USS Kitty Hawk riot
USS Kitty Hawk c. 1975
|Date||12/13 October 1972|
|Participants||Kitty Hawk crew|
46 crewmembers injured(3 seriously)
The USS Kitty Hawk riot was a racial conflict between white sailors and black sailors aboard the United States Navy aircraft carrier, Kitty Hawk, on the night of October 12/13, 1972, off the coast of North Vietnam while participating in Operation Linebacker of the Vietnam War.
In the early days of the Vietnam War, blacks represented less than 5 percent of the Navy.
The draft enticed men, of all races, to get into the Navy as a way to dodge heavy combat. This resulted in stiff competition, allowing Navy recruiters to be selective, enlisting only the top performers on the Armed Forced Qualification Test. This was known as "Qualitative Recruitment" -- recruiting the "highest quality" sailors, of which nearly all happened to be white, as the quality of the education that white candidates had received was far superior to that of the blacks candidates. This made it improbable for black candidates to ever really compete with their white counterparts.
However, by 1971, after Richard Nixon sought to remake the military into one of all-volunteers, and the U.S. was beginning to disengage from Vietnam, the number of men drafted dramatically decreased, and the demand to join the Navy decreased with it. The Navy recruitment quota fell by more than 50 percent from 1971 to 1972, which resulted in the Navy needing black men to hit its recruitment goals.
Black men joined at a high rate, increasing their overall representation to 20 percent. However, under the Navy's tradition of Southern white leadership, and with their low test scores, blacks were assigned to the least desirable, most difficult and least dignified jobs, while whites retained the most desirable and more respected jobs, and accounted for 99 percent of the Navy's officers.
Racial tensions among the crew
By October 1972, the majority of the black enlisted sailors on the Kitty Hawk had been serving less than a year. And, of approximately 4,500 sailors on the ship, less than 7 percent were black.
Racial tensions were reportedly high on the ship. Politically, the black sailors were more likely to be against the war, and to support the advancement of social minorities; however, these views conflicted with the reality that they faced obstacles in advancing into higher skilled positions on the ship because they were undereducated. This created hostility on the ship and only compounded the frustration the sailors felt from being out at sea for nearly eight straight months.
The first racial incident occurred on October 8 at Subic Bay, in Olongapo, a town where racial segregation was enforced – the white section was known as "The Strip," while the black section was known as "The Jungle." That night, a fight between black and white soldiers broke out at the enlisted officers club – the EM Club. The fight began as a drunken misunderstanding, but escalated when a black sailor went on stage and began voicing his opposition to the "white man's war" and advocating "black power." A white sailor threw a glass at the black sailor's head, and a fight, between blacks and whites, spread throughout the entire club and, ultimately, had to be disbanded by base Marines. The black soldiers were told not to go back to the EM Club.
Around 12:30 am on October 9, another incident occurred when a black airman, Dwight Horton, was on his way back to the ship. He was arrested for fighting with two white petty officers, though he contested that they beat him, arguing he could not fight back because his arm was in a cast. When he returned to the Kitty Hawk, the airman told the other black sailors about what happened, which further agitated them.
On October 10, the black soldiers decided to disrupt a favorite hangout of white sailors on The Strip – the Sampaguita Club – to retaliate against Horton's treatment. That night was designated "Soul Night" at the club, which was the only night black sailors were welcome. Around 9:00 pm, a petty scuffle began when a white shore patrolman tapped a black sailor on the shoulder, and the black sailor punched him. To keep the situation calm, 15 additional shore patrolmen were called in to monitor the club. Around 1:00 am, 10 black sailors walked on stage in mockery "soul brother" gear, and began "dapping" each other, and throwing their blackness in the face of the white sailors in the crowd. As the white sailors began berating the black sailors with racial epithets, the black sailors in the crowd voiced their solidarity.
As this was happening inside, outside Horton arrived and punched at a shore patrolman. This distracted several of the shore patrolmen also outside. While they were distracted, inside, white sailors began throwing beer bottles at the 10 black sailors on stage, and fighting began between the black sailors and white sailors in the crowd, resulting in a complete brawl that was, again, broken up by Marines.
In the morning, as the sailors returned to the ship, bloodied and bruised, the ship went back out to sea.
On the afternoon of October 12, African American sailor Perry Pettus went on deck with two other black sailors. The three were approached by two Marines who told them, "You blacks can't walk in over two's." When the black sailors ignored them and kept walking, Pettus was put into a stranglehold from behind with a nightstick by one of the Marines.
When the ship's captain, Marland Townsend Jr., learned of the incident, he apologized to the three black sailors. However, word of the incident made its rounds among the black sailors, who were already incensed by the events at Subic Bay. Thirty minutes after flight operations, one of those black sailors – 18-year-old black Airman Apprentice Terry Avinger – went to the mess deck to eat. He requested two sandwiches; however, a white mess cook refused, and limited Avinger to one sandwich. Avinger then reached across the food line and took another sandwich, which resulted in a shouting match between him and the cook. Things escalated after another white mess cook, organizing food trays, stepped on a black sailor's foot, which created more tension.
