Thursday, March 19, 2015

150 Years Ago: The Court Martial of William A. Parker

"The action of the court in this case has somewhat embarrassed the Department."

Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles
March 18, 1865

Aboard the sidewheel steamer USS Baltimore, anchored on the James River a century-and-a-half ago, a 33-year naval career hung in the balance.  Commander William A. Parker, who had until recently commanded the Fifth Division of the North Atlantic Blockading Squadron, stood accused of, among other things, "withdrawing from and keeping out of danger to which he should have exposed himself," and "[f]ailing to do his utmost to overtake and capture or destroy a vessel it was his duty to encounter."  

This print by William R. McGrath in the Hampton Roads Naval Museum collection shows the powerful ironclad Onondaga patrolling the James  River in more tranquil times.  Although successful in damaging the ironclads of the Confederate James River Squadron without suffering a single fatality or serious damage during the Battle of Trent's Reach in January 1865, the controversial decision of her commander, Commander William A. Parker, to withdraw during the first hours of the battle led to Parker's court martial in March.    
Nearly two months before, Parker had been in command of the double-turreted USS Onondaga and eight wooden gunboats dispersed along a 70-mile stretch between Richmond and Hampton Roads when the bulk of the Confederate Navy's James River Squadron, composed of three ironclads, five wooden gunboats, and three smaller torpedo boats, staged a desperate attack on the evening of January 23 to breach Union obstructions placed across the river. 

The week before, Commodore John K. Mitchell at his office within the Mechanic's Institute in Richmond faced a now-or-never decision.  The grim news that Fort Fisher had fallen on January 15 hung in the frozen air.  Wilmington, North Carolina; the last functioning port of the Confederacy and lifeline to Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia, was effectively neutralized. 

The city, buttressed by other fortifications guarding its approaches on the Cape Fear River, continued its resistance against the Union Navy some weeks afterward, leveling the odds between Mitchell's James River Squadron guarding Richmond, and the North Atlantic Blockading Squadron's Fifth Division, commanded by Cmdr. Parker, tasked with defending the Armies of the James and the Potomac.  The lion's share of Rear Admiral David D. Porter's North Atlantic Squadron was still tied up in the Wilmington Campaign over 300 miles to the south, portending the possibility of the Confederate Navy snatching a victory in Virginia from the jaws of defeat in North Carolina.  Change, it seemed, was in the air. 

As it happened, the air was literally changing.  A warm front sweeping across Virginia that week had also made conditions optimal for a naval attack against Union targets.  During the middle of January, much of the snow across the river basin suddenly melted, unleashing a freshet, or sudden rise of fresh water, temporarily surging the river.  Intelligence that the freshet had damaged Union obstructions at a bend in the river called Trent's Reach had also reached the Confederate commodore's desk. 

If Mitchell had not yet made up his mind about attacking, Confederate Secretary of the Navy Stephen Mallory made up his mind for him.  "I deem the opportunity a favorable one for striking a blow at the enemy, if we are able to do so.  In a short time many of his vessels will have returned to the river from Wilmington and he will again perfect his obstructions," Mallory wrote to Mitchell.  

Time was of the essence to take advantage of the spring thaw, the destructive water surge and the elevated river levels that came with it, as well as the apparent parity in opposing forces.  These factors were temporary, but the James River Squadron's mission was simply to do what the Confederate Navy did best throughout the war: Wreak havoc upon the Union's commercial shipping.  

The plan entailed cutting off both the Army of the James and the Army of the Potomac from their base of supplies at City Point, Virginia, only about 15 miles south of Richmond, which was also the location of Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant's headquarters.  "If we can block the river at or below City Point, Grant might be compelled to evacuate his position," Mallory wrote.     

Before the sudden thaw and surging of the river, the Union obstructions confronting the squadron would have included a thick hawser supporting a net intended to catch Confederate torpedoes before they reached the main barrier, which was made up of 14 sunken vessels, including five schooners, connected by double spars or booms.  This barrier was linked together by a one and one-quarter-inch chain spanning the river, supported by beams.    

