Admiral Zumwalt and the Z-grams

Admiral Zumwalt and the Z-grams

By:  Garland Davis


There has been a protracted conversation in the Tin Can Sailors II Facebook group regarding the effects Admiral Elmo Zumwalt and his Z-gram proclamations have had, both short term and long term, on the U.S. Navy. I am writing this as one who was there before, during, and after Zumwalt. This is written from my perspective and the comments and conclusions belong to me.

Zumwalt was a 1942 graduate o/f the Naval Academy.  He saw combat on destroyers in the Pacific, where he was awarded the Bronze Star with Valor Device for heroic service in the Combat Information Center in action against Japanese battleships during the Battle of Leyte Gulf.

At the end of the war, he served as the prize crew officer of the Ataka, a 1,200-ton Japanese river gunboat with a crew of two hundred.   In this capacity, he took the first American-controlled ship since the outbreak of World War II up the Huangpu River to Shanghai, China. There, they helped to restore order and assisted in disarming the Japanese.

Zumwalt was assigned a number of Executive Officer and Commanding Officer positions in destroyers and was also assigned as Navigator in USS Wisconsin. After leaving Wisconsin in 1952 he attended the Naval War College, at Newport, Rhode Island followed by a tour in Washington at the Bureau of Naval Personnel. Completing that duty in 1955, he assumed command of a Pacific Fleet destroyer.  After this tour, he was transferred to the Department of Naval Personnel where he served as Special Assistant for Naval personnel and later added Naval Aide to his position title.

He commanded USS Dewey (DLG-14) from December 1959 until June 1961.  During the class year 1961/1962, he attended the National War College in Washington.  After graduation, he was assigned he was assigned to the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense (International Security Affairs) at the Pentagon where he served as Desk Officer for France, Spain, and Portugal and later as Director of Arms Control and Contingency Planning for Cuba. From December 1963 until June 21, 1965, he served as Executive Assistant and Senior Aide Secretary of the Navy, Paul H. Nitze.  For these duties, he was awarded the Legion of Merit.

After selection for Flag Rank, Admiral Zumwalt assumed command of Cruiser-Destroyer Flotilla Seven during July in San Diego.  In September 1968, he became Commander Naval Forces Vietnam and Chief of the Naval Advisory Group, U.S. Military Assistance Command Vietnam (MACV).  He was promoted to Vice Admiral of that year.

Zumwalt’s command was not a blue water force, like the Seventh Fleet; it was a brown water unit: he commanded the flotilla of Swift Boats that patrolled the coasts, harbors, and rivers of Vietnam. Among the swift-boat commanders were his son, Elmo Russell Zumwalt III, and later future Senator and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry. Among his other forces were Task Force 115, the Coastal Surveillance Force, Task Force 116, the River Patrol Force, and Task Force 117, the joint Army-Navy Mobile Riverine Force.

In April 1970, President Richard Nixon nominated Zumwalt to be Chief of Naval Operations.  Upon being relieved of duties as Commander Naval Forces, Vietnam in May 1970, he was awarded a second Navy Distinguished Service Medal.

He assumed duties as CNO and was promoted to full Admiral on July 1, 1970, and quickly began a series of moves intended to reduce racism and sexism in the Navy. These were disseminated in Navy-wide communications known as “Z-grams”.  There were seventy “Z-grams” promulgated during the period July 1, 1970, through 21 January 1971.  Seventy proclamations in a two hundred five-day period or a Z-gram once every 2.93 days, on average.

Massive change so rapidly had the result of upending everything that tradition, daily shipboard routine, Navy discipline, grooming standards, and personal relationships, developed over almost two hundred years, was based upon.


