(March 11, 2018 / Embassy of Israel in Washington) Elmo Russell “Bud” Zumwalt Jr. was a decorated war veteran who rose through the ranks of the U.S. Navy to serve as its youngest Chief of Naval Operations. Zumwalt commanded U.S. naval forces in the Vietnam War and he modernized many aspects of navy policy and strategy.
Admiral Zumwalt believed strongly that the United States should aid Israel in its conflicts with the surrounding Arab countries. During the Yom Kippur War in 1973, Zumwalt played a critical role in airlifting supplies to Israel. These supplies were a crucial factor in Israel’s victory. In an oral history recorded in 1991, Zumwalt detailed his actions on behalf of Israel, an account since confirmed by others.
Zumwalt recounted that he approached Secretary of Defense James Schlesinger and conveyed to him that Israel was losing the war and would run out of ammunition in one or two days, and that it was therefore essential that America transfer supplies and equipment to Israel immediately. Lacking authority from President Nixon, Schlesinger said there was nothing he could do. Refusing to take no for an answer, Zumwalt turned to Senator Scoop Jackson to mobilize pressure on the Nixon administration. Zumwalt unhesitatingly risked his career by briefing Jackson every day, helping him to outmaneuver the opponents of resupply. His persistence paid off at the last minute when Nixon authorized a massive airlift using Air Force C-5 cargo planes.
Zumwalt was then directly involved with the logistics of actually getting the supplies to Israel, which proved to be no easy matter. He had to “lean pretty hard” on various nations who controlled essential airspace on the route necessary for transit and refueling. En route to Israel, the planes landed in the Portuguese Azores, refueled over Spain, and were supported by a fleet of ships based in Greek waters. All three nations were at that time controlled by indifferent or even hostile regimes. This massive airlift, known as Operation Nickel Grass, resulted in over 22,000 tons of weapons and supplies, including one hundred fighter jets being sent to Israel. In many instances, the supplies reached the front lines within a few hours of landing, directly contributing to Israel’s victory.
The operation could not have gone forward without the determined efforts of Admiral Zumwalt, who, like Scoop Jackson, should be remembered for decisive action that helped save Israel in one of its most vulnerable moments.