A MAN WHO TRULY KNEW

"HOW TO COMMAND"

 

"I have always believed that I am accountable for the welfare of all those who have served under me. That is a commander's first responsibility."

Those are the words of Admiral Elmo R. "Bud" Zumwalt Jr., and it is vintage Zumwalt, in response to a question as to why he continued to work so hard for those who served under him during the Vietnam War. Eloquent words from a man defined by eloquent action.

I first met him, this hawk-faced young admiral, when he helicoptered into our little patrol boat base in the Mekong Delta to personally pin medals on the chests of heroic young officers and sailors. As young lieutenants and petty officers, we were not used to seeing senior officers, much less a vice admiral, but we had already felt the strength of his presence and the power of his leadership.

With the imaginative and action-oriented style that characterizes all great leaders, Admiral Zumwalt changed the face of the Navy's role in Vietnam; and he did it within weeks of assuming his duties as commander of naval forces in Vietnam. Dramatically shifting the rudder direction of his predecessors, he made aggressive initiative the plan of the day, and we went on the offensive in the Mekong Delta with Operation Sealords (Sea, Air, Land, Ocean, River, Delta, Strategy), taking the war to the enemy in his traditional sanctuaries and strongholds. 

Zumwalt traded our "sniper-friendly" khakis and blue dungarees for camouflage utilities and combat boots. Throughout the command structure, the timid and the desk-bound were replaced by men of initiative and imagination. And against the specific advice of his boss, the pacific commander, this brash and colorful admiral kept showing up in the middle of the action. 

Standing at our side in our little boats, he joined us on the narrow Delta canals as we penetrated deep into enemy territory and frequent battles. To our delight, and the chagrin of some of his field commanders, his helicopter became a familiar sight as he made surprise visits to remote base camps to deliver food and mail. More importantly, many of these trips were made to be with his wounded or dying men, whose hands he held as he whispered words of encouragement and comfort. 

During all of this, the feeling that permeated Naval Forces Vietnam was that this was a commander who deeply cared about each of us; and many of us experienced more: We felt his love. No longer were we chastised for taking the fight to the enemy. Instead, we received frequent and personal messages from the man at the top, this Zumwalt, praising us and urging us on, even when his own son, Lieutenant Bud Zumwalt, was on the line in the thick of the action. 

It was that love, that zest for life, that marked him as a historically great chief of naval operations, a man cut from the cloth of another warrior and destroyerman, Arleigh Burke. Zumwalt's life was a manifestation of his love, demonstrated by his continuing campaign to compensate the victims of Agent Orange, in his efforts to preserve the history of the Vietnam War, and in the scores of other quiet generosities that touched so many lives. 

He was no political admiral, bred for dress whites and lobbying. He focused squarely on the welfare of our sailors, officer or enlisted, and went after the unnecessary and oppressive regulations that made our lives, and our jobs, more difficult. For his efforts, like other CNO's who made people their true priority and not just a catch phrase, he ran smack into the buzz saw of a Navy barnacled establishment that feared change above all things. 

The young sailors and officers in the fleet awaited the arrival of each "Z-gram" (as his messages of change were dubbed) with delighted anticipation, as Admiral Zumwalt attacked oppressive and unnecessary regulations with enthusiasm. Those unable to lead without fear and intimidation rebelled, but those of us, especially combat veterans, who lead by example and inspiration, welcomed the changes. 

Through it all, Zumwalt smiled and returned anger with love and stayed the course of all great leaders. He remained true to his heart, and he cared for those whose lives were entrusted to him, and we returned his love. Now our friend is gone. 

Admiral, the sailors who proceeded you wait to pipe you aboard. And we, who remain behind, will continue your legacy. Fair winds and following seas, shipmate.

By Wade R. Sanders
January 3, 2000

 


 

FLASH TRAFFIC

10 January 2000
1400 Hours Eastern Standard Time
VALHALLA

At 1400 hours, the entrance hall appears as the Quarterdeck of the United States Navy Battleship, U.S.S. Arizona. Since
7 December 1941, this has been the welcoming station for all deceased U.S. Navy personnel.

On this day, the honor guard forms in full Dress Blue uniform. The Officer-of-the-Deck is a Lieutenant. As the eye sweeps over the assembled honor guard, one cannot help but notice that while all wear various medals on the left side of their uniforms, they all have the same device on the right side, a simple oval blue pin with the silhouette of a U.S. Navy patrol craft of the Vietnam era. The entire honor guard is composed of those who served on these small boats, called a SWIFT Boat.

Today they will welcome someone they consider to be of their brothers, even though he never rode these boats. Today Admiral Elmo "Bud" Zumwalt Jr. joins the ranks of those who gather in Valhalla.

The bosun's pipe shrills as the Admiral enters the Quarterdeck. Resplendent in full Dress Blue uniform, adorned with rows of medals, he too wears the same simple blue oval on the right breast of his uniform.

As he salutes the OOD, their eyes meet and lock, tears form as the OOD smartly returns his salute.


"Welcome aboard, DAD!"

 

By John Vincent Hecker, RDSN, a former swift boat crewman who served under Admiral Zumwalts' command in Vietnam
10 January, 2000

 

NOTE: Valhalla is the hall of Odin, into which the souls of heroes slain in battle and others who have died bravely in support of their country are received.