Thanks to the freshet, Confederate Lieutenant Charles W. Read, the daring young officer commanding the James River Squadron's torpedo boats, was able to inform Mitchell after his men scouted the area:

SIR: The net which was stretched across the river above the obstructions in Trent's Reach is gone.  The schooner that was sunk in the old channel, on the south side, has drifted down several hundred yards.  The vessel that was nearest the north shore has been drifted ashore abreast of her old position.  The two vessels on each side of the north channel have lightened up by the stern; their entire sterns are out of the water; their bows are under the water.  There is no vessel to be seen in the north channel.    

On the Union side of the now-fraying obstructions, the news was remarkably similar, if not quite as enthusiastic. 

"The condition of the river obstructions above us is bad; they are washed away by the freshet," Cmdr. Parker telegraphed City Point from his base at Aiken's Landing, replying to a query from Major General John Gibbons, commanding XXIV Corps of the Army of the James. "I do not consider our naval forces sufficient to prevent the possibility of the enemy's gunboats coming down at high water, should they make the attempt.  I believe it impossible to replace the obstructions unless Howlett's battery [also known as Battery Dantzler] be first captured."

One of the 10-inch Columbiads at what was known by the Confederates as Battery Dantzler overlooks the James River in this image taken after its abandonment in April 1865.  Cmdr. William A. Parker's concern over the two Columbiads and two Brooke rifles overlooking the James about three-quarters of a mile above Trent's Reach at what he called "Howlett's Battery" prompted a cautious approach. (

Two days before the attack, Cmdr. Parker received word from Brigadier General John A. Rawlins, Grant's chief of staff, that the Confederate order to attack had been given, and that he should "exercise more than usual vigilance to defeat any plan the rebels may have in contemplation upon the river."  This would be easier said than done.  No less than 10 of Parker's vessels were laid up at Norfolk Navy Yard with no word as to when repairs would be complete, and he had just given up two of his needed tugs to the Potomac Flotilla in Maryland.  

On January 23, the day of the attack, Parker sent a request to Maj. Gen. Gibbons that more vessels be sunk and torpedoes put in place that evening to make up for what had been lost, but by that time, it was too late.  The confederate squadron got underway from its base at Drewry's Bluff at 6 pm, and about 5 hours later, Lt. Read began sounding out the north channel in a small boat as a team of Confederate Sailors hacked away at the remaining chains of the obstruction.  Two hours after that, Commodore Mitchell ordered CSS Fredericksburg, the ironclad with the shallowest draft, through the obstruction. 

The Confederate Ironclads FredericksburgRichmond, and Virginia II of the James River Squadron lead eight other vessels including the gunboat CSS Hampton past the guns of Fort Brady at about 8 pm on the evening of January 23, 1865. (Harper's)
Although sustaining damage from sunken hulks on either side, Fredericksburg, followed closely by the gunboat Hampton, made it through the obstruction, and behind enemy lines.  The jubilation on the part of the insurgents would be short-lived, but not because of Cmdr. Parker or his Fifth Division, seemingly the only force left to opposing them.  Nature herself had by this time turned against the squadron's other two ironclads, the flagship Virginia II and CSS Richmond.  Both had run aground, and the remaining Confederate gunboats and torpedo boats were either grounded, abandoned, or even destroyed by Union shore batteries just downstream of the obstruction in the attempt to free them.  

Make-or-break time had once again come to Commodore Mitchell.  He decided to recall the only vessels that had any hope of carrying out the mission.  Both ships retreated past their marooned shipmates under what Lt. Read called "a perfect rain of missiles," to relative safety under the guns of Battery Dantzler. 

Lieutenant E.T. Eggleston of the C.S. Marine Corps, who was aboard Fredericksburg during the operation, wrote of his frustration a few days later:
This vessel passed through the Yankee obstruction at 1:30 a.m., and we all flattered ourselves that every difficulty had been overcome.  The enemy's fire from their mortars had been quite troublesome for some time, but their heavy guns had not struck us once.  After waiting for the other vessels for about an hour and seeing nothing of them, our captain sent me in a small boat to report to the commodore [Mitchell] that we were safely through and ask if we should wait any longer. I went up to the obstructions, and seeing nothing of them, continued for some distance before I came to them.  After reporting, the commodore ordered me to return without delay and say to our captain that both the other vessels were aground and would not be able to get off before 11 a.m. the next day.  This compelled our abandonment of all ideas of success, for the first requisite was a complete surprise, and before the next night they would have time to concentrate a large fleet above City Point. 
By daylight, multiple Union shore batteries were finding their mark on the forlorn ironclads to surprisingly little effect, yet the question on Lt. Gen, U.S. Grant's lips, and on his telegraphers' fingertips, was, "What fleet has [Cmdr. Parker] collected or ordered to the front?"

