In Memoriam: Elmo Zumwalt
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JIM LEHRER: 11 years ago, Zumwalt’s son, also named Elmo, died of cancer, which was presumed to be the result of his Naval service in Vietnam. Here is an excerpt of a profile about the admiral and his son which the NewsHour broadcast in 1984. The correspondent is Charlayne Hunter-Gault.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Admiral Zumwalt was one of the more controversial men to ever run the Navy, forcing the Navy to liberalize many of its strict regulations during his tenure as Chief of Naval Operations from 1970 to 1974. In 1962 he wrote a report urging the United States not to get involved militarily in Vietnam, but by 1968 he was commander of the Naval forces there, and committed to winning the war. A year later, his son Elmo volunteered for riverboat duty there.
ADMIRAL ELMO ZUMWALT: I had the power to prevent his coming to Vietnam, and was asked whether or not I would permit him to do so. I couldn’t have been the father my son wanted me to be had I not let him go there.
ELMO ZUMWALT: Running river boats was a very dangerous situation. (Gunfire)
SPOKESMAN: Turn force 180!
ELMO ZUMWALT: There was a tremendous amount of responsibility in running an operation like that in a combat environment, and, you know, it was a test, and it was a test that I wanted to take. The helicopter pilots were used to be required to ride the boats so they could get a feel for what we went through, so they could react as quickly as possible when we called them in. And I’ll never forget a helicopter pilot saying, you know, “we’re the hunters up there in the air, but it’s obvious that you all are the hunted down here.” That is a precarious place to be.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: To protect his sailors, Admiral Zumwalt ordered stepping up the three-year-old campaign of agent orange spraying, especially in the Camau Peninsula area, an area where his son was patrolling.
ADMIRAL ELMO ZUMWALT: You must remember that we were watching the defoliation take place at a time when, in my case, for example, my sailors were taking casualties at the rate of 6% per month. So that on the average, my sailors and officers had about three-quarters of a… about a 75% probability of being a casualty during their year there. Anything that could be done to reduce the fearsome casualties that we were taking was an intelligent thing to do.
ELMO ZUMWALT: The areas around us were heavily defoliated, so defoliated that they looked like burned-out areas, many of them. You know, almost every day that you were in riverboat patrol, you were having… You were being subjected to the agent orange factor.
ADMIRAL ELMO ZUMWALT: It is the case that the particular area in Vietnam in which my son’s boat operated a great deal of the time was an area that was sprayed upon my recommendation, and in that sense it’s particularly ironic that in a sense, if the causal relationship can be established, I have become an instrument of my son’s own tragedy.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: The admiral is convinced that he made the right decision, that spraying agent orange may have saved his son’s life in Vietnam, as well as the lives of thousands of others, but what concerns him most is the futility of the sacrifice he sees his son and other veterans making.
ADMIRAL ELMO ZUMWALT: My son’s illness has caused me to recall even more vividly the tragedies that flowed from the tragic war in Vietnam. If one knew then what we know now– namely, that the United States would make a decision here to lose that war– I would far have preferred that we never had gotten involved in the war.
ELMO ZUMWALT: As far as being bitter about it, I, you know, I intellectually made those decisions. I’m the one that decided to volunteer to go into the river boats, I’m the one that volunteered to run those risks, and, you know, I was a creator of my own destiny, and I have a hard time understanding about being bitter because if I am, if I’m going to be bitter, I’m going to have to be bitter with myself that I made those decisions, and I can’t say that I necessarily regret making those decisions.
JIM LEHRER: Two years after that interview, the Zumwalts wrote a book together called “My Father, My Son.” The younger Zumwalt died in 1988 at the age of 42. At the admiral’s funeral today, President Clinton recalled that Zumwalt lived with the consequences of life’s greatest loss. He saluted Zumwalt as the sailor who never stopped serving his country, never stopped fighting for the men and women in uniform, and never stopped being the conscience of the Navy.