An Old Man's Folly: Elmo Zumwalt III


An Old Man's Folly

by Adm. Elmo R. Zumwalt Jr.

ELMO RUSSELL ZUMWALT III died on Aug. 13, 1988, from cancer related to Agent Orange exposure. He is honored through VVMF’s In Memory program.


As part of the Veteran’s Day festivities in 1992, I was asked to lay a wreath at the recently completed U.S. Navy Memorial in Washington, D.C. Included in this memorial, along with a statue of the “Lone Sailor,” are a series of bronze bas reliefs, each depicting a different era in our naval history. I laid the commemorative wreath at the foot of the bronze relief dedicated to the “Brown Water Navy,” the name given to those who served on the small boats operating in the narrow waterways of Vietnam during that conflict.

The ceremony was an emotional one for me, for two reasons. First, I had commanded for two years those sailors who had so valiantly served in the Brown Water Navy. Second, the scene depicted was of Swift Boat #3—the boat commanded by my older son, Elmo, who had served under my command at that time.

While Elmo survived the fighting in Vietnam, he failed to survive the war. Despite a courageous five-year struggle, he eventually succumbed to cancer believed to have been caused by his exposure to Agent Orange, the chemical defoliant used—on my direct orders—to deny the Viet Cong the concealment provided by the heavily vegetated riverbeds.

That Veteran’s Day was also the 10th anniversary of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Despite its stark simplicity, The Wall cannot help but cause the observer—whether or not he or she ever served in uniform—to be moved. Focusing on a single name there makes one ponder how and where that particular individual met death. Was it painful and protracted or mercifully swift? What were this person’s last thoughts? What personal legacy has survived?

A painting of The Wall by Lee Teter perhaps best sums up some of the common emotions evoked by viewing this awesome memorial:

The scene appears to take place on a pleasantly warm autumn day. A man wearing a three-piece suit, his sleeves rolled up, with his suit jacket draped over his briefcase on the ground next to him, stands with his left hand in his pocket, leaning with his right hand above his head against The Wall. The touch of gray in the man’s neatly trimmed beard suggests he is in his 50s. His head is bowed; his eyes are tightly shut; he is immersed in deep reflection—perhaps about a fallen comrade, brother or father.

While the observer can only guess at the reason for this man’s particular grief, the artist has left no doubt that the experience for this visitor to The Wall is a painfully emotional one.  At the point where the visitor’s right hand comes in contact with The Wall, one can see an outstretched hand—emanating from within the Memorial—pressed firmly against the grieving man’s hand, as if the two were separated only by a pane of glass. The arm leads to the ghostlike figure of a young helmeted soldier, still in battle camouflaged uniform, peering out at the bereaved visitor, who is oblivious to the soldier’s presence. The soldier, perhaps the dead friend or relative about whom the visitor is reflecting, is flanked on either side by similar apparitions in varied degrees of battlefield uniform. The apparition to the immediate left of the soldier with the outstretched arm has his right hand on that soldier’s shoulder, as if to comfort the soldier who is anguishing, in turn, over the grief exhibited by the visitor. These spirits, unable to reach out to the visitor, their voices silent forever, convey in their faces the message clearly locked in their hearts: “Do not grieve for us, dear friend, for we are finally at peace.”

The Teter print is appropriately titled, “Reflections."

Perhaps it is just an old man’s folly, but now when I visit the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, I pause to press my hand firmly against the black granite wall. I then envision Elmo’s hand reaching out to touch mine. And in a plea that will forever remain silent in this world, I see in his eyes the message he is trying to convey from his heart: “Do not grieve for me, Dad, for I am finally at peace.”


ADM. ELMO ZUMWALT JR. spoke at the first In Memory Day ceremony in 1999, when his son was added to the In Memory Honor Roll. Adm. Zumwalt died on Jan. 2, 2000. This essay is adapted from an article he wrote in 1993, a year after attending the 10th anniversary ceremony at The Wall and laying the wreath at the new U.S. Navy Memorial in Washington, D.C., and is printed with permission from his son, James Zumwalt.