Note—It seems like Navy week here at the blog.
Fifty years ago on October 12, 1972 less than two days after the aircraft carrier USS Kitty Hawk sailed from the U.S. Naval Base at Subic Bay in the Philippines and just hours before the ship was set to launch air operations against North Vietnam as part of Operation Linebacker, a race riot broke out on board the ship. As many as half of the Black sailors on board rampaged through parts of the ship assaulting White shipmates after a confrontation with on board Marine Corps guards. The disturbance died down by morning after the personal intervention of Captain Marland Townsend and Executive Officer (XO) Commander Benjamin Cloud one of only five Black officers on board. Although tensions remained high the sailors returned to duty and the scheduled morning sorties against the North were dispatched without delay.
The incident was followed by another, but smaller riot on board another carrier in Task Force 77, the USS Constellation. The Navy was shocked. Perhaps it should not have been.
It was the waning days of U.S. involvement in Vietnam. Operation Linebacker was launched the previous spring in response to the ground invasion of the South by several divisions of the North Vietnamese regular army backed by 600 tanks and heavy artillery. With all but 10,000 U.S. troops already out of the country due to President Richard Nixon’s Vietnamization policy, the South Vietnamese army quickly began to buckle and large swaths of land in four key provinces fell.
To stop the advance, Nixon ordered unprecedented heavy bombing, including the first air strikes on the North, except for the area around the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) since Lyndon Johnson had halted raids in 1968. The attacks included the first use of radar and laser guided smart bombs, and the mining of Haiphong and all other Northern ports. Northern infrastructure, fuel, and munitions supplies had been drastically disrupted and the government of the People’s Republic of Vietnam (PRVN) had been driven to serious negotiations in Paris. They would soon agree to terms that at least temporarily let the government of the Republic of Vietnam (RVN) stand where it still had control and allowed the Americans to complete a face saving withdrawal of combat troops. The carriers of Task Force 77—increased from 4 to 8 for the operation—were a key part of the air campaign.
Meanwhile back at home things had gone to hell in a hand basket. Students had been radicalized by violent suppression at the Democratic Convention four years earlier and heavy handed action against building sit-ins and campus protest. The Kent State shooting embittered both students and Nixon’s so-called silent majority. Lines had been drawn that did not look like they could ever be crossed peacefully. On the other hand, anti-war sentiment and spread to much of the fed-up middle class and a new wave of giant protest marches looked older and more respectable.
But that paled next to rising racial tensions. In the aftermath of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. urban riots—virtual uprisings—had spread and become annual summertime events. The old non-violent leadership of the Civil Rights Movement had seemingly been eclipsed by a younger and more militant generation. Black Power and the Black Nationalism were the new bywords. Radicalized SNCC, The Black Panthers, and the Nation of Islam seemed to be driving a new agenda.
All of this was reflected in the war zone, where moral was low, the cause murky and no light could be seen at the end of that well-advertised tunnel. With more and more young whites avoiding the Draft with student and occupational deferments, large numbers escaping to Canada or Sweden, others refusing induction or simply “going underground” and disappearing, and still others enlisting in the Navy and Air Force to avoid becoming grunts on the ground, the Draftee Army was disproportionately Black and Brown. It was a “rich man’s war and a poor man’s fight” with minorities seemingly the chief cannon fodder. This had naturally led to high levels on in-theater racial tension.Despite racial tensions there was strong anti-war sentiment among troops in Vietnam that reflected the large numbers of Black and Brown GIs in the Army and Marine Corps.
Although the small group dynamics of active units in the field did, as had been expected, create strong bond between men of the same platoons that often transcended race, in rear areas, big bases, and in the cities like Saigon and Hue where the men got away to for rest and recreation, violent confrontations between Black and White troops were common. In some heavily African-American units resentment of White officers who sent them on dangerous missions day in and day out escalated to episodes of fragging the offending officers and non-coms.
Things in the Navy were different, but not necessarily better. The traditional culture of the Navy was openly racist. Since the days of the rise of Jim Crow Black enlistments in the Navy had been strictly limited to mess positions and stewards until late in 1942 when manpower needs became so great that Blacks were allowed to serve in other duties. This was done reluctantly and often with open resentment.
After the war most Blacks were discouraged from making the Navy a career. Almost no recruiting was done in Black communities, and when young black men did show up at recruiting stations, they were often steered to the Army or the Marine Corps. By the ‘70s although some Blacks had earned ratings in various specialties and a relative handful had become officers, most at sea were still serving in menial jobs in the mess, the laundry and the like. On shore they were still used in labor gangs, including the dangerous work of ammunition loaders despite the notorious legacy of the 1944 Port Chicago explosion and the subsequent mutiny of Black loaders who refused to return to work under dangerous conditions.
