Admiral Elmo R. Zumwalt Jr.

onwatchAdmiral Elmo R. Zumwalt Jr. died Sunday, January 2, 2000, at the age of 79. Adm. Zumwalt was commanding officer of the Isbell from July 1955 – July 1957.

Read Adm. Zumwalt’s comments on the elimination of ‘Mickey Mouse’ regulations and changing the Isbell’s voice radio call sign while commanding the USS Arnold J. Isbell, in his book On Watch.

Changing the USS Arnold J. Isbell’s Voice Radio Call Sign

(From ‘On Watch,’ Elmo R. Zumwalt, Jr., Quadrangle/New York Times Book Co., published 1976)

The sea tour that convinced me once and for all of the effectiveness of a trusting rather than a suspicious style of leadership was my second command, the old World War II destroyer Arnold J. Isbell, from 1955 to 1957. My first command, the destroyer Tills, was not completely conclusive because it lasted only ten months. I was detached from that command when the Korean War began and assigned as navigator to the recommissioned battleship Wisconsin. In that capacity I spent most of my waking hours on the bridge with the skipper, and had little to do with the administration of the ship, which the executive officer carried out, I gathered from wardroom conversation, very much in the old tradition. My third command was USS Dewey, the first guided-missile frigate. Because she was the first ship of this new type, she was manned with handpicked officers and sailors, and personnel administration was easy. Dewey’s problem was her weapons system, not her spirit nor morale, but that’s another story.

Arnold J. Isbell’s problem was her spirit and morale. The year before I took command of her, she had stood last in battle efficiency (which is the best measure of a ship’s readiness to perform missions) in a squadron of eight. At the end of my first year, she stood number two, and at the end of the second, number one. We accomplished these results in a milieu in which, to the extent that it was within my power, I had eliminated the demeaning and abrasive regulations. During this two-year tour the ship spent every other six months in overseas deployments and averaged only about half of the remaining time back in our home port so that we were away from our families 75 percent of our time. What I tried hardest to do was insure that every officer and man on the ship not only knew what we were about, not only why we were doing each tactical evolution, however onerous, but also managed to understand enough about how it all fitted together that he could begin to experience some of the fun and challenge that those of us in the top slots were having. Our techniques were not unusual. We made frequent announcements over the loudspeaker about the specific event that was going on. At the beginning and the end of the day, I discussed with the officers who, in turn, discussed with their men what was about to happen and what had just happened, what the competition was doing and what we should do to meet it. We published written notes in the plan of the day that would give the crew some of the color or human interest of what the ship was doing. I had bull sessions in chief petty officers’ quarters, where I often stopped for a cup of coffee. More important than any of these details, of course, was the basic effort to communicate a sense of excitement, fun and zest, in all that we were doing.

One initiative that was surprisingly helpful in raising Isbell’s spirits came close to being frustrated by Mickey Mouse of a bureaucratic front-office kind. Every Navy ship is assigned a “voice call sign” by which it is addressed over voice tactical radio nets. The theory behind the use of this nickname is that the enemy won’t know what ship is calling or being called. In actual fact, in enlisted and officer’s clubs, in liberty areas, wherever sailors from the fleet gather, ships, and by extension their crews, are known as often by the voice call names as by the ship’s real name. Voice call signs are invented and assigned by civil servants in a remote recess of the Pentagon who, one sometimes suspects, view their work with a certain amount of irony if not downright malice. In any case, Arnold J. Isbell, when I took command, had the voice call sign “Sapworth.” Things were bad enough aboard the Isbell without her being addressed in this fashion a hundred times a day. Most sailors want to be proud of their ship, and it is not easy to be proud of a ship called Sapworth. Consequently, on 26 October 1955, shortly after taking command, I sent off the following letter:

From: Commanding Officer A. J. Isbell
To:  Chief of Naval Operations
Via:(1) Commander Destroyer Division ONE HUNDRED TWELVE
(2) Commander Destroyer Squadron ELEVEN
(3) Commander Cruiser-Destroyer Force, U. S. Pacific Fleet
Subj: Change of voice radio call: request for

1. Since recently assuming command of ISBELL this Commanding Officer has been concerned over the anemic connotation of the present voice radio call. When in company with such stalwarts as “FIREBALL,” “VIPER,” and others, it is somewhat embarrassing and completely out of keeping with the quality of the sailormen aboard to be identified by the relatively ignominious title “SAPWORTH.”

2. In order that ISBELL may carry on in the “31 knot Burke” tradition and proudly identify herself to all and sundry consorts, it is requested that our voice call be changed to “HELLCAT,” which call is currently unassigned in JANAP 119(B).

JANAP 119(B), the reader doubtless will have figured out, is the published list of calls. The first endorsement on this request on 22 November, by the commander of Destroyer Division 112, was “1. Forwarded.” In other words, “I’m not going to take a position on a matter as controversial as this.” The second endorsement, dated 13 December 1955, from the Commander Destroyer Squadron 11, was “1. Forwarded recommending approval.” My squadron commander was a man of courage and perception. The third endorsement, on 17 December, from the Commander Cruiser-Destroyer Force, U. S. Pacific Fleet, was:

1. Readdressed and Forwarded.

2. COMCRUDESPAC concurs in the recommended change provided it is in consonance with call sign assignment policies of the Joint Communications Electronics Committee.

