U.S. Navy Responds to Race Riot aboard Carrier ‘Kitty Hawk’
When a race riot erupted aboard the U.S. aircraft carrier Kitty Hawk the night of Oct. 12-13, 1972, while the ship was on combat duty in the Tonkin Gulf during the Vietnam War, the U.S. Navy knew it had a problem. A casualty toll of 46 injured sailors—3 of them hurt seriously enough to require medical evacuation—drove home the point. The problem was confirmed four days later, when another racial “incident” occurred aboard the fleet oiler USS Hassayampa in Subic Bay, Philippines.
Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Elmo R. Zumwalt had to accept that his liberalizing race relations policies were not being implemented effectively, and change was needed. The following article describes this realization and the formation of new policies. Ironically, this article was printed right after a third racial incident had occurred on another Navy ship, the U.S. aircraft carrier Constellation off the coast of California. The problem of racial strife and deteriorating race relations in the U.S. Navy was very real and demanded attention.
This copyrighted article was printed by the Sunday Oregonian (Portland, Oregon) on Nov. 5, 1972:
Racial Waves Force Navy to Push for Fast Reforms
LA Times-Washington Post Service
Washington—The U.S. Navy, in wake of the biggest shipboard racial fight in its history, is mobilizing for a “shape up or ship out” policy in black-white relations.
One draft memo invites Navy officers who do not view improved race relations as their critical duty right now to retire from the service.
This and other steps—including new “sensitivity” schooling for naval officers—stem from Adm. Elmo R. Zumwalt’s conclusion that his racial harmony programs have not penetrated deep enough.
His top adviser on race problems believes tensions are approaching the flashpoint because reforms are not keeping pace with the rising expectations of blacks in the Navy. There are now enough blacks on Navy ships to mount violent protests, like the one on the Kitty Hawk last month in which 46 people were injured in a racial brawl.
Zumwalt, chief of naval operations, was told all this Tuesday in an emotional face-to-face meeting with a group of black Navy officers he had appointed to study minority problems.
The minority panel’s basic complaint was that too many Navy leaders are paying for lip-service to Zumwalt’s liberalizing directives rather than making sure they are implemented all the way from the captain on down.
Said the report of the Relations Study Group (RSG) minority affairs panel:
“The Navy has permitted the situation to exist where there is an incompatibility between being a member of a minority race and being a member of the Navy,” the panel said. “The recruiting slogan, ‘You can be black and Navy too’ is false advertising.”
Special Officers Too Busy
Specifically, the report complained that Navy race relations officers are so overloaded with collateral duties that they can concentrate only on crises, not prevention of them. This situation is aggravated by those commanding officers, said the report, who subcontract the racial problems to their minority affairs specialists rather than involve themselves.
Also on the minority panel’s complaint list were slow promotions for blacks and other minorities; “biased” tests for enlisted men; a disproportionate amount of arrests and punitive discharges; lack of hairstyle standards for black women; and shortage of “ethnically oriented” entertainment and food.
Zumwalt, according to his aides, left the meeting with the blacks in a disturbed mood. Although he is widely credited with doing more than any of his predecessors to open up the Navy to blacks, the meeting indicated to him that he is racing against a lighted fuse.
“We have created such a powder keg,” said Lt. Cdr. William Stonley Norman, Zumwalt’s chief adviser on racial affairs and one of the blacks at the meeting, “that it is going to blow this organization apart unless we take some emergency actions.”
Other Services Ahead
Zumwalt radioed his fleet commanders recently that he was “distressed” to learn from Pentagon civilian manpower leaders “that the leadership in the other services shows a greater awareness for their racial problems than we in the Navy do.
“Perhaps the earlier public surfacing of their problems arising in part from the larger percentage of minorities they had,” messaged Zumwalt, “prompted them to get moving on the problem quicker than we did. However, it points out the uphill struggle that we have before us and the heroic measures that we must take to increase the awareness to these problems at all levels.”
As part of the awareness effort, Norman said, the Navy has spent $600,000 to develop a course in race relations. Zumwalt himself is going to take the course to demonstrate the high priority he places on it.
Like the plight of Army officers last year, Zumwalt and his fellow Navy officers find themselves trying to stop the black-white polarization in their service at the very time a number of courts-martial against blacks are pending.
The Navy’s Kitty Hawk brawl in that sense resembles the Army’s celebrated “Darmstadt 29” case last year.
Twenty-five persons, all blacks, were charged with rioting and assault for the fighting that broke out while the Kitty Hawk was at sea the night of Oct. 12 and early morning Oct. 13 (Vietnam time). All but one case has been referred to trial. Many of the blacks charged have retained lawyers supplied by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
Gen. Michael S. Davison, commander of the 7th Army in Europe, found himself last fall confronted with pending courts-martial of 29 blacks who had been involved in a racial brawl in the Darmstadt, Germany, Army base mess hall. Davison on Oct. 22, 1971, suddenly announced that he had dismissed all charges against the Darmstadt 29. The cause célèbre courts-martial never took place. Davison did not give his reasons at the time, but has said black soldiers have “a lack of confidence in the military system of justice.”
Zumwalt, facing his own version of Darmstadt 29, already has been told by the minority panel in reference to the arrests of Kitty Hawk blacks that “there is no way a racial battle can take place with only one group involved.”
Although the Navy is still investigating the Kitty Hawk brawl and has not released all the details, this appears to be what happened as pieced together by officers who have studied the case:
A small fight erupted in the enlisted men’s club—the San Paguita—at the Navy’s Subic Bay Base in the Philippines the night of Oct. 11, shortly before the Kitty Hawk sailed for duty off Vietnam. The fight started out in the men’s room between two or three sailors and soon escalated to a melee in the club involving some 25 blacks, whites and marines.
Although several arrests were made, the Kitty Hawk sailed with crewmen who had participated in the fight ashore. Once at sea, an investigation started on board the Kitty Hawk. The investigators called in two blacks for questioning, and 11 showed up in a demonstration of unity.
The interrogated blacks left angry. They gathered in the mess decks to discuss the situation. For fear the gathering of blacks meant trouble, someone called the black executive officer of the ship, Cdr. Benjamin W. Cloud of El Cajon, Calif.
Cloud rushed down to the mess decks and heard out the grievances of the blacks. They left the mess section for the hanger deck higher up in the carrier, apparently somewhat placated.
But once on the hanger deck, edgy marines on board guarding the airplanes forced small groups of blacks to break up. Some 100 blacks that night of Oct. 12 and morning of Oct. 13 went on a rampage against whites on board, using fists, feet and clubs in their assaults.
They were venting accumulated frustrations, according to race relations specialists in the Navy.
Before the fighting was brought under control in the early hours of Oct. 13, 46 people had been injured—three serious enough to require medical evacuation from the ship. Of the 46 hurt, 40 were white and six were black.
“If it had not been for the minority affairs people on board and the fact that it was night,” said Norman, “it would have been an unbelievable situation on the ship.”
Before the Navy opened up to blacks and increased opportunities, Norman said, their numbers were so small that the Navy could “institutionalize the polarization” without fear of its getting out of hand.
In a sense, Norman said, the racial protests stem from the Navy’s giving the blacks their first real opportunity to vent years of frustration.
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