The Kitty Hawk was typical. Out of her compliment of 4,135 enlisted men, only 279, less than 15% were Black as were 5 of 348 officers. Over half of the Black crew members were assigned to mess duty or other labor intensive, low prestige positions. Promotions were hard to come by as were transfers to get training in skills that might be useful in civilian life. Blacks on board also had been complaining that in doling out extrajudicial punishments for relatively minor rules infractions, they recieved harsher treatment than their white shipmates for the same offenses. Tensions had been brewing for some time.
The Kitty Hawk had put into Subic for refueling, rearming, and a week of shore leave for of the crew. They had just finished the ship’s sixth deployment to the war zone and had been conducting almost continual operations since April. After Subic the plan had been to sail to the ship’s home port of San Diego and a longer rest, extended leaves, and time to reunite with families.
But just before pulling into Subic, the crew was given the news that they instead would be headed right back to bombing operations after the week layover. Evident sabotage aboard the carriers USS Ranger and USS Forester which had been scheduled to replace the Kitty Hawk on station meant that she would have to return in their place. The news was poorly received by the whole crew, Black and White alike.
Despite the bad news, most of the crew did what sailors have traditionally done after a long, tough cruise—hit the bars, honky-tonks, and bordellos with a vengeance. On the last evening ashore, October 10, a major brawl broke out between Black and White sailors at an enlisted men’s club on base. How the fight started is unclear, but it was surely fueled with alcohol. Scores of men, some of them from the Kitty Hawk were engaged in the melee which broke up only when the Shore Patrol showed up in mass.
Moments before curfew about 15 Black sailors boarded the ship “on the run and in a very disheveled condition.” Since the ship was about to sail and all hands were needed, the sailors were allowed to proceed to their cabins without further immediate investigation of their circumstances and condition. If these men had been involved in the fight, they probably felt that they had escaped any repercussions. The ship sailed as scheduled the next morning.
Around 7 pm on October 12, after the ship had been underway for a day and a half, a Black seaman was called to the ship’s investigator’s office for questioning about the Subic fight. The sailor came accompanied by 9 friends. All were irate. They exchanged what was characterized as “belligerent, loud, and abusive language,” when told that the sailor’s friends would not be allowed to sit in and witness the interrogation. Inside the office he was apprised of his rights and refused to make a statement. He was allowed to leave. Rumors started spreading through the ship.
Shortly after this a black mess cook was assaulted at the aft mess deck then another attacked on the forward mess deck. The same sailor was present at both assaults and presumed by rumor to be responsible. Soon a crowd of angry Black sailor began gathering at the aft mess deck. Marine guards were called. There was already a history of bad blood between the Marine security forces and Black seamen. There was a shouting match and some pushing and shoving. The corporal of the guard, the only Marine who was armed at one point appeared to be ready to draw his pistol. It was not drawn, but after the two sides separated rumor spread that the Blacks had been threatened.Executive Officer Commander Benjamin Cloud was the highest ranking of only four Black officers on board the Kitty Hawk and tried to mediate as trouble broke out aboard. Shown here earlier in his career as a fighter pilot.
It was at this point that Commander Benjamin Cloud, the Executive Officer and the highest ranking Black officer aboard, arrived on the scene and attempted to diffuse the dangerous situation. He ordered the Marine guard to remove themselves from the deck and remained in the room with a White Master Chief Petty Officer to try to calm the angry men down. Cloud spoke with the men for nearly an hour, assuring them that the Marines had been withdrawn below deck and offering to meet personally with leaders in his cabin to discuss their grievances. At some point Captain Marland Townsend entered the deck behind the XO, who did not see him or know he was there. The CO hung back and allowed Cloud to talk the men down but was alarmed by what he considered and insubordinate and hostile attitude by the Black seamen.
Townsend left the chamber as XO convinced the men to return to quarters and he departed through another hatch, believing the situation was in hand. Townsend was not so sanguine. He ordered his Marine guard to establish special patrols to protect the flight deck and areas where arms might be acquired. He also issued orders that any gathering of three or more sailor was to be immediately broken up.
Unfortunately, the men who had been convinced to retire by Cloud had to exit the area via the hanger deck to get to their quarters. When they entered the area the Marines assumed that they were hostile and in response to the Captain’s orders did as they were trained in riot control—they formed a line and advanced steadily on the men. There were 26 Marines and an undetermined number of Black sailors. The Marines pushed the men to one end of the deck and surrounded them. Several were arrested and put into handcuffs. Others armed themselves with chain aircraft tie downs and tools and began resisting the Marines.