CSS Fredericksburg, distinctive among Confederate ironclads because of her two pilot houses, had a shallower draft than her sister ship Richmond and flag ship Virginia II, which enabled her to pass Union obstructions at Trent's Reach when the others could not.  When she was ordered back through the obstructions early on the morning of January 25, her weaknesses, lighter armor overall and a casemate covered only with iron grating, threatened to be her undoing.    
 As the ironclad Fredericksburg and gunboat Hampton awaited further instructions amid their momentary mile-long foray past the Union obstruction, Cmdr. Parker ordered Onondaga nearly two miles back from her normal station at Aiken's Landing to a pontoon bridge spanning the James at about 2:45 am, where he promptly damaged one of his propellers attempting to bring the massive ironclad around.  

These two models in the Hampton Roads Naval Museum gallery show that, even under optimal conditions, the fight between CSS Richmond (left) 180 feet long (minus the spar torpedo) and around 800 tons, and USS Onondega (right) 226 feet long and 1,250 tons, would have been uneven.  The actual conditions on the morning of January 24 made matters much worse for the Confederate ironclad.  
Parker waited until around 8:30 to go back up the James.  Meanwhile, Lt. Gen. Grant continued sending furious cables to Parker, but after hearing an explosion coming from the direction of Trent's Reach (which was actually the result of a direct hit upon the ammunition stores of gunboat CSS Drewry, abandoned and aground after the effort to free CSS Richmond), he moved up to Assistant Navy Secretary Gustavus Fox.  Shortly after that, Grant issued "Special Orders to GUNBOAT COMMANDERS," which were ostensibly issued "By authority of the Secretary of the Navy," to "proceed to the front above the pontoon bridge, near Varina Landing."  

"This order is imperative," continued Grant, "the orders of any naval commanders notwithstanding."     
"I have been compelled to take the matter in my own hands to get vessels to the front, ordering by direction of the Secretary of the Navy," Grant informed Fox.
There seemed to be no objection on Fox's or Secretary Gideon Welles' part to Grant assuming direct command of US Navy vessels on the James River.  In fact, Fox and Welles moved with dispatch, issuing orders to remove Parker from command and replace him with his deputy until Commodore William Radford and his New Ironsides could arrive from Hampton Roads.   

This illustration from Harper's published February 11, 1865, depicts the scene at Trent's Reach around daybreak on January 24, 1865, after the ironclad Fredericksburg and the gunboat Hampton had made it through the gap in the Union obstructions created by the crew of the torpedo launch Scorpion (not pictured) at about 1:30 am.  Yet after making it a mile past the obstructions, Fredericksburg was ordered to return after the ironclads Richmond and Virginia II became grounded waiting for the obstruction to be breached.  Commodore Mitchell's decision doomed the only chance of the mission's success.  Shortly after 7 am, the gunboat Drewry took a direct hit in its magazine and exploded, and Scorpion also had to be abandoned under fire. (A.R. Waud)
When Onondaga did make her reappearance at around 10:45 am, along with the former ferry boat USS Hunchback and the side wheel steamer USS Massasoit, Parker was still in charge.  Richmond was grounded at an angle in which her guns could not even be brought to bear, and she and the other ironclads were sitting ducks.  Virginia II was struck over 70 times that morning from Union shore batteries, yet direct hits from Onondaga's 15-inch Dahlgren guns almost became the Union coup de grace.  One shot tore a five foot square hole in her armor, killing one Sailor and wounding two others before the rising tide finally allowed the ironclads to make their escape.
"The monitor opened on us," wrote Lieutenant John W. Dunnington after surviving the pummeling aboard Virginia II, "and I am of the opinion that the two most damaging shots, one aft on port side of shield, and one between after port and port quarter port, were fired from the monitor."  Richmond also sustained a hit from the much larger Union ironclad knocking away the port side gun port shutter.  In contrast, one of Onondaga's whaleboats and two dinghies were "stove in" during the fight.

