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Ex-Admiral Copes With a Deeper Pain Over His Son's Cancer Death : Vietnam: Elmo Zumwalt Jr. headed U.S. naval forces in Vietnam and ordered Agent Orange be used. He now believes it killed his son.

January 08, 1995|GEORGE ESPER | ASSOCIATED PRESS

HANOI — As commander of the U.S. naval forces in the Vietnam War from 1968 to 1970, Adm. Elmo Zumwalt Jr. always read the daily casualty list from the bottom to the top.

That's because his eldest son, Elmo Zumwalt III, was serving in Vietnam at the same time under his command.

"Because they were listed alphabetically, I always knew the last name on the list would be Zumwalt if there were a casualty," recalls the retired admiral, who recently returned to Vietnam for a visit with some of his former foes.

Zumwalt's eldest son survived the war itself but died in 1988 at age 42 from cancer. His father believes the cancer was caused by Agent Orange, the chemical he ordered used to defoliate the jungle.

The Army had been using Agent Orange in areas of Vietnam prior to Zumwalt's arrival. But, ironically, he ordered it sprayed in the areas of the Mekong Delta where his son served aboard a patrol boat, in efforts to strip away the foliage that provided cover for communist troops.

The 74-year-old Zumwalt returned to Vietnam in September for the first time in a quarter of a century, the highest-ranking American officer to do so. He lives in Arlington, Va., and serves as a director of several corporations and nonprofit foundations.

The death of his son turned him into an advocate for joint research between Vietnam and the United States on Agent Orange, and for veterans benefits for those believed to be its victims.

"The work I'm doing in the case of Agent Orange and as chairman of the National Marrow Donor Program are both my way of memorializing my son rather than trying to do it with bricks and mortar," Zumwalt said.

This year, he will lobby the new Congress to hold hearings on appropriating money for joint research on Agent Orange. He said Vietnam has pledged its support.

As chief of naval operations in Washington from 1970 to 1974, Zumwalt was noted for his "Z-Grams," directives designed to reform and modernize the Navy. He ran unsuccessfully as the Democratic candidate for the U.S. Senate in Virginia in 1976.

Accompanying Zumwalt on his return to Vietnam was his younger son, Jim, also a Vietnam veteran. Many American veterans of that war are returning to the former battlefields to shake hands and embrace their old enemies.

Zumwalt met Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap for the first time and invited him to visit the United States and participate in a seminar on Vietnam in April, 1996, at the Lubbock, Tex., branch of Texas Christian University.

Giap defeated the French at Dien Bien Phu in 1954. A decade later, he held off half-a-million American troops and eventually won the second Indochina War. In a poignant moment, the old warrior, now 83 years old, embraced the admiral.

"I know what happened to your family," Giap said to Zumwalt. The general told of his own losses, comrades in arms, friends and relatives. His wife was arrested for anti-French activities and died in prison.

"You are a legend in your own time and I know that you share my views that the time has come to bind up our wounds," Zumwalt told him.

Zumwalt told Vietnam's President Le Duc Anh, "I have felt a very special responsibility to help deal with the wounds of that war."

During the admiral's visit to a Hanoi hospital, Nguyen Huy Phan, a Vietnamese surgeon, told him, "You have lost a son, but I lost my younger brother, and my father."

"I'm very sorry to hear that," Zumwalt replied.

"My father during the first conflict in Indochina with the French and my brother in 1967 in Da Nang."

"I'm very sorry," Zumwalt repeated.

"And I had to find his remains myself and it took 17 years," Phan said, referring to his brother.

"We are anxious to help in every way we can to put the war behind us and generate increasing friendship between our two peoples," Zumwalt told him.

Zumwalt's most memorable moment was his visit to the Hanoi Hilton, the former prison where hundreds of American POWs were held and tortured. It is now being torn down to make way for a luxury hotel.

Until his recent visit, Zumwalt had never seen the Hanoi Hilton, nor Hanoi's Army Museum, which holds captured American equipment and the wreckage of a U.S. B-52 bomber.

He was not allowed inside the gates of the prison, although it has long been empty. But he walked around its quarried stone walls and iron doors in tears, saluting the airmen he once commanded.

Zumwalt wept at the thought of "the horrible years when our remarkable American prisoners were being tortured while some Americans were claiming they were being well treated.

"I knew so many of the wonderful young men after they came home and I learned firsthand of their experiences. But it's driven home even more forcefully when you see the horrible surroundings of the Hanoi Hilton."

At the Army Museum, Zumwalt saluted the captured American equipment. "In almost every case, it represents courageous Americans who died," he said.

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