Combat Experience Now and Then

September 2011


The following selection comes from Zumwalt Staff Officers Volume I, an oral history collection produced and owned by the United States Naval Institute. These oral histories done by USNI are simply fantastic gems of history, and this one on Zumwalt is no exception.

I am not sure what the procedure is for USNI members to get a copy of this kind of stuff, so maybe someone on the staff at USNI can address that in the comments below. As I have been reading through some of these interesting pieces of history, I keep thinking there is useful information that someone at every level of leadership from the Department Head up would find useful.

This is the first of what may be multiple posts on this Zumwalt oral history. In the section below Paul Stillwell is interviewing Captain Howard J. Kerr, Jr., U.S. Navy (Retired), who served on Zumwalts staff as a LT in Vietnam immediately after getting his Masters Degree at Tufts. Noteworthy in the context of this quoted section, LT Kerr turned down command of a coastal patrol vessel to take the position on Zumwalts staff, something his detailer insisted would hurt his career as LT commands at the time were very rare. He had never met VADM Zumwalt prior to accepting the position, and had only really learned about the man after being offered and initially turning down the staff job offer.

This section is discussing what I always find to be the most important issue Navy leaders must deal with – people. I think different readers can and will find different lessons or analogies to today in this section, and likely come to different conclusions as it relates to today. It begins with a question of inventives provided by the Navy for people to go to Vietnam.

Q: And there were not incentives provided for people to go.

Captain Kerr: Well, no, there weren’t any incentives to go, and there weren’t any rewards for having done a good tour there. Admiral Zumwalt fought like hell to give some rewards to the lieutenant commander who had gone over to Vietnam and who had done exceptionally well, who had put his life on the line, who had been in a very threatening environment for a year, and who when he came out was getting zero credit for that from the bureau and wasn’t even making the XO cut. That was kind of the typical guy. He worked very hard trying to turn that around. He put his own personal involvement in it. We used to talk to the bureau almost every night from Saigon in an effort to impress upon them the fact that, “You may not agree with what the country is doing~ you may not agree that this is the kind of training that a naval officer needs, but the fact is that this is national policy; the country is at war, and we are the warriors dedicated to fighting this country’s battles. It’s incumbent upon us to ensure that the very best people are sent over, because people’s lives are at stake and the national honor and prestige are at stake in this particular war.” And our ability to execute a very complicated sophisticated mission–namely, as I’ve said before, getting the Navy involved while at the same time trying to train the Vietnamese Navy and turn the damned thing over. It was a multifaceted operation that involved a lot of sophistication. It just required the best talent the Navy had. That’s the way Admiral Zumwalt felt about it. The bureau simply was not supporting that up until that time.

Now, they responded to him, and you began to see a little turnaround. Pretty soon, after nine months or so, some people who were considered “front-runners” began to show up in country. But up until the time Admiral Zumwalt got there, that was simply not the pattern, not the case. I feel that in many cases the detailers were being driven by what they considered the right, quote, “right career pattern” for a surface guy, and it just didn’t include a tour in Vietnam. It was more important to go off to destroyer school, or have a weapons officer tour on a DDG or something than it was to go to Vietnam. Those guys were doing just what they basically were being told what the policy within the bureau is. So, in that sense, we weren’t getting support even from our own personnel distribution system for the Vietnam war in country at that time. They supported us in the sense of putting in the numbers that had to be there. They were there. But they were not reaching down and looking for the top people and putting them over there. In a sense, it was inconsistent with the right career path to go over there.

You reflect upon that, and it’s an extraordinarily hard thing to understand for me – how we could view that war as just another tour of duty – it turned out that it just didn’t rank as high as other tours of duty. There are an awful lot of people who have remarked to me that at the time they didn’t want to go to Vietnam – not that they were afraid to go to Vietnam, but they just didn’t see how it was going to help their career.

Q: What did Admiral Zumwalt do to provide incentives for the Navy captains that were there?

Captain Kerr: Well, I think one of the biggest incentives right away was when Bob Salzer got selected for flag. There had never been a flag officer out of Vietnam. He got selected for flag. People tend to go to where people are being selected. If the water at this hole is a little bit sweeter, that’s where everybody goes to drink. And the water in South Vietnam had been a little stale. So when Bob Salzer got selected, that sent out a signal through the Navy. Zumwalt was there. Zumwalt was building a reputation. It was becoming common knowledge that Zumwalt had taken charge, had taken hold. The Navy was turning its act around and on in South Vietnam. That some good people were beginning to go there, to get involved. Bob Salzer had been selected for flag.

Q: Well, I think he was selected after he left.

Captain Kerr: Well, he had left, but see, he only had a few months to do when Admiral Zumwalt arrived. It didn’t make any difference when he got it. The fact is that it came right after his tour in Vietnam. So that was seen as a plus.