Captain Townsend arrived on the scene and placed himself between the two groups trying to separate them. Someone heaved a heavy object at the CO which narrowly missed him. Cloud came in just in time to see that, but not to clearly understand what happened. He was almost immediately called away to attend a report that another sailor had been seriously injured in an attack below decks. Meanwhile the Captain ordered the arrested men released and the Marines to return to their own compartment while he tried to restore order.
Rumors that the Captain had been wounded, or even killed began to circulate and reached the XO below as if it were a fact. Alarmed, Cloud assumed that he would have to take command. The injured sailor below indicated that the disturbances were spreading into living quarters. Roving groups of Blacks were pulling White sailors from their bunks and beating them. Fights between groups of seamen were breaking out.
The dispensary was rapidly filling up with wounded men when a group of Black sailors entered and began harassing medical personal and patients. The situation was rapidly spinning out of control.
Afraid that confrontations between Black sailors and the Marines would only make matters worse, Cloud moved to microphone for the ship’s public address system ordering all the ship’s Blacks to the aft mess deck and the Marines to the forecastle to put as much distance between the two groups as possible.
This announcement was the first indication to most members of the crew of the vast ship outside the immediately affected areas that anything had happened.
The Captain was still on the hanger deck dealing with the largest contingent of the rebellious sailors when he heard the announcement. Of course he knew nothing of reports of his own incapacitation or death and may have assumed his executive officer was himself committing mutiny and trying to seize control of the ship.
Townsend rushed to the nearest p.a. microphone station to countermand the XO’s orders. That was the same station where Cloud still was. You can imagine the initial words from the skipper were heated. But the two quickly compared notes and figured out what had happened. The Captain got on the p.a. system, explained that the XO had been misinformed and canceled the separations orders. Instead he ordered all hands to remain in their quarters or at their scheduled duty stations. This was just after midnight.Black sailors in the forecastle armed themselves with whatever they could lay their hands on anticipating an attack by Marine guards.
Attacks in quarters continued, but large groups of Black sailors made their way to the forecastle where eventually about 150 gathered, almost all armed with makeshift weapons. They were still agitated and angry, but also becoming increasingly aware that their situation was precarious and untenable. XO Cloud followed the men to the forecastle and entered alone and unarmed. He later reported that he believed if he had been a White officer he would have been killed immediately. Cloud told the men that he would speak to them “as a Black man, not an officer.” At first they taunted him as an Uncle Tom, but he persisted speaking, and listening until about 2:30 in the morning when he finally convinced the exhausted men to return to quarters. They were allowed to do so without immediate arrest. The riot was over.
That night the dispensary treated 47 men, all but 6 or 7 of them White that night. Three men were so severely injured that they had to be evacuated by air to shore hospitals.
Junior officers and senior enlisted men were assigned to patrol corridors and living quarters to insure order. The Marines were not used for this duty and the officers and petty officers were unarmed. Things remained tense, but calm. These patrols continued for the rest of the cruise.
Sorties against the North Vietnamese got off as scheduled in the morning and the ship remained on station and performing regularly until the end of Operation Linebacker in late October. When she returned to Subic before heading to San Diego, the Kitty Hawk had spent a record 177 days on the line in a single deployment, including the October return to station.
At the highest levels of the Navy, it was decided against mass charges against everyone involved in the uprising. There would be no blanket charges of mutiny. Those men who could be identified in direct involvement in assaults and other offences were charged under the Uniform Code of Military Justice. 21 men requested civilian council and were put ashore at Subic and then flown to San Diego for trial. Five sailors opted for Navy lawyers and were tried on board the Kitty Hawk as she steamed home to San Diego. A total of 19 of the men were convicted of at least one charge.
Friends and family of Kitty Hawk SOS (Stop Our Ships/Support Our Sailors) sailors wait at Fleet Landing in San Diego to distribute copies of the ‘Kitty Litter,’ the sailors’ anti-war underground newspaper. Although SOS members and supporters were mostly white, they supported their Black shipmates and help publicize the events leading to the riot or mutiny.
The Navy hoped to keep the uprising quiet, but there were correspondents on board and the New York Times broke the story.
After the Constellation also experienced rioting, Congress opened an investigation into both incidents and into race relations in the Navy. The Report by the Special Subcommittee on Disciplinary Problems in the U.S. Navy was released the next year and called for numerous reforms in the service and better opportunity for Black seamen to advance.
The USS Kitty Hawk was a modern super carier which was commissioned in 1961. At the time she was decommissioned in 1998 she was the U. S. warship with the second-longest active status, after the sailing frigate USS Constitution. And as noted her deployment in Operation Linebacker broke a record.