Upset about what transpired, Avinger went a bunk area, where black sailors regularly got together, and expressed his frustration about the way they were being subjugated by whites on the ship, telling them he regretted "that he didn't just beat the racist cracker's ass right there." He rallied that "black sailors on the Kitty Hawk had had enough and it was time to stand up for themselves." The black sailors then went into the ship's passageway and armed themselves with makeshift weapons – broom handles, wrenches, a foam fog nozzle and pieces of pipe. They then began accosting white sailors, beating them, and vandalizing some of the ship's compartments.
Around 8 p.m., a white cook called for the Marine detachment onboard. When the white Marines arrived, they ordered the black sailors to the aft mess. However, the black soldiers thought it was a trap – that the Marines were corralling them in order to beat or even kill them. This resulted in a stand-off between the two groups.
News of what was happening reached executive officer Comdr. Ben Cloud, a half‐African American and half‐Native American aviation commander who had only been aboard the Kitty Hawk for eight weeks. He was told the situation was so dire that men might die. Cloud went on the ship's communication system and ordered the violence to stop, pleading for the black sailors to go to the aft mess, and for the Marines to stand down and go to the forecastle. Cloud was unaware that the commanding officer, Capt. Marland Townsend, had also been briefed on what was happening and was on his way to the mess deck.
Cloud went to the mess deck to talk to the black sailors for about an hour, trying to calm them down and assure them that he could be trusted, telling them, "For the first time, you have a brother who is an executive officer. My door is always open." Their anger subsiding, the black soldiers gave a Black Power salute in solidarity to Cloud, who returned the salute. The black sailors celebrated, feeling that they had someone in a position of authority who was sympathetic to their treatment onboard. Cloud then dismissed the sailors and told them to get back to work.
It was around that time when Townsend arrived on the mess deck, witnessing Cloud's handling of the situation. Townsend disagreed with it. He left the mess deck and summoned the Marine detachment. He ordered them to increase patrols in the black compartments.
Tensions still high, about 15 black sailors continued to attack whites throughout the night. However, Cloud again intervened when he saw some black sailors heading to the forecastle and followed them. By Cloud's own admission, "he believed that had he not been black he would have been killed on the spot." He talked to the sailors for two hours, appealing to them, not as a senior officer, but "as one black to another."
By 2:30 am, Cloud had calmed the sailors and got them to relinquish their weapons. About 40 black sailors went to the mess deck to eat, play cards and listen to music along with a few white sailors. However, at 3:00 a.m., Townsend told Cloud he did not want large groups of blacks congregating in the mess hall, and likened the gathering to a "victory party." Townsend and Cloud dispersed the group and met with any sailors who were still upset in the forecastle until 5:00 a.m.
Many white sailors on the massive ship were unaware that the incident had even occurred, and only began to hear rumors when they awoke. Becoming increasingly angry, about 150 white sailors began to arm themselves, and congregating in the berthing compartment, readying themselves for, what they thought, would be an outright racial battle for control of the ship. Hearing of the discord, Cloud went to address the group who dismissed him as being "nothing more than a nigger, like the rest of them." Cloud pulled rank on them and threatened them with legal action if they proceeded. The white sailors dispersed. Cloud reported the incident to Townsend and then continued to talk to concerned sailors – both white and black – along with petty officers throughout the morning, reducing the threat of white retaliation.
By 7:58 a.m., the confrontation had completely ended, and the Kitty Hawk resumed bombing North Vietnam.
In total, the incident left 40 white and 6 black sailors injured, including three who had to be evacuated to onshore medical facilities.
Six weeks after the incidents, the Kitty Hawk returned to San Diego, where 27 black sailors were arrested and charged. No white sailors were arrested. Twenty-one of those charged requested a court-martial trial.
Lawyers for the black sailors stressed the bias shown in the pre-trial report against the black sailors, stating that it only contained testimony from prosecution witnesses.
By December, Congress was investigating the incident and called Townsend and Cloud to testify. Most of those who requested a court-martial were also invited to testify, but they all declined and no subpoenas were issued to force them to do so.
In January of 1973, before a Navy court-martial, Comdr. Ben Cloud testified that the fighting erupted when Marines, on orders to break up groups of three or more sailors, only enforced the order against groups of black sailors. He further testified that he had been threatened[clarification needed] by black and white sailors alike, and that during the fighting between black sailors and Marines, he witnessed a white sailor seemingly directing Marines toward black sailors. He noted that Capt. Townsend requested that the white sailor be identified, “but this was not done.”