Q: My point is that the principal subordinates were still captains, whereas their counterparts, you were saying earlier, in the other services were generals.

Captain Kerr: Yes. That didn’t change. The admiral never got those jobs upgraded to flag rank. But he began to write the kind of fitness reports that helped people. He got General Abrams to sign off fitness reports for some of those officers, which was very helpful. Those are the kinds of things that you do to begin to support your subordinates in the field. He went personally after people. He used to get on the phone at night and call them. He’d work the detailers at night. A lieutenant commander comes out of Saigon with a top record, and the bureau doesn’t give that any merit. And instead of going to an XO’s tour, he goes someplace else; that tells the lieutenant commander community something. The admiral understood that, and he tried to turn that around–not only to give the right image of what was happening in Vietnam, but because he believed that that person deserved that because of what he had done in country.

You know, the admiral once said that every fitness report you’d get in the Navy that’s not under fire is just a guess. These guys were out in the field. getting shot at. They were running the war. The responsibility, the initiative, the sense of command and leadership that they were learning at this early age was remarkable. Plus, they were doing it in the battlefield. Those were traits and values and demonstrated performance things that are more important to a fighting man in many respects than being able to run an NTDS system on a guided missile destroyer. In other words, you could learn to run an NTDS system, but you never know how the guy is going to react in battle unless he’s been in it. And these guys had been in it. And our own system wasn’t recognizing that. If the guy somehow hadn’t been at the top of his performance ratings on his last ship, that’s what they were paying more attention to than how well he was doing in country. I feel very strongly that the bureau let the Navy down in country. I think, as I said, it began to turn around after Admiral Zumwalt got there, but I don’t think that the Bureau of Naval Personnel with regards to its detailing policies in the in-country effort, prior to 1968 certainly, can be very proud of its efforts to support the war. I mean they were more concerned about their own selfish policies of putting people in the right jobs and keeping them on the, quote, “career path” than they were with supporting the war effort in Vietnam.

Q: Well, did he work it from the other end also? There is a delayed reaction if you have to wait until the selection board results come out. Did he badger BuPers to send him brighter, better people earlier?

Captain Kerr: Yes, absolutely. There were people that were going off to the war colleges. I hate to belabor this, and I’m probably a little cynical about it, but I had people tell me that their detailer told them, “Let me put you at the Naval War College. You don’t want to go to Vietnam. That’s not going to do your career any good. You might as well spend a year at the Naval War College.” Can you imagine that? The goddamned country is at war! People are getting killed! And we’re thinking in terms of what’s best for promotion purposes. It’s unreal. In many respects, while I have disdain for both, I have less disdain for the person who ran off to Canada than I have for the person who ran off in uniform to the Naval War College.

One of the things that stood out to me in this section of the interview was the value of combat experience. US Navy fixed-wing aviators have dropped bombs on targets for 10 years, but 99% of those attacks have been in environments where the enemy lacks the capability to shoot back. The submarine community has never been attacked by a credible ASW threat in the lifetime of all US Navy submariners. The vast majority of combat experience of the SWO community comes from lobbing cruise missiles from positions offshore the enemy could not reach with counter-battery.

Put another way, RW pilots and the SWOs who conduct anti-piracy operations on small boats are about the only non-special forces sailors to find actual combat experience today, because they are the only US naval forces today that operate under legitimate threat of attack. Somehow I doubt the promotion system reflects that reality any more today than the promotion system reflected combat experience in Vietnam in the late 60s. AEGIS warships, aircraft carriers and strike fighters, and nuclear powered submarines cruising the South China Sea are so much cooler from a promotion system perspective than RHIBs and helicopters operating in pirate infested waters, or at least recent history suggests as much.

I think people can read this section and find other topics as well. Good history can do that.


Admin Update to Galrahn’s post regrading “I am not sure what the procedure is for USNI members to get a copy of this kind of stuff, so maybe someone on the staff at USNI can address that in the comments below.”

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Posted by galrahn in From our Archive, Naval Institute, Navy

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  • M. Ittleschmerz

    And some think that careerism is a new symptom in the Navy…

  • leesea

    I left my PBR tours with standard fitreps. But was more damning was my second ship skipper after a combat said “he had to make me well”.

    Then to top it off the Bureau DELETED the combat hours which were on my ODCR and showed my Patrol Officer tour as an Amphib staff job.

    I had to cite a Z-gram to get a ship tour post ‘Nam.

    So NO the USN did not value combat tours much back then!

    I do know of some officers from the Brownwater Navy who went to flag.