As the sun came up the following morning, Parker appeared on the double-ender gunboat USS Eutaw and, upon finding her commander, Lieutenant Commander Homer C. Blake, informed him that he had been removed from the command of the division "'by the honorable Secretary of the Navy.'"  "'You being the senior officer present,'" Blake recalled Parker saying, "'I turn the command over to you.'"
Lt. Cmdr. Blake reported the exchange to Rear Adm. Porter, who had meanwhile joined the chorus of castigation concerning Parker, going so far as to say later, "Parker proved afterwards to be of unsound mind, though it was not suspected at the time, and previous to this fiasco stood high in the naval service both as a brave man and an excellent officer."
Two days after the battle, Parker outlined the preparations he had made, as well as the problems he had encountered before the attack, appealing to Secretary Welles, "I pray that you will order an investigation of the facts."
On March 18, Parker's prayers were answered in the form of a general court martial held aboard Baltimore.  He was tried on two lengthy charges that essentially amounted to willful cowardice before the enemy.  Although he had sent the order stripping Parker of command in the heat of the battle that day in January, Welles' attitude towards the incident had softened markedly by the time the voluminous specifications against the erstwhile commander appeared in black and white. 
Welles surmised that many of the charges against Parker, such as that he "did order the U.S.S. Onondaga... to be moved down the river and away from the vessels of the enemy for the discreditable purpose of avoiding an encounter with [enemy] vessels," was practically unprovable, in that "[t]he ways in which an officer might fail to do his utmost to encounter and capture or destroy an enemy's vessel are innumerable."  Furthermore, the secretary declared the allegation that Parker gave the order to move downstream for a "discreditable purpose" was not proved either, and that finding had thereby "virtually acquitted the accused of the charge of avoiding an encounter with the enemy."   
Welles concluded:

It is to be inferred from the opinion of the individual members of the court, as stated in their individual recommendations for clemency, that the sole offense of Commander Parker... was "error of judgment."  The Department is at a loss to understand whether the court considered "error of judgment" a crime in itself, or, under some circumstances, a valid defense against a proved crime.  Neither can be sanctioned by the Department.  The findings of the court ...and its specifications are not approved, and as the sentence... can now be modified, it is necessarily set aside, and Commander Parker is hereby relieved from arrest.

And with that, the sentence that Parker be dismissed from the Navy was vacated, and he was moved to the retired list.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Fifty Years Ago: The Navy "Lands the Landing Force" in Vietnam

Fifty years ago this week, the scope of American military involvement in supporting the 10-year-old Republic of Vietnam (created in the wake of the Geneva Accords between French and nationalist Vietnamese officials in 1954) broadened in a visually dramatic way.  Reminiscent of the D-Day images of Normandy, or, more comparably, those of Douglas MacArthur and his forces returning to the Philippines a generation before, the first battalion-sized American combat unit came ashore near the strategic air base at Da Nang, and the images of those Marines have symbolized the massive expansion of America's footprint in the country ever since.  The year 1965 opened with roughly 23,000 military advisors and support personnel, ballooning to around 181,000 by year's end, much of the increase made up of combat forces.

Special Landing Force (SLF) Marines of Battalion Landing Team, 3rd Battalion, 9th Marine Regiment (BLT 3/9), come ashore about four miles northwest of Da Nang Air Base on March 8, 1965. (Official US Marine Corps Photo/
There was nothing spontaneous about their arrival.  The US military had a presence in Vietnam for nearly a decade in advisory and support roles, but the need to have a flexible fighting force available for emergencies increased as the political and security situation in the Republic of Vietnam (also known as South Vietnam) deteriorated.  A Marine Special Landing Force consisting of Battalion Landing Team, 3rd Battalion, 9th Marine Regiment (BLT 3/9) had been on 72-hour alert status offshore since January, 1965, partially because of the removal of South Vietnamese Premier Tran Van Huong on January 27, and partially because of an increase in enemy activity against American military targets.  