In other words, “I can’t find it, but there’s bound to be a catch in this.” The fourth endorsement, on 12 January 1956, from Commander-in-Chief U.S. Pacific Fleet, was:

1. Forwarded.

2. CINCPACFLT is aware that many voice calls assigned to the ships of the U.S. Navy are not indicative of their qualities and/or capabilities. This is due to the limited number of words in the English language that are suitable for voice calls. No objection to the subject request is interposed providing that a precedent is not established and the voice call “HELLCAT” is available for assignment to the USS ISBELL.

In other words, “Zumwalt may be right, but he’s certainly pushy.” With all those caveats on the record–for of course I received copies of them–I was not at all sure that the request would be approved. Therefore, on 30 January, I wrote to Rear Admiral H. C. “Chester” Bruton, who had been my commanding officer on the Wisconsin and was now Director of Naval Communications and, as such, the final arbiter of voice calls. I wrote:

Dear Admiral Bruton:

Although I would not consider writing to you, direct, in search of any personal favor, I have decided that I might be forgiven for enlisting your assistance in the official request, copy enclosed, concerning my ship.
I should imagine that something so simple as a request for a change in voice radio call would not normally come to your attention. I should further imagine that the logical thing to do would be to disapprove the request from the standpoint of time, expense, and precedent involved.
Therefore I wanted to make the following points to you, unofficially, in the hope that you might see your way clear to provide an affirmative decision.
When I took command of Isbell four months ago she had one of the lowest reenlistment rates in the force and no reserve offlcer had requested regular Navy in over one year. With the help of a fine group of officers we have succeeded in raising the reenlistment rate by 2.5 times in four months. In the last month two reserve officers have requested augmentation and retention, respectively, and have specifically asked to remain aboard Isbell. We are doing everything humanly possible to provide motivation, incentive, and esprit de corps. We are making progress. The approval of the requested voice call, in my opinion, will lend a great deal of impetus to the surging team spirit.
My apologies for soliciting your time for what is after all a small matter but I am encouraged to feel that you might take an interest in what is important to me and my ship.

On 3 February Admiral Bruton wrote on the bottom of this letter, “Let’s do this if possible. If not let’s give him something better than SAPWORTH. Pls return with necess info,” and sent it on for action. On 3 March the following message arrived at the ship:

1. Reference (a) requested that the voice call sign of the USS ARNOLD J. ISBELL be changed from “SAPWORTH” to “HELLCAT.”

2. The limitation of the number of words available has dictated the current joint practice of assigning voice call signs at random and without consideration of the actual word meanings. Therefore, certain voice call signs which appear undesirable from a personal viewpoint are often assigned.

3. Voice call signs are currently being assessed for the purpose of reassigning those which may be objectionable. The reassignment will be published in the next changes in JANAP 119. At that time the voice call “HELLCAT” will be assigned to the ARNOLD J. ISBELL.

That meant, “You didn’t have to make such a fuss. We were planning to do it all along.”

The voice call Hellcat proved immensely popular. Arnold J. Isbell’s officers and men proudly wore sleeve patches and baseball cap patches showing a black cat with a forked tail stepping out of the flames of hell and breaking a submarine with its paws. The impact on morale was remarkable. I should add that, operating on the stitch-in-time principle, when three years later I received command of Dewey, I went to that Pentagon recess to make sure I was getting an acceptable voice call sign. The people there remembered my name from the Isbell episode and, evidently wanting no further intervention in their affairs from their admirals, gave me the book and let me pick the sign I wanted from among those not then in use. Dewey became “Sea Rogue.”

5 Responses to “Admiral Elmo R. Zumwalt Jr.”

  1. John Lewis Says:

    As a member of the ISBELL’s crew at the time of the change in call sign, I can verify the circunstances that led to the change to HELLCAT. Admiral Zumwalt (then CDR) felt very strongly that it was important to change the call sign and exerted every effort to make it happen. Incidentally, the insignia he refers to was designed by then LTJG Ray Reed, an architect from Louisiana who later was Dean of the Tulane School of Architecture.

    • Becky Harmon Says:

      Dear Mr. Lewis,

      I can assure you that my father, Enoch A Freer Jr. who was a Sonarman on the Isbell was the designer behind the drawing of the HELLCAT. I have proof of this. So, please do not give credit to someone that credit does belong to. Many of the sailors on the ship watched my father create the drawing. He still has the original drawing at his home.

      I mean no disrespect, but I just wanted to make sure that the facts are correct.

      All the best,

      Becky Harmon

  2. John Viola Says:

    Served 1951 to 1952.. Low moral? Must have been the Officers..Or Zumalt is full of himself….Life on a tin can during wartime? You would have to be nuts if you enjoyed yourself!

  3. John Viola Says:

    Oops!I served 1951 to 1954 on the AJ Isbell

  4. jim O BMC(SW) Says:

    zumwalt was the worst excuse as an officer that ever existed. he took away the pride and honor of the navy to make it more pc correct

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