 

January 13, 2000

Mrs. Mouza Zumwalt and Family
1000 Wilson Blvd., Suite 3105
Arlington, VA 22209-3909

Dear Mrs. Mouza Zumwalt and Family:

I am so sorry and sad to learn of Admiral Zumwalt's passing.  I offer my deepest sympathy and condolences to each of you.  I will continue to pray for you and ask God to comfort and grant you the strength you need to be able to carry on in the days ahead.

I will never forget Admiral Zumwalt's visit with me on November 25, 1968, at my bedside in the U.S. Army's 29th Medical Evacuation Hospital located at Binh Thuy, in the Mekong Delta of South Vietnam.

On the afternoon of November 24, 1968, while on a SEALORDS mission up the Song Bo De River, I was seriously wounded in my right leg by enemy machine gun fire, while I was returning fire from my battle station, as the twin .50 gunner, aboard PCF-31.  Our boat and 4 other PCF's who were in our group were ambushed in a vicious attack from both banks of the river by a very large force of enemy troops.  Our Helmsman, Bob McGowan, Quartermaster 3rd Class was also wounded, in his hand, by flying shrapnel.  The Officer in Charge of PCF-72, James Harwood, LTJG, instantly lost one of his legs from enemy machine gun fire.  Our flotilla of boats were able to fight their way back down the river to the open sea.  We then rendezvoused with the LST, USS Washoe County, which was on station about a mile off the coast from the mouth of the Bo De River.   The three of us who were wounded were hoisted aboard the Washoe County for medical attention and shortly thereafter medevaced to the U.S. Army's 29th Medical Evacuation Hospital for further medical treatment.

I remember the next morning after having emergency surgery from the night before.   Being incapacitated myself, a team of Army medics were trying to wash my hair, give me a "bird bath" and a shave.  I couldn't understand why these guys kept wanting to mess with me considering my injuries and how I felt.  I told them to leave me alone, that I didn't want to be bothered! They kept telling me they had orders to get me cleaned up and presentable for the Admiral's visit.

I said "what Admiral," as if it made a difference, they said Admiral Zumwalt. I told the medics they must have the wrong guy, because I was only an E-4(Petty Officer 3rd Class) and there wasn't any Admiral coming to visit me of all people!   BOY, WAS I EVER MISTAKEN!  A few minutes after the medics got me "presentable," I could hear through a nearby open window a couple of choppers landing nearby, but that wasn't unusual though, because they brought wounded GI's in around the clock.  But shortly thereafter, I heard someone in our ward shout "ATTENTION ON DECK!"  (Tears are now beginning to flow down both of my cheeks as I continue to write.)  I remember every soldier, airman and sailor who was physically capable, snapped to attention, including members of the hospital staff.   Admiral Zumwalt said "CARRY ON." I noticed the Admiral was dressed in his camouflage uniform and he was in the lead of a host of people who were following him.   I could see the Admiral was being escorted towards me by a member of the hospital staff.  I noticed Admiral Zumwalt had quite a staff of his own, later I found out, including a photographer, yeoman and other assistants.  As the Admiral arrived at my bedside he reached for my hand and first gave me a hearty handshake and told me how proud he was of me. He next had his photographer take a picture of him and I together, as the Admiral presented me with my Purple Heart Medal. The Admiral then pulled up a nearby chair and sat in it next to me, as we talked for about the next 30 minutes.  The Admiral asked how I was doing, questioned me about my family back in the States and wanted to know if there was anything he could do for me, etc.

As Admiral Zumwalt departed, he stood up and bent over (as I was in a lying position because of my wounds and the tubes and IV's I had stuck in me) and gave me a hug and said "GOD BLESS YOU SON, I WISH YOU THE VERY BEST."  After the Admiral left I almost had to pinch myself as to prove that the Admiral's visit wasn't a dream.   I will NEVER get over the fact that a Vice Admiral, the Commander of all U.S. Naval forces in Vietnam, Elmo R. Zumwalt, took the time out of his very busy and important schedule to visit such a low ranking person!

I learned weeks later when Admiral Zumwalt returned to his headquarters in Saigon he wrote a personal letter to my wife telling her of his visit with me the day before.

I'll always remember Admiral Zumwalt for his KINDNESS, COMPASSION, his CARING, RESPECT and CONSIDERATION for others.

All of us Swiftees loved him and we'll all miss him very much!

At least I am glad my wife and I had the privilege and opportunity to meet you, Mrs. Zumwalt, and that I was able to return the Admiral's HUG at our Swift Boat Sailors Association's Reunion in New Orleans in June of 1998.

In closing, remember loving thoughts are with you all through this time of sorrow....MAY GOD BLESS EACH OF YOU!

Sincerely,


Joe Ponder (GMG-2, USN-Retired)
100% Disabled Combat Veteran
6986 Deer Springs Rd.
Keystone Heights, FL 32656-8692

Email: josephponder@bellsouth.net

P.S. I am the guy who sent the DANCING FLOWERS (novelty gift) to the Admiral, in hopes of cheering him up when he was hospitalized at Duke University Medical Center.

 

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This page was last updated on: March 18, 2008 at 20:08