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Warship’s namesake, Zumwalt, fought racism, sexism

April 11, 2014

BATH, Maine (AP) — Bud Zumwalt, who rose to become the youngest chief of U.S. naval operations, earning a reputation as a reformer fighting racism and sexism along the way, will have a ship named in his honor.

After retiring, the admiral dedicated his life to ensuring that veterans were compensated for illnesses linked to Agent Orange, an herbicide he had approved in Vietnam and he blamed for the death of his son. Agent Orange is a powerful mixture of chemical defoliants used to clear forests during the war.

Zumwalt’s two daughters will christen a new ship that bears his name on Saturday in Maine.

The young leader turned the establishment on its ear, helping to create a modern Navy that embraced equal rights, said Larry Berman, who wrote a book about him.

“Zumwalt came in and smashed that entire system,” Berman said. “He thought it was a racist system. He felt it was appalling that the Navy had only three black captains.”

Like its namesake, the new ship is modern, innovative and potentially game-changing, with a stealthy shape, composite superstructure, wave-piercing tumblehome hull, electric propulsion and new radar and weaponry. It will set sail with a crew that’s nearly half the size of the complement on existing destroyers.

At 610 feet (186 meters) long and 15,000 tons, it is the largest destroyer built for the Navy.

In World War II, Elmo “Bud” Zumwalt Jr. earned the Bronze Star while serving on a much smaller destroyer. After the war, George Marshall, the Army general and statesman, persuaded him to stay in the Navy.

In Vietnam, his command included small boats that patrolled the Mekong Delta. It was during that time that he approved Agent Orange to remove vegetation that provided enemy cover.

His leadership during the 1960s helped to prepare him for changes he felt were necessary when, at age 49, he became chief of naval operations in 1970.

He eased restrictions on hair, beards and sideburns, allowed beer machines in some barracks, mandated that black barbers and beauticians be hired to help cut the hair of black sailors, and required hair products for black sailors be sold on bases. He also created an ombudsman to give Navy wives a voice.

But the biggest changes eliminated barriers for women and minorities to advance. By the time he retired four years later, the Navy had its first black and female admirals, and women were soon serving aboard warships and flying Navy aircraft.

Former President Bill Clinton, a friend, described him as “the conscience of the Navy” after his death at age 79 in 2000.

After retiring, Zumwalt learned chemical companies had lied to him about the safety of Agent Orange, which he blamed for the death of his firstborn son, Elmo R. Zumwalt III, a swift boat skipper. His efforts on behalf of sickened veterans and their families helped earn him the Presidential Medal of Freedom.


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