Wednesday, October 12, 2016

The USS Kitty Hawk “mutiny” and Vietnam antiwar resistance among sailors (1970-1972)

Friends and family of Kitty Hawk SOS sailors wait at Fleet Landing in San Diego to distribute copies of the ‘Kitty Litter,’ the sailors’ anti-war underground newspaper.

On this date during the Vietnam War in October 1972, there was a “mutiny” or “riot” on the Navy aircraft carrier USS Kitty Hawk ostensibly led by African American sailors (‘The ship’s complement consisted of 4,483 sailors, aircrew, and Marines, 302 of whom were black.’) Accounts vary as to what precisely precipitated the mutiny (and various conditions contributed to the proximate causes), one stating it began when Marines attempted to disrupt a protest meeting of black sailors. The meeting had been called in response to what occurred when the warship was in Subic Bay, the night before its scheduled departure: 

“…[S]erious fighting erupted at the Subic Bay men’s club, the San Paquito. On the evening of the twelfth, after the first full day of combat in the Tonkin Gulf, the ship’s intelligence investigator exacerbated still smoldering tensions by calling in only black sailors for questioning and possible criminal action related to the brawl at Subic. Outraged at what they considered blatant discrimination, over one hundred blacks gathered for an angry meeting on the mess deck at approximately 8 P.M. The ship’s Marine detachment was summoned to suppress the meeting, and an explosive situation soon developed. Commander Benjamin Cloud, the executive officer and a black man himself, entered the area and attempted to restore calm by ordering the blacks and the Marines to separate ends of the ship. Moments later, however, Captain Marland Townsend, the commanding officer, arrived and issued conflicting orders. As confusion spread, the blacks and the armed Marines encountered each other unexpectedly on the hangar deck, and a bitter clash quickly broke out. The fighting spread rapidly, with bands of blacks and whites marauding throughout the ship’s decks and attacking each other with fists, chains, wrenches, and pipes. [….] Finally, after a 2:30 A.M. meeting in the ship’s forecastle, the fighting subsided. The uprising left forty whites and six blacks injured. Of the twenty-five sailors arrested for the incident, all were black.” (David Cortright) 

Twenty-nine sailors–all but three of them black–eventually were charged with crimes under the Uniform Code of Military Justice, and 19 were found guilty of at least one charge. The “mutiny” should be viewed as part of widespread antiwar protests within the US armed forces, in this case, as part of the movement called SOS (Stop Our Ships/Support Our Sailors). H. Bruce Franklin provides the requisite historical context which should preclude us from reducing this incident to solely racial tensions and provocations: 

“In 1970 and 1971, ships had been sporadically forced out of action by outbreaks and even sabotage by crew members. Occasional inconspicuous newspaper articles allowed perceptive members of the general public to get inklings of what was happening to the fleet. An early example was the destroyer Richard B. Anderson, which was kept from sailing to Vietnam for eight weeks when crew members deliberately wrecked an engine. Toward the end of 1971, the sailors’ antiwar activities coalesced into a coherent movement called SOS (Stop Our Ships/Support Our Sailors) that emerged on three of the gigantic aircraft carriers crucial to the Tonkin Gulf Strategy [and later, Operation Linebacker]: the USS Constellation, the USS Coral Sea, and the USS Kitty Hawk. (One early act was a petition by 1,500 crew members of the Constellation demanding that Jane Fonda’s antiwar show be allowed to perform on board.) On these three ships alone that fall, thousands of crew members signed antiwar petitions, published onboard antiwar newspapers, and supported the dozens of crew members who refuse to board for Vietnam duty. 