On February 26, President Lyndon Johnson authorized the deployment to Vietnam of two Marine battalion landing teams, a medium helicopter squadron, and headquarters elements of the 9th Marine Expeditionary Brigade.  

And of course, they didn't just appear out of nowhere. 

The Seventh Fleet Amphibious Force Flagship Mount McKinley (AGC-7) prepares to depart Naval Station Subic Bay, Philippines, in 1966. (Rich Draves/ USS
The Navy's Seventh Fleet was becoming rapidly enmeshed in the operations of the growing Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (MACV), which had been established in February 1962, one month after President John F. Kennedy's decision to establish a military advisory effort.  Its Amphibious Force (Task Force 76) and attached Marine Units were by 1965 becoming instrumental as a potential resource to counter an increasingly brazen National Front for the Liberation of South Vietnam (then, as now, known popularly as the Viet Cong), which had changed its strategy from targeting primarily South Vietnamese military forces to targeting Americans as well.  Since 1962, US Marine helicopter units had supported Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) combat operations, and on February 9, 1965, batteries of the 1st Light Anti-Aircraft Missile Battalion, equipped with the "Homing-All-the-Way-Killer" (HAWK) medium-range surface-to-air missile, began arriving at Da Nang air base, which had been home to Marine Corps and US Air Force aviation units for some time.

US Marine Corps UH-34 Seahorses approach Da Nang airfield from the north in this 1965 photo.  The City of Da Nang lies  to the east of the airfield, bordered by the Han River, with the East Vietnam Sea immediately beyond. At the time of the first major amphibious landing nearby on March 8, 1965, the Marines of BLT 3/9 were assigned only to protect the air base.  That would change on April 1, when President Lyndon Johnson authorized the Marines to engage National Liberation Front (NLF, or Viet Cong) and People's Army of Vietnam (PAVN, or North Vietnamese) forces in combat. (Official US Marine Corps Photo/
On March 1, South Vietnamese government officials had, through diplomatic channels, agreed to the deployment of American combat troops to protect Da Nang, yet, conscious of the image it would convey to the Vietnamese public, requested that they be deployed "in the most inconspicuous way possible."  Two days later, US Ambassador Maxwell Taylor received word from Assistant Secretary of Defense John T. McNaughton that deploying the Army's 173rd Airborne Brigade from Okinawa would satisfy this desire for a lighter footprint.  Parachutes gently falling through the tropical air over the airfield would not present as forceful a picture as Marines storming a beach.

In Hawaii, Admiral  Ulysses S. Grant Sharp, Commander in Chief, Pacific, was of one mind with General William Westmoreland, Commander, MACV, in rejecting this change to a plan that was already in motion.  Brigadier General Frederick J. Karch, commander of the 9th Marine Expeditionary Brigade, and his staff had already wrapped up preparatory visits to Saigon and Da Nang in February, meeting with Westmoreland and Vietnamese Major General Nguyen Chanh Thi, senior commander of the Republic of Vietnam's five northern provinces.  BLT 3/9 was already aboard the ships of Task Force 76, off the coast.   

Sharp cabled the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS), "The CG, 9th MEB is presently in Da Nang finalizing the details for landing the MEB forces in such a way as to cause minimum impact on the civilian populace... I recommend that the MEB be landed at Da Nang as previously planned."

High-level reservations about what picture the landing would convey to the Vietnamese people were swept aside, and the decision to go ahead with the landing was handed down from the JCS on March 7. 

During the landing of the Third Marine Expeditionary Brigade (MEB) on May 7, 1965 at Chu Lai, 57 miles south of Da Nang, Republic of Vietnam, 3rd MEB commander Brigadier General M.E. Carl confers with Task Force 76 commander Rear Admiral D.W. Wulzen aboard Amphibious Assault Ship Princeton (LPH-5), as Captain R.W. Clark, commanding Amphibious Squadron One, looks on.  The Third and Ninth MEBs, joined by the Seventh MEB in July 1965, subsequently came under the operational control of III Marine Expeditionary Force (III MEF). (Official US Marine Corps Photo/

The task of delivering BLT 3/9 to Da Nang the momentous morning of March 8 was the job of the Seventh Fleet's Amphibious Task Force commander, Rear Admiral Donald W. Wulzen, who gave the order to "land the landing force" at 6 am.  The four ships involved in delivering the Marines that morning consisted of the flagship Mount McKinley (AGC-7), Amphibious Transport Dock Vancouver (LPD-2), Attack Transport Henrico (APA-45), and Attack Cargo Ship Union (AKA-106).