List of Z-grams 

  • Z-gram 1 (14 July 1970): convened a junior officer retention study group.
  • Z-gram 2 (1 July 1970): Zumwalt’s remarks upon taking office as CNO.
  • Z-gram 3 (22 July 1970): Cryptographic procedures and Policy.
  • Z-gram 4 (30 July 1970): authorized 30 days leave for officers with orders for a permanent change of station (PCS).
  • Z-gram 5 (30 July 1970): instituted a test program aboard six ships to extend to First Class Petty Officers the privilege of Officers and Chief Petty Officers to keep civilian clothing aboard ship for wearing on liberty.
  • Z-gram 6 (11 August 1970): instituted a test program, funded entirely by deployed personnel to assist their families obtaining transportation and lodging to visit them in an overseas liberty port during holiday periods.
  • Z-gram 7 (11 August 1970): directed commanding officers to assign sponsors for newly arriving personnel. The sponsors were normally of the same rank or rate and with similar marital and family status to assist the arriving family establishing themselves in the new location.
  • Z-gram 8 (11 August 1970): extended the working hours of personnel writing officers’ orders from 16:30 to 21:00 so those personnel would be available to answer telephone questions after duty hours of officers expecting orders.
  • Z-gram 9 (14 August 1970): provided an alternative means of promotion to 1st class and CPO for highly motivated individuals who had five times failed the normal promotion examinations.
  • Z-gram 10 (20 August 1970): required naval air stations to have an officer or CPO meet each arriving transient aircraft to coordinate aircraft servicing and assist flight crew with dining and temporary lodging.
  • Z-gram 11 (24 August 1970): authorized continuing sea duty for enlisted men requesting it.
  • Z-gram 12 (24 August 1970): authorized wearing of civilian clothes on shore bases during and after the evening meal by all enlisted personnel except recruits in basic training.
  • Z-gram 13 (26 August 1970): directed commanding officers to grant 30 days of leave to at least half of their crew during the first 30 days following return from overseas deployment.
  • Z-gram 14 (27 August 1970): abolished 18 collateral duties traditionally assigned to junior officers (including cigarette fund officer and cold weather officer) and encouraged assignment of another 18 collateral duties (including movie officer and athletics officer) to qualified senior petty officers.
  • Z-gram 15 (28 August 1970): ordered all disbursing officers to provide all personnel with a statement of earnings prior to 30 October 1970 itemizing basic pay and allowances for clothing, quarters, sea duty, and hostile fire with taxes, deductions and allotments.
  • Z-gram 16 (2 September 1970): established a computer database to assist enlisted personnel desiring a duty swap with a similarly qualified sailor on another ship or home port.
  • Z-gram 17 (2 September 1970): raised the check-cashing limit at naval bases from $25 to $50.
  • Z-gram 18 (4 September 1970): opened the Navy Finance Center around the clock to all disbursing officers processing urgent inquiries about pay and benefits.
  • Z-gram 19 (4 September 1970): implemented an executive order from President Nixon to authorize an increased percentage of early promotions for officers.
  • Z-gram 20 (8 September 1970): required all shore bases to provide washing facilities and lockers for enlisted personnel assigned dirty work in dungarees.
  • Z-gram 21 (9 September 1970): encouraged commanding officers to provide compensatory time off for personnel standing watch on holidays.
  • Z-gram 22 (9 September 1970): authorized shore bases to organize facility improvement teams for welfare, living and parking facilities.
  • Z-gram 23 (12 September 1970): established the CPO advisory board to the CNO.
  • Z-gram 24 (14 September 1970): established procedures for Navy wives to present complaints, viewpoints, and suggestions to commanding officers of shore bases.
  • Z-gram 25 (16 September 1970): authorized ships in port to reduce watch standing rotation from one day in four to one day in six.
  • Z-gram 26 (21 September 1970): shifted responsibility for shore patrol staffing from shipboard to shore-based personnel at major naval bases.
  • Z-gram 27 (21 September 1970): eliminated routine local operations over a weekend by ships sailing from their home port.
  • Z-gram 28 (21 September 1970): was a status report on implementation of recommendations by retention study groups.
  • Z-gram 29 (22 September 1970): encouraged commanding officers to allow leave for 5% of their crew during overseas deployments.
  • Z-gram 30 (23 September 1970): established “hard-rock” officers’ clubs for junior officers at five naval bases and encouraged other naval base officers’ clubs to allow at least one room for casual dress, encourage unescorted young ladies to visit the clubs, and appoint younger officers to advise club managers about other measures to improve morale of junior officers.
  • Z-gram 31 (23 September 1970): established a junior officer ship-handling competition whose winners would be able to pick their next duty assignment.
  • Z-gram 32 (23 September 1970): allowed sailors to arrange their own re-enlistment ceremonies with assistance from their command.
  • Z-gram 33 (25 September 1970): established a procedure to improve customer relations at naval Base Exchanges.
