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USS Zumwalt will return the honor for late Marine who escorted remains

James Zumwalt is a retired Marine lieutenant colonel who served in the Vietnam war, the 1989 intervention into Panama and Operation Desert Storm. The son of the late Navy Adm. Elmo R. Zumwalt Jr., he's also a best-selling author, speaker and business executive. The views expressed in this commentary are his own.


U.S. Navy photo

On Jan. 2, 2000, less than 48 hours into a new millennium, the U.S. Navy lost a 20th-century hero and revered, visionary leader.

Adm. Elmo R. Zumwalt Jr., 79, had succumbed to mesothelioma -- a lung cancer caused by asbestos exposure, incurred during his naval career. He died at Duke Hospital in Durham, North Carolina.

As a grieving family focused on making preparations for a funeral to be held Jan. 10, 2000, at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, Marine Col. Michael Spiro stepped forward to escort the remains home.

Spiro had served as Zumwalt's Marine aide, initially during the Vietnam war and later when the admiral was promoted to the Navy's top position as (the youngest ever) Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) in the summer of 1970.

Admiral Elmo R. Zumwalt, Jr., Chief of Naval Operations, and Rear Admiral Robert S. Salzer, Commander Naval Forces, Vietnam, discuss their recent visit to Nam Can Naval Base as they fly to their next stop. May 1971. | US Navy photo

Zumwalt had been most impressed with Spiro's professionalism and sense of duty. As CNO, the admiral was about to embark upon various programs that would shake up the naval service. He knew success turned on having a loyal staff in place to support his changes.

When Zumwalt asked Spiro to join him at the Pentagon, there was no hesitation on the colonel's part. Immediately accepting, Spiro knew by doing so, time spent working for Zumwalt's Navy was not time spent working in a Marine Corps billet to further his own career. Yet, driven by a sense of personal loyalty, Spiro answered the admiral's call. The two men developed a close friendship.

As CNO, Zumwalt faced enormous challenges implementing changes that TIME magazine credited with bringing the U.S. Navy "kicking and screaming into the 20th century."

With re-enlistment rates at an all-time low in 1970, Zumwalt focused on making the Navy a much more people-oriented service. His changes eventually leveled the playing field for all serving -- especially for long, over-looked minority service members.

Meanwhile, Spiro, who might well have gone on to make brigadier general had he elected to leave Zumwalt and take a Marine Corps command billet, opted instead to serve at his friend's side.

Spiro was committed to helping Zumwalt achieve his goal -- and with him, Zumwalt did. By the time the admiral retired in 1974, the Navy's re-enlistment rates had tripled. The evidence the playing field for minorities has successfully been leveled today can be found by examining the faces of the Navy's top leadership.

Although Spiro retired in 1976, he donned his Marine Corps uniform during the first week of January 2000 to escort Admiral Zumwalt's remains home from North Carolina.

Having become an Annapolis resident after his own retirement, Spiro, for years after the admiral's death, often visited the gravesite. Brushing off winter leaves or recently-cut summer grass, Spiro occasionally left a rock on the headstone. The significance of this custom, lost to many today, is a sign of respect a friend had visited.

The year Zumwalt died, then-President Bill Clinton announced the Navy would build a new class of warship -- unlike any other ever built. A stealth ship, it was to be the world's largest destroyer. The ship would bear Zumwalt's name.

Sixteen years after Clinton's announcement, USS ZUMWALT became a reality. Built by General Dynamics Corp.'s Bath Iron Works in Maine, this magnificent vessel is now to be commissioned Oct. 15, 2016, in Baltimore.

After her commissioning and official entry upon the Navy's active ships registry, USS ZUMWALT will depart from Baltimore, undertaking a most unique mission.

Col. Spiro, 86, passed away on Nov. 28, 2015. As was his wish, he was cremated.

Upon the USS ZUMWALT's arrival in Baltimore in October, Spiro's son, Peter, will present his father's remains to the ship's commanding officer. Following her Baltimore departure, somewhere in route to her homeport of San Diego and at the mandatory distance offshore, USS ZUMWALT will come to a dead stop. The ship's crew will then conduct a brief ceremony rendering Spiro final honors as the colonel's ashes are committed to sea.

Sixteen years earlier, Col. Spiro was honored to escort Admiral Zumwalt's remains home. Later this year, the USS ZUMWALT seeks to return the honor.