As seen from Landing Craft, Utility 1476 (LCU-1476) as it departs the well deck of Amphibious Transport Dock Vancouver (LPD-2), Marines, armored vehicles and supplies transit the Bay of Da Nang on their way to Red Beach during the first major American amphibious landing in Vietnam, March 8, 1965. (Official US Marine Corps Photo/   

Marines and their M-48 Patton tanks transit the Bay of Da Nang aboard LCU-1476 during the first major amphibious operation undertaken by US forces in Vietnam on March 8, 1965.  The Attack Transport Henrico (APA-45), also disembarking elements of the 3rd battalion, 9th Marines, can be seen in the background.  (Official US Marine Corps Photo/
LCU 1476 disembarks Marines, vehicles and equipment on Red Beach near Da Nang Air Base on the morning of March 8, 1965.  (Official US Marine Corps Photo/

Attack Transport Henrico (APA-45), with a Landing Craft, Mechanized (LCM) and a Landing Craft, Vehicle, Personnel (LCVP) alongside.  Date and location unrecorded.  (Chief Signalman Ronald Roy/
Marines from BLT 3/9 come ashore on March 8, 1965 at Red Beach 2 from a Landing Craft, Mechanized (LCM), northwest of Da Nang (Official US Marine Corps Photo/
 Between 9:02 and 9:18 that morning, the roughly 1,500 Marines of BLT 3/9 had crossed the beach...

A Marine Corps truck of BLT 3/9 passes under a banner at the entrance to the City of Da Nang on March 8, 1965.  After coming ashore, the members of BLT 3/9 became part of the 9th Expeditionary Brigade (9th MEB).  later that day, lead elements of the Battalion Landing Team, 1st Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment (BLT 1/3) would arrive by aircraft at Da Nang Air Base.    
...and by that afternoon had made it under the welcoming signs (and the curious stares of local children) of the City of Da Nang.   

Attack Cargo Ship Union (AKA-106) in 1966. (Richard Dawson/
The morning of the first landing, the Marines of BLT 3/9 were assigned only to defend Da Nang Air Base, and they received a curious but cordial reception from local officials and residents, as well as the press.  Only three weeks later, however, their defensive posture would change when President Lyndon Johnson authorized the Marines at Da Nang to move out and engage National Liberation Front (also known as Viet Cong) guerrillas, as well as elements of the People's Army of Vietnam (PAVN, or North Vietnamese Army).  

Marine Corps Brigadier General Frederick J. Karch, commanding general of the
9th Marine Expeditionary Brigade, sports a freshly applied lei as he receives a warm
welcome from ARVN (South Vietnamese) Major General Nguyen Chanh Thi on
March 8. 1965.  Although Karch emphasized the defensive mission of his Marines
to the press, they were to go on the offensive beginning in April.  He was later quoted
in the New York Times as saying of their new enemy, the Viet Cong, "I thought that 
once they ran up against our first team they wouldn't stand and fight, but they did. 
I made a miscalculation."  Karch moved on to his final assignment at Quantico, 
Virginia in December as director of the Command and Staff College, until his 
retirement in 1967.

Maj. Gen. Thi, a hero to the Buddhist population of South Vietnam, was forced by 
rival military officers into exile in the United States in 1966, further fracturing the 
political and sectarian fault lines in the country.  (LIFE)

In October 1965, Naval Support Activity, Da Nang, also known as Camp Tien Sha, would be established, later becoming the Navy's largest overseas logistics command, staffed at its peak by over 4,000 naval personnel.  It would be disestablished in 1973.