  • Z-gram 34 (25 September 1970): eliminated the requirement for junior officers to own formal dinner dress uniforms.
  • Z-gram 35 (25 September 1970): authorized alcoholic beverages in barracks and beer vending machines in senior enlisted barracks.
  • Z-gram 36 (26 September 1970): encouraged commanding officers to improve the customer service ethic at base dispensaries and disbursing facilities.
  • Z-gram 37 (26 September 1970): reduced the rank required for command of aviation squadrons from Commander to Lieutenant Commander.
  • Z-gram 38 (28 September 1970): instructed commanding officers to eliminate scheduling of work routine on Sundays and holidays unless the ship is deployed overseas.
  • Z-gram 39 (5 October 1970): extended the operating hours of 25 large base commissaries to reduce crowds on Saturday mornings and paydays.
  • Z-gram 40 (7 October 1970): gave sailors the option of being paid either in cash or by check.
  • Z-gram 41 (21 October 1970): established a Command Excellence chair at the Naval war College to be filled by a commander or captain with a record of outstanding performance in command.
  • Z-gram 42 (13 October 1970): allowed junior officers to request sea duty as their first choice for initial duty assignment.
  • Z-gram 43 (13 October 1970): encouraged commanding officers to help disbursing officers speedily process large travel reimbursement claims.
  • Z-gram 44 (13 October 1970): encouraged assignment of senior petty officers to stand in-port officer of the deck watches to reduce junior officer workload.
  • Z-gram 45 (15 October 1970): encouraged commanding officers to increase support services to families of prisoners of war.
  • Z-gram 46 (15 October 1970): reduced routine paperwork required for the 3M planned maintenance system inspections and documentation.
  • Z-gram 47 (20 October 1970): increased responsibilities of department heads and executive officers of ships being deactivated.
  • Z-gram 48 (23 October 1970): established a new Bureau of Naval Personnel office focused on providing information to dependent families of active duty personnel.
  • Z-gram 49 (23 October 1970): required half of personnel on awards boards to be below the rank of commander.
  • Z-gram 50 (23 October 1970): encouraged ships returning from overseas deployments to use shore-based utilities to allow leave for increased numbers of engineering personnel.
  • Z-gram 51 (23 October 1970): established a uniform breast insignia for officers in charge of brown-water boats.
  • Z-gram 52 (23 October 1970): Dissemination of CNO policy.
  • Z-gram 53 (2 November 1970): authorized annual publication of a list of job assignments available to junior officers, emphasizing geographical locations and required qualifications for career planning.
  • Z-gram 54 (2 November 1970): outlined procedures for junior personnel to make suggestions to CNO.
  • Z-gram 55 (4 November 1970): established pilot program for improving Navy human resources management.
  • Z-gram 56 (9 November 1970): established a program similar to Z-16 for officers desiring a duty swap with a similarly qualified officer on another ship or home port.
  • Z-gram 57 (10 November 1970): eliminated a broad spectrum of selectively enforced regulations and specified relaxed interpretations of others related to grooming standards and wearing of uniforms, so the vast majority of sailors would not be penalized by policies designed to constrain a few abusing the trust and confidence of less stringent rules.
  • Z-gram 58 (14 November 1970): required ships’ stores afloat to accept checks in payment for purchases.
  • Z-gram 59 (14 November 1970): established a program for officers to spend a year of independent research and study for professional development in areas mutually beneficial to the officer and the Navy.
  • Z-gram 60 (18 November 1970): encouraged all major naval installations to install a recording answering device on one telephone to receive suggestions.
  • Z-gram 61 (19 November 1970): Authorized warrant officers and senior petty officers afloat to serve as communications watch officers and registered publications custodians.
  • Z-gram 62 (27 November 1970): established a Naval War College forum to discuss improved naval personnel policies and present their views to CNO and Secretary of the Navy.
  • Z-gram 63 (30 November 1970): reduced by 25% the number of publications to be maintained by ships.
  • Z-gram 64 (3 December 1970): encouraged commanding officers to increase the opportunities for junior officers to practice ship handling.
  • Z-gram 65 (5 December 1970): listed incentives for officers to volunteer for duty in Vietnam.
  • Z-gram 66 (17 December 1970): directed every navy facility to appoint a minority group officer or senior petty officer as a minority affairs assistant to the commanding officer.
  • Z-gram 67 (22 December 1970): streamlined required inspection procedures to reduce the amount of time required for preparation and execution.
  • Z-gram 68 (23 December 1970): expanded the civilian clothing privilege explored in Z-gram 5 to all petty officers on all ships.
  • Z-gram 69 (28 December 1970): eliminated command of a deep draft ship from the requirements for promotion to admiral.
  • Z-gram 70 (21 January 1971): clarified grooming standards and working uniform regulations addressed by Z-gram 57 to reflect contemporary hair styles and allow wearing working uniforms while commuting between the base and off-base housing.