In March 1972 the aircraft carrier USS Midway received orders to leave San Francisco Bay for Vietnam. A wave of protests and sabotage swept the ship, hitting the press when dissident crewmen deliberately spilled three thousand gallons of oil into the bay. In June the attack carrier USS Ranger was ordered to sail from San Diego to Vietnam. The Naval Investigative Service reported large-scale clandestine movement among the crew and at least twenty acts of physical sabotage, culminating in the destruction of the main reduction gear of an engine; repairs forced a four-and-a-half month delay in the ship’s sailing. In July the aircraft carrier USS Forrestal was prevented from sailing by a major fire deliberately set by crewmen, which caused millions of dollars of damage to the captain’s and admiral’s quarters of the ship. In September and October the crew of the Corral Sea, which had been publishing the antiwar newspaper We Are Everywhere for a year, staged renewed protests against the war, with over a thousand crewmen signing a petition to “Stop Our Ship.” It was forced to return to San Francisco Bay, where crew members held a national press conference and helped organize rallies and other demonstrations. Almost a hundred crew members, including several officers, refused Vietnam service and jumped ship in California and Hawaii. In September crew members of the aircraft carrier USS Ticonderoga organized their own “Stop It Now” movement, and navy intelligence tried unsuccessfully to break up the SOS movement on the showpiece carrier USS Enterprise, home of the antiwar paper SOS Enterprise Ledger. A bloody September battle between groups of marines on the amphibious landing ship USS Sumter in the Gulf of Tonkin off Vietnam was not made public until the following January.” 

Franklin proceeds to note the outbreak that took place on the Kitty Hawk — “where organized antiwar activities (including publication of the antiwar paper Kitty Litter) had continued during its eight-month tour off Vietnam” — only to be followed several days later by fighting on the Kitty Hawk’s oiler, the USS Hassayampa. “The Kitty Hawk was forced to retire to San Diego, whence it sailed to San Francisco in early January, where it underwent a ‘six-month refitting job.’ The sailors’ movement had thus removed this major aircraft carrier from the war.” 

That “Black Power” ideology and political praxis was making inroads among African American soldiers in the antiwar movement is evidenced in what is described as the “largest and most significant” of these antiwar protests and rebellions, namely, one that took place aboard the USS Constellation in early November 1972, and “has been aptly described as ‘the first mass mutiny in the history of the U.S. Navy.’” 

“In October, during training operations off the Southern California coast, black crew members formed an organization called the ‘Black Fraction,’ with the aim of protecting minority interests in promotion policies and in the administration of military justice. Throughout October the group held several meetings, including one attended by the ship’s executive officer, where programs were developed to defend blacks subjected to court-martial proceedings and to examine the ship’s records for evidence of discrimination in non-judicial punishment. As the organization grew in strength, the command, on November 1, singled out fifteen leading members of Black Fraction as agitators and ordered that six of them be given immediate less-than-honorable discharges. At approximately the same time, a notice appeared in the ship’s plan of the day announcing that 250 additional men were to be administratively discharged. Fearing that most of these punitive releases would be directed at them and angry at the command’s apparent efforts to suppress their activities, over one hundred sailors, including a number of whites, staged a sit-in at the after mess deck on November 3 and demanded that the ship’s commander, Captain J.D. Ward, personally hear their grievances. The captain refused to acknowledge them, however, and the dissidents continued their strike throughout the day and into the early morning hours on November 4, refusing a direct order to report for muster on the flight deck. As tensions aboard the ship mounted, a series of high-level consultations were held among Captain Ward, the Commander in Chief of the Pacific Fleet, Admiral Zumwalt in Washington, and other senior naval commanders. To avert another Kitty Hawk, the officials reluctantly decided to cut sea operations short and return the rebels to San Diego as a ‘beach detachment.’ Captain Ward pulled the ship into the harbor on the fourth and allowed more hand one hundred thirty men to go ashore. The Constellation returned a few days later to pick up the dissidents, but the men refused to board ship, and on the morning of November 9 staged a defiant dockside strike—perhaps the largest act of mass defiance in naval history. Despite the seriousness of their action, not one of the one hundred thirty sailors was arrested. Several of the men received early discharges, but most were simply reassigned to shore duty.” (David Cortright)

  • Cortright, David. Soldiers in Revolt: GI Resistance During the Vietnam War. Chicago, IL: Haymarket Books, 2005 (Anchor Press/Doubleday, 1975). 
  • Franklin, H. Bruce. Vietnam and Other American Fantasies. Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press, 2000.  
  • Freeman, Gregory A. Troubled Water: Race, Mutiny, and Bravery on the USS Kitty Hawk. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009.
  • Sherwood, John Darrell. Black Sailor, White Navy: Racial Unrest in the Fleet during the Vietnam War Era. New York: New York University Press, 2007.  

    My select bibliography for the Vietnam War is here


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