Obituaries : Elmo R. Zumwalt III; Father Ordered Agent Orange Use in Vietnam

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Times Staff Writer

Elmo R. Zumwalt III, who was exposed to Agent Orange after his admiral-father ordered the defoliant to be sprayed on the jungles of Vietnam, died from cancer Saturday at age 42.

Zumwalt, an attorney, suffered from Hodgkin’s disease and another lymph-gland cancer, both of which have turned up repeatedly in studies of Vietnam veterans and which have been blamed by some veterans on exposure to dioxin, an ingredient in Agent Orange. In 1969 Zumwalt was heavily doused with the chemical after he volunteered to command a Ca Mau Peninsula patrol boat as a 23-year-old U.S. Navy lieutenant.

While Zumwalt and his father, retired Adm. Elmo Zumwalt Jr., linked the son’s cancer to Agent Orange, neither ever expressed regret for the spraying, which cleared potential hiding places for Viet Cong guerrillas and army infiltrators from North Vietnam.


“I do not doubt for a minute that the saving of American lives was always his first priority,” the younger Zumwalt said about his father in a 1986 interview. “Certainly thousands, perhaps even myself, are alive today because of his decision to use Agent Orange.”

Zumwalt died at his home in Fayetteville, N.C. His father and brother, Jim, were with him when he died.

The two Zumwalts wrote a book about the ironic tragedy of their lives, “My Father, My Son,” published two years ago. In the book, Adm. Zumwalt said his decision to use Agent Orange remained “the first thing I think about when I get up in the morning and the last thing I think about when I go to sleep at night.”

Defended His Actions

The book reiterated Adm. Zumwalt’s defense of his actions. He said that U.S. casualties in his units were running at an annual rate of about 70% but dropped to less than 1% after he ordered the herbicide to be dropped. He and his son also used the book as a forum to defend their belief that fighting communism was worth a sacrifice.

A CBS drama based on that book aired in May, with Keith Carradine and Karl Malden playing the leads.

The elder Zumwalt commanded Navy forces in Vietnam from 1968-1970, then served as Chief of Naval Operations until 1974, when he retired from active duty.


His son served in Vietnam from June, 1969, to August, 1970, earning the whispered nickname of “brass brat” from his troops because of his father’s lofty post. After completing his military service, he went to law school.

Adm. Zumwalt made the decision to chemically defoliate Vietnam river banks based on assurances from the Pentagon that Agent Orange was toxic to vegetation but safe for humans. Now he says he “asked the right questions,” but “got the wrong answers.”

Extensive studies by the Defense Department and the Centers for Disease Control have failed to establish direct connections between Agent Orange and ailments of veterans and their offspring. However, a class-action suit brought against seven Agent Orange manufacturing companies by more than 250,000 veterans resulted in a $180-million out-of-court settlement in 1984. That settlement cleared its final court hurdle last June.

Never Joined Suit

The younger Zumwalt never became part of the class-action lawsuit. In fact, he and his wife said that they never even contemplated the potential side-effects from Agent Orange until their son, Elmo Russell Zumwalt IV, was born 11 years ago with a birth defect that hinders his ability to concentrate.

“I had read that a number of Vietnam veterans’ children had birth defects,” Zumwalt’s wife, Kathy, said in a 1984 interview with The Times. “When we found out about Russell, I asked Elmo if he’d been around Agent Orange at all.”

Elmo Zumwalt III’s lymphoma first was detected in January, 1983, when he went in for a routine physical and came out with an eight-year projected life span. Two years later, discovery of Hodgkin’s disease shortened that prediction.


Even during painful chemotherapy and a bone marrow transplant, he remained unwilling to blame his father for his illness. He frequently said that, had he been the admiral, he would have followed the same plan of action.

In a 1984 interview with The Times, the son said: “I created my own destiny. . . . I was on a guided missile destroyer in the Mediterranean and I volunteered to serve in Vietnam.”

Elmo Zumwalt III is survived by his father, wife, son, daughter Maya, brother and two sisters. A memorial service will be held Wednesday in Fayetteville, N.C.