Rear Admiral (Upper Half) Donald Wesley 
Wulzen finished his active duty career 
in 1969 as deputy director of the Directorate of 
Inspection Services, Office of the Assistant 
Secretary of Defense (Administration).  (Official 
US Navy Photo)

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Z-Gram 116: The Navy's "Equal Rights Amendment"

In a Google world that returns millions of results per search, finding a single item search result is a rarity.  Entering Zgram 116 without quotation marks gets over 77 million results, including every reference to “gram."  After adding quotation marks, one and only one item comes back.

The 1973 article result poignantly reports “Life Aboard the Navy’s First Coed Ship.” 

Today, the term "Z-gram" is used variously for newsletters and websites and social media usernames.  Even institutions such as the National Military Intelligence Association and the National Atmospheric and Oceanic Administration (NOAA) use Zgrams for communication.  The word Z-gram, however, has a specific, significant etymology.  Zgram 116 in particular set in action a poignant transition in the Navy’s history.

The Z-Gram Legacy

The Navy’s Z-gram origin belongs to one of the more iconic Chiefs of Naval Operations (CNO).  In 1970, Admiral Elmo Zumwalt became the youngest CNO in Navy history, during one of its more tumultuous periods.  Late in the Vietnam Conflict era, Adm. Zumwalt faced a dual headed problem:  an aging fleet and equal opportunity tensions.  He considered retention to be the number one issue, and the numbers were reason for concern.

The new CNO institutionalized a cadre of Retention Study Groups (RSGs).  Beginning with a casual gathering of junior aviation officers, RSGs soon promulgated a more formal process which included numerous specialty groups within the Navy and addressed a broad variety of quality of life issues to include race and women inequalities.   Zgrams became his signature method of communicating the results of those RSGs and they transformed policy into action.

The Navy “Equal Rights Amendment”

The Zgrams – 121 in total – addressed a plethora of ongoing topics from haircuts to uniform guidance to radical personnel policy changes.  Zgram 116 was one of the latter category and came to be known as the Navy “Equal Rights Amendment.” 

It incorporated several transformations, including:

·     Command opportunity for women
·      Eliminating separate management of men and women
·     Opening all ratings to enlisted women
·     Suspending restrictions for women succeeding to command ashore
·     Opening the entire staff corps to women
·     Opening the restricted line to women
·     Integration of male and female detailing
·     Opening the Naval Reserve Officers Training Corps to women

A Year of Firsts

With Z-gram 116, many career opportunities opened for women.  The Women Officer School (WOS) was disestablished, and Officer Candidate School (OCS) training was integrated to support both men and women.  During that same time period, the Navy had several firsts for women.

Captain Arlene Duerk, Director of the Nurse Corps, was spot promoted, becoming the US Navy's first female admiral.

Source: Navy Live (
Lieutenant Junior Grade Dianna Pohlman became the first female Chaplain in the Navy-as well as the entire Department of Defense. 


Although female crew members had served in medical roles aboard USS Sanctuary (AH-17) since her commissioning in 1945, she was recommissioned on November 18, 1972, after nearly a year in an inactive status, with two female officers and 60 female enlisted personnel assigned to perform in non-medical roles.  Sanctuary, with her newly-integrated crew, returned to service for a three month South American goodwill tour, including a Panama Canal transit.  

Source: The Seabag (Naval Station Norfolk), January 18, 1973, 5.  

Women Aviators

January of 1973, the first female Navy servicemembers were selected for flight training.  Lieutenant Junior Grade Barbara Allen was stationed in Norfolk on the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) communications staff.  She was one of six selected and the first to complete her training in 1974.

Unpopular Reform

During his tenure, Adm. Zumwalt was not recognized for his equal opportunity achievements.  In fact, he was highly criticized for his sweeping strategic changes in personnel and warfare policy.  Even President Richard Nixon, who appointed Zumwalt over 33 senior ranking officers, appears to have had his regrets. 

Many years later, however, President Bill Clinton would recognize Zumwalt's forward thinking in the face of challenges by awarding him the Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian award.  

"I have a long list of friends and a long list of enemies," Zumwalt was fond of saying, "And I'm proud of both lists."

"Ours must be a Navy family that recognizes no artificial barriers of race, color, or religion. There is no black Navy, no white Navy-just one Navy-the United States Navy.

Z-Gram 66, December 17, 1970. 

(This post was written by Commander Colette Grail, USNR)