In February, on behalf of 17 of the black sailors, the N.A.A.C.P. brought a complaint against a prosecutor for racial prejudice in an attempt to get the charges against the black sailors dismissed. The complaint was also against Michael A. Laurie – a white sailor who had been a key government witness – for perjury, after tape recordings surfaced of Laurie admitting that white sailors had “exaggerated” about the violence of black sailors, then later affirming that he had lied about black sailors when he was asked outright. Laurie elaborated that, despite not seeing any black sailors actually hit any white sailors, white sailors would say that they did. Laurie also impugned his integrity and demonstrated racist leanings when he expressed his regret for not having a gun that night since it would have allowed him to have killed "at least 30 of them [niggers]."
In April of 1973, the courts-martial concluded with a total of 27 trials.
The Navy officially defined the incident as a “race riot.” However, only four sailors were convicted of rioting, with two of those pleading guilty in exchange for reduced sentences. Fourteen were convicted of assault. Four were found not guilty of all charges. Five sailors had the charges dropped against them, and seven were sentenced to the brig. Most were given a demotion in rank.
Roy Wilkins, executive director of the NAACP, called the Navy's handling of the incident a “despicable perversion of justice” of the black sailors who were victims of “a spurious effort to discredit them, categorize them, and keep them in menial, low-paying jobs.”
Black sailors went on record expressing that “little conflicts” led to the rioting, that they "just got tired of being treated like dogs," and noted that the rioting was due to a combination of “anger at seeing the riot squad, the frustration with the war, and with the problems of institutional racism in the Navy.” Many black officers also expressed that the conflict was inevitable because the Navy was inept at treating black sailors as sailors rather than as blacks, which created differences in the way black sailors were treated over issues such as "promotion, assignments, interracial relationships.” However, despite these accounts, the Chairman of the House Armed Services Subcommittee, Floyd Hicks, determined that the incident “consisted of unprovoked attacks” by blacks against whites.
The subcommittee wrote that "the riot on Kitty Hawk consisted of unprovoked assaults by a very few men, most of whom were below-average mental capacity, most of whom had been aboard for less than one year, and all of whom were black. This group, as a whole, acted as 'thugs' which raises doubt as to whether they should ever have been accepted into military service in the first place." The Subcommittee's final report concluded:
The subcommittee has been unable to determine any precipitous cause for rampage aboard U.S.S. Kitty Hawk. Not only was there not one case wherein racial discrimination could be pinpointed, but there is no evidence which indicated that the blacks who participated in that incident perceived racial discrimination, either in general or any specific, of such a nature as to justify belief that violent reaction was required...The members of the subcommittee did not find and are unaware of any instances of any instances of institutional discrimination on the part of the Navy toward any group of persons, majority or minority...Black unity, the drive toward togetherness on the part of blacks, has resulted in a tendency on the part of black sailors to polarize. This results in a grievance of one black, real or fancied, becoming the grievance of many...The Navy's recruitment program for most of 1972 which resulted in the lowering of standards for enlistment, accepting a greater percentage of mental category IV and those in the lower half of category III, not requiring recruits in these categories to have completed their high school education, and accepting these people without sufficient analysis of their previous offense records, has created many of the problems the Navy is experiencing today.
The events on the Kitty Hawk inspired other ship riots and protests in the months that followed.
- Hersh, Seymour (12 Nov 1972). "Some Very Unhappy Ships; Navy and Race". New York Times.
- Caldwell, Earl (28 May 1973). "Navy's Racial Trouble Persists Despite Long Effort to Dispel It". New York Times.
- Freeman, Gregory A. (2009). Troubled Water: Race, Mutiny, and Bravery on the USS Kitty Hawk. New York: Palgrave Macmillan. ISBN 978-0-230-61361-4.
- "Racial Incident aboard USS Kitty Hawk (CV 63)". Navy Historical Center.
- Black Against White Riots On USS Kitty Hawk During Vietnam War. Youtube: The Joint Forces Channel. 16 Oct 2016.
- Caldwell, Earl (29 Nov 1972). "Kitty Hawk Back at Home Port; Sailors Describe Racial Conflict". New York Times.
- Caldwell, Earl (1 Dec 1972). "Racial Clash Described". New York Times.
- Sherwood, John Darrell (2007). Black Sailor, White Navy: Racial Unrest in the Fleet During the Vietnam Era. New York: New York University Press. ISBN 978-0-8147-4036-1.
- "LAST TRIAL IS HELD IN KITTY HAWK CASE". New York Times. 11 Apr 1973.
- "Kitty Hawk Officer Traces Riot To Marine Dispersal of Blacks". New York Times. 26 January 1973.
- "Kitty Hawk Defendants Released by U.S. Navy". The Crisis: NAACP Magazine. May. 1973. p. 172.
- "Prejudice and Perjury Charged In Investigation of Carrier Riot". New York Times. 24 Feb 1973.
- "Report by the Special Subcommittee on Disciplinary Problems in the U.S. Navy. 92nd Cong., 2d sess., 1973, H.A.S.C. 92-81" (United States Congress: Committee on Armed Services House of Representatives). United States Naval Historical Center. 2 January 1973.
- Leifermann, Henry P. (18 Feb 1973). "A sort of mutiny The Constelicit ion Incident". New York Times.