The majority of the Admiral’s Z-grams addressed retention and advancement programs and had very little effect on the daily operations of the entire Navy.  The following six Z-grams began a transformation of the Navy that is still ongoing.

The message regarding grooming standards is viewed as the one that almost broke the Navy disciplinary system or as freeing of the serfs by the Magna Charta.  There was the cadre of career sailors who saw Navy traditions, routine, and their authority being thrown in the garbage chute.  The other side of the coin saw eccentric beards and mustachios, collar length hair greased and piled under uniform headwear.  I remember one “sea lawyer” who had the pertinent Z-grams laminated and carried them around in his pocket and would try to interpret them in his favor.

I don’t remember when civilian clothing privileges were extended to all hands.  The civilian clothing aboard ship where there was barely enough room for required uniform items taxed the system.  The result of this was sailors civilian clothing was better cared for than uniforms.

On July 30, 1970, Z-gram number four established a test program to permit First Class Petty Officers to keep civilian clothing aboard ship for wearing on liberty.   This action got the average sailors attention.  Twenty-four days later Z-gram number twelve authorized the wearing of civilian clothing aboard shore stations during non-working hours.

The Admiral, during his travels to Naval Stations and afloat units, made it a practice to conduct question and answer sessions with members of the crew.  Z-gram seventeen seems to be a knee-jerk reaction to the question, “Why doesn’t the Navy Exchange cash checks for more than twenty-five dollars. The Z-gram raised it to fifty dollars in one fell swoop.

Z-gram fifty-one started the ball rolling for the myriad pins and devices authorized for wear on the uniform today by establishing a breast insignia for Officers in Charge of brown-water navy boats.

On November 10, 1970, Z-gram fifty-seven eliminated a broad spectrum of selectively enforced regulations and specified relaxed interpretations of others related to grooming standards and wearing of uniforms, so the vast majority of sailors would not be penalized by policies designed to constrain a few abusing the trust and confidence of less stringent rules.

On December 23, 1970, barely five months’ after Z-gram number four authorized a test program regarding civilian clothing aboard ship, Z-gram sixty-eight expanded the civilian clothing privilege to all Petty Officers on all ships.

On January 21, 1971, Z-gram Seventy clarified grooming standards and working uniform regulations addressed by Z-gram 57 to reflect contemporary hair styles and allow wearing working uniforms while commuting between the base and off-base housing.  Now you see sailors in working uniform everywhere.

I heard a Force Master Chief expound on Admiral Zumwalt’s programs and say that the Admiral was right.  He just did not get the full support of the chain of command in implementing the Z-grams.  Many Commanders, Officer’s and Chief Petty Officers were flummoxed by the rapid change. Many agreed that some of the changes were good, but they came too fast.  Instead of telling Commanding of the changes he desired and gradually implement, Zumwalt broadcast them to everyone.  Before CO’s could assess the situation the crew was “running amok with their own interpretations of the XZ-grams.”  Many seniors tried to maintain the traditions and routines. Others just shrugged, turned their backs and a blind eye to what was happening.

Is the Navy better or worse off for his tenure as the Chief of Navy Operations?  Each of us who was there has an opinion, the one term sailor who got over on his LPO or Chief by growing a beard and thumbing his nose at custom.  And then there were the Officers, Chief, and LDO’s who had to interpret new rules and live through watching the Navy change before their eyes.

Admiral Zumwalt was dedicated to, in his words, “making it fun to go down to the sea in ships again.” But just because you can change something, doesn’t always mean you should.  Too rapid change often has far-reaching and unforeseen consequences.



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A native of North Carolina, Garland Davis has lived in Hawaii since 1987. He always had a penchant for writing but did not seriously pursue it until recently. He is a graduate of Hawaii Pacific University, where he majored in Business Management. Garland is a thirty-year Navy retiree and service-connected Disabled Veteran.


6 thoughts on “Admiral Zumwalt and the Z-grams

  1. Ranger-12 says:

    I think he done a lot to bring the navy up to speed with the time. the only problem was that the people who worked for him was not in favor of the changes and they done their best at time to deep six them. the one thing that I didn’t like about some of the changes was that he didn’t explain them in detail so the commanding officer and below would under stand what he was talking about. we have the same problem now they are trying to force things on the navy that is not good for the navy, but the higher up in command don’t see it that way. (they want the navy to be PC and it can’t be PC and fight a war to win which it seem the people in Washington don’t want us to do any more) I could go on and on but here is not enough space for that. I just want to wish my navy good luck with all the PC crap that is coming down the line


  2. David says:

    Admiral Elmo, that’s right, he was an “Elmo” did more damage to my navy than the Soviet Fleet could ever have dreamed of. I was there and I witnessed all the crap.


  3. Pingback: USS ZUMWALT | RNZN Communicators Association

  4. As a young Lt, I worked for him in Vietnam. A year later I was chairing CNO Advisory Group meetings in Arlington, and then meeting with him for breakfast at the CNO quarters (now the US VP quarters) where he would decide which of the various advisory group meetings’ recommendations he would approve, some of which became Z-Grams. He wasn’t just thinking these things up. They were being recommended by these groups he would have meet to ponder changes needed. They would include some enlisted, various communities, etc.


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