The recent reassignment of the Kitty Hawk to San Diego recalls an earlier time in that aircraft carrier's history when relaxed discipline in the military services was making news.
Immediately following air operations aboard the Kitty Hawk on the evening of October 12, 1972, a series of incidents broke out wherein groups of blacks, armed with chains, wrenches, bars, broomsticks and other dangerous weapons went marauding through sections of the ship disobeying orders to cease, terrorizing the crew, and seeking out white personnel for senseless beating, with fists and with weapons which resulted in extremely serious injury to three men and the medical treatment of many more, including some blacks. While engaged in this conduct some were heard to shout, "Kill the son-of-a-bitch, kill the white trash; wipe him out!" Others shouted, "They are killing our brothers," — from H.A.S.C. No. 92-81: Report by the Special Subcommittee on Disciplinary Problems in the U.S. Navy, of the Committee on Armed Forces, House of Representatives, 92nd Congress, Second Session, January 2, 1973.
A man who was aboard the Kitty Hawk at the time was so concerned that the Defense Investigative Service would discover that he was the source of this firsthand information, that he refused to allow his name to be used in this story; to permit his current address to be printed, or his marital status, or the names of his pets; to describe where he was onboard ship, what he did, where he remained during the incident, his rank, his hobbies, his past or current occupations.
"I'd been on the ship for a time," says "Conrad," our source. "Morale was at an all-time low because the cruise had already been extended — they were launching record numbers of sorties against Vietnam.”
The ship's company had just recently become aware... that they would return to the combat zone... rather than return home as scheduled. This rescheduling apparently was due to the incidents of sabotage aboard their sister ships, U.S.S. Ranger and U.S.S Forresta. — From H.A.S.C No. 92-81
"The crew had already been there for nine months — it was nearing the holiday season and they were counting on going home to see their families. At that point, it was beginning to appear that they may stay on this cruise indefinitely.
"There was a great deal of racial tension at the time — that was at the height of the black power movement and it was very militant. The whites and the blacks stayed clear of each other because there was a lot of distrust.
"The people that came from the inner city areas with poor educations ended up working in places like the engine rooms where conditions were hellish — dirty, smelly — a high level of petty criminal activity, thefts and so forth — hot, oh, terribly hot, over a hundred degrees. Probably engine room duty is the worst that you could have onboard a ship — it's like slave labor, and it's badly paid work compared to people who are well educated who get perks like 'pro pay' — professional pay for contributing to the success of the Navy. So there were definitely different societies on board and people from those job areas generally didn't associate with people in other parts of the ship.
"So on the announcement of this extension, the blacks decided that they were getting the shorter end of the stick, which probably was true; they decided to implement things that had been preached by the military organizations they'd been listening to.
"I'm not sure where it started, precisely, but it moved from the rear part of the ship, forward. The militants took whatever weapons came to hand along the way, like firefighting wands and things that could be used like a club. The crew slept on a rotating basis so that this group of marauding blacks surprised people sleeping in their bunks who were pulled out and beaten — in one case, somebody was stabbed in their bunk. I didn't see them, myself; I was already at my duty station — but they did move through the berthing spaces that I slept in and I heard that there were some people beaten.
"Eventually, the contingent of Marines on board was called and moved along behind this group and just swept them forward through the ship until they ended up on the forecastle, where the anchors are controlled — that's a fairly large open area where there's no place to go. It was my understanding that the Marines surrounded this group with M-16’s at the ready.
"So the blacks, somehow, got to the XO [executive officer] and told the XO that the captain had been captured and they had him hostage and they were gonna kill if their demands weren't met — this was probably only 30 to 45 minutes, maybe an hour, into this. Well, the XO panicked, came over the PA system and beseeched this group to stop what they were doing — he used words like 'beseech' and 'implore' and the crew was just incredulous. Nobody could believe their ears. The XO called off the Marine contingent and asked this group to stop what they were doing and report to the mess decks for a debriefing. As soon as the Marines backed off, it started all over again and it was completely out of control. They [the militants] dispersed throughout the ship, no longer moving about in an organized group — it was more smaller gangs moving around at random.
"Well, when the Captain came over the PA, he was obviously very irritated and he said something like, 'Belay the last order,' and he commanded this group report to the mess decks and cease and desist immediately, and he came across very command-like and was very upset. But it was too late. They had dispersed and because of the rat's nest nature of the passageways in the ship, there was no practical way to track them down.
"No one knew where they were gonna run into these people. Most either stayed at their workstations or else they got together and stayed in areas that could be defended. I didn't fear for my life because I didn't run into these groups directly.
"One of the problems was getting food. Nobody jumped up and went running down to the mess deck like they normally did. Typically, a group would check out the security of the area and then head out to get food for the rest of the group and bring it back. There was one case where one of the groups ran into one of these marauding groups and was threatened. Luckily, one of the individuals knew people in this marauding group and they were allowed to go on, but they were told that if they were caught in the passageways again, that there would be no second chance.
"Eventually, the leadership on the ship began to realize that it was too risky to take a hard line against the marauding groups, because of the risk that it would escalate. So the word was quietly passed that if people reported to their duty stations, serious action would not be taken against anyone, except the instigators. It became the subject of conversation throughout the ship. And it was an effective strategy. It didn't resolve problem immediately, but within a two-and-a-half, three-day period, virtually everyone had reported back to their units. I believe there were two or three that were identified as the instigators — they went to the brig."
Records indicate 21 individuals were charged, 47 sailors were injured, three seriously enough to be Medevaced to hospitals ashore.
"There was never any real threat to the ship, I don't think, or to the ship's operations, other than a momentary disruption while they figured out what was going on. In fact, if they [the leadership] had planned and executed it, they could have rounded up everyone in an organized fashion. They could have called the Marine contingent and blocked avenues of escape and swept the ship from one end to the other and rounded up every individual who wasn't at his duty station. The danger was somebody would have gotten killed in the process and that's why they didn't do it. It would have been a disaster — the political implications stateside would have been horrendous, nobody wanted to see that happen, nobody wanted that on their record. That's the primary reason it didn't get under control quickly, but after it was under control, a number of people went to non-judicial punishment and received disciplinary action. For what happened and with the breach of military discipline that had occurred, it was the equivalent to a slap on the wrist.
"Afterwards, the tension on board the ship was incredible. No one knew what might happen next, whether it would happen again. I'm sure the Navy Department decided that the cruise was over at that point. Plans were made to bring the Kitty Hawk home. [She] put into San Diego just before Thanksgiving.
"The disturbing trend to me is that various cultural groups in our society continue to be distrustful of each other — we seem to have made, in the time since these events happened, very little progress in those areas.
"The conditions in the military reflect the conditions in society, the same today as they did then. The only difference, in the military, is that you have an element of discipline there that tends to keep things more under control. If discipline is tight enough, you can keep a lid on problems, but you can't necessarily keep a lid on all situations. If there's enough opposition, then nobody's going to be able to control it. That's what revolutions are about, and the situation in Vietnam came close to being a revolution in the military — there were that many people opposed to the conflict.
Discipline is the keystone of the armed services of any nation. If discipline collapses, a military force becomes a leaderless, uniformed mob, capable only of accomplishing its own destruction. — from H.A.S.C. No. 92-81.
"There's still a lot of cynicism about the government as a result of the Vietnam war, and I think it's justified. That era should have taught people a lot of things about their government and about how they have to be vigilant. And I don't know that we're any smarter today than we were then."