  • YN2(SW) H. Lucien Gauthier III

    Well, there are a few more Sailors out there who are being shot at and getting FITREPs that aren’t guesses. The first group that comes to mind are the PRT teams active in AFG right now (and have been for a number of years), as well as the Seabees. A number of them are lead by Naval Officers and Chiefs, and manned by Sailors. As well, the officers at NAVCENT FWD AFG consistently travel outside the wire to see the Sailors in their care.

    I can’t recall ANYONE telling me that it would be bad for my career to head downrange. The ‘rewards’ for going downrange are rather exhaustive and meaningful for an enlisted guys advancement. I can’t truly speak towards whether this same holds true for officers (though I am pretty sure it is). But, enlisted Sailors who have done an IA tour are given a meaningful advantage over their peers who have not (EVALs, Advancement points, EOT awards from their IA tour—Choice orders at their next PCS (if the detailer remembers)). My blog post regarding the number of Chief’s I saw frocked in KAF is testament to being promoted downrange.

    But, a key difference between what Zumwalt’s men had to do in Vietnam, and what many/most of us are doing in various locals for IAs is that we’re outside our rate and our profession as Sailors. Had I not been deployed with 12 other Sailors I would never had a need to do anything Yeoman or Navy like while in AFG. My proficiency in Shipboard duties stultified, and my identity as even being a Sailor was challenged. Yes, you learn what it is to be in harm’s way. But, not as a Sailor. You learn what it means to be a Soldier in harm’s way (in most cases). Sure, that’s still experience and thus beneficial. But, when you’re doing as such and leaving a ship like the SAN ANTONIO behind, the benefit of such experience falls short of the realization that the actual Navy needs you more.

    While I do not think we are truly repeating the mistakes of the Vietnam Era, we are making some mistakes today. We learned from Vietnam and have robustly applied those lessons. As we have had great success in ‘chewing gum and walking’ by continuously improving the IA/GSA process for Sailors year-to-year.

  • Jim Harward

    My Brother graduated from USNA in 79 ,My dad a Navy Capt.and SWO told my little brother then a LT and also a SWO that his choice of BUDS/SEAL’s was career ending.He is now Deputy Commander Centcom.Sometimes it pays off to be the war fighters.

  • LT Chad Dowell

    I am an Operations Tech Limited Duty Officer (LDO) LT and found Paul Stillwell’s interview of Captain Kerr to have many excellent points that are applicable to today’s Navy.

    I cannot comment on how tours to combat zones ashore are being viewed by advancement boards today or if the interruption in a SWO’s traditional career path has affected their career. With the numbers of SWOs who have executed IAs over the past decade I cannot imagine it has hurt them very much. I will say that I wish the Navy would take a lesson out of the Marine Corps’s play book and allow for a Sailor’s FITREP to specifically designate whether or not the Sailor served in combat operations during the reporting period. This would give credence to Admiral Zumwalt’s spot on quote that “every fitness report you’d get in the Navy that’s not under fire is just a guess.”

    During the past four years I have been serving primarily in an expeditionary status, first on an IA with a Joint Special Operations Task Force followed by orders to the Fleet Marine Force as a Naval Gunfire Officer. After serving in a wide range of billets I have to say that the author’s closing comments that “…RW Pilots and the SWOs who conduct anti-piracy operations on small boats are about the only non-special forces Sailors to find actual combat experience today, because they are the only US naval forces today that operate under legitimate threat of attack” falls short of recognizing the contributions of Sailors from every community in the Navy.

    I have deployed as an Executive Officer of a Marine Civil Affairs Detachment in Iraq and am currently deployed as a Naval Gunfire Officer attached to a Battalion Landing Team. In this capacity I may be called upon at any time to go ashore with the Weapons Company. While I will not make any outlandish claims about being a battle-hardened Sailor, I will say I have served with many Sailors from many different communities outside of those mentioned. These individuals have proudly served – often in harm’s way – over the last decade.

    While in Iraq I had seven Hospital Corpsmen working for me who also served as convoy commanders. I am currently attached to a Battalion that returned from Afghanistan a few months before I reported. Inside of my Battalion alone there have been numerous Purple Hearts and awards with valor awarded to Hospital Corpsman and Battalion Surgeons over the last two years. The Battalion Chaplain made convoy after convoy on IED infested roads to provide spiritual guidance to Marines and Sailors on forward operating bases that were under constant threat of indirect fire. Over the past year we’ve had three Naval Gunfire Officers from the SWO and LDO communities deployed to Afghanistan in support of combat operations, and their duties have required them to leave the wire on many occasions. These are just a few examples of Sailors that I have personally served with.

    I just want to make sure that the efforts of the Sailors from every community from SeaBees , SWOs, Medical Corps to Chaplains and everything in between receive the recognition they deserve for having served continuously in harm’s way over the past decade.