepared a report showing why a land war in Vietnam would likely be a disaster, but Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara rejected their conclusion.

In 1965, Zumwalt left the Pentagon for San Diego. With the rank of rear admiral, he ran a cruiser-destroyer flotilla.

A year later, he took over the Navy’s new systems analysis division, which analyzed the Navy’s long-term needs. His calls influenced the next generation of leaders.

In 1968, after landing the first of three Distinguished Service Medals, he became commander of all naval forces operating in Vietnamese waters and rose to vice admiral.

Army Gen. Creighton Abrams, who oversaw all U.S. forces in Vietnam, considered Zumwalt the only leader who grasped the importance of expedited training of South Vietnamese to take over their defense.
Zumwalt’s first task was to talk with top field commanders.

The admiral dived in, risking his life by going out on patrols and listening to sailors on the front line. It helped him develop tactics to interdict enemy supply lines and mount winning offensives.

One Vietnam swift boat commander was his son, Elmo III. Assured by the company making a herbicide nicknamed Agent Orange that it was safe, the admiral ordered it sprayed on the jungle for a thousand yards on both sides of rivers to eliminate hiding places for snipers.

His son’s death in 1988 was blamed on the chemical. In retirement, Zumwalt did much to help others who suffered from it.

Top Sailor

In May 1970, President Nixon nominated Zumwalt to be chief of naval operations, with promotion to full admiral in July.

Zumwalt now aimed to make sailors’ life more attractive. He announced changes via policy directives nicknamed Z-grams, 69 of them by the end of 1970. Among them:

No. 13: Granted half of a ship’s crew 30 days’ leave soon after returning from overseas.

No. 14: Axed 18 duties assigned to overloaded junior officers.

No. 18: Opened a finance center 24/7 to process urgent inquiries about pay and benefits.

No. 33: Improved customer relations at base exchanges.

No. 38: Eliminated unnecessary work on Sundays and holidays.

No. 46: Reduced paperwork for maintenance inspections.

No. 49: Required half of personnel on awards boards to be below the rank of commander.

His most important changes were to open up the ranks to more minorities and women.

Meanwhile, he encountered resistance in replacing the large number of aging vessels with a new mix, balancing the purchase of expensive nuclear-powered ships with lots of far less costly ones.

Zumwalt’s Perry-class guided missile frigates became the most popular group of warships since World War II until the 1990s. (The first of the high-tech Zumwalt-class of destroyers was sea-tested this past December).


The admiral retired from active duty in July 1974 at age 53.

He died at 79, with the chief of naval operations, Adm. Jay Johnson, recalling at his funeral “his visionary leadership and unswerving commitment to improving the lives of our sailors” and for having “profoundly changed and enhanced the character and culture of our Navy.”

Zumwalt’s Keys

Father of the modernized Navy.

Overcame: Bureaucratic, political stand vs. change.

Lesson: Courage means having a thick skin.

“I don’t give a damn where an idea comes from. If it’s good, use it.”