It was not a good time for the carrier Kitty Hawk as it steamed across the South China Sea toward Vietnam in October 1972. The ship already had been deployed for eight months, and was on track to spend a record number of days at sea with a grueling pace of flight operations to support U.S. troops in Vietnam.
Racial tensions were high, in part stemming from the civil rights movement at home. There were nearly 4,500 sailors aboard — and only 302 were black. Inside the Navy, race relations were uniquely troubled as black sailors were typically assigned to the ship's most miserable jobs.
The Kitty Hawk was a powder keg awaiting a fuse to be lit. And that came on Oct. 11, when racial unrest triggered the worst shipboard riot in U.S. Navy history.
According to historians, it started in the galley, when a black sailor wanted two sandwiches but was told by a white mess cook that he was only allowed one. The black sailor reached across the food line and grabbed an extra sandwich, a shouting match ensued.
The ship erupted into chaos. Mere hours later angry black sailors roamed the ship's passageways, beating white sailors with makeshift weapons such as broom handles, wrenches and pieces of pipe. By the next day, 50 sailors, nearly all white, were injured, some severe enough to be evacuated from the ship to onshore hospitals. The fallout would see a number of black sailors being disciplined for their role in the incident.
Almost 45 years later, the violent and disturbing incident has been largely forgotten. But at the time, the riots spurred violence on other Navy ships, notably the carrier Constellation and the fleet oiler Hassayampa, among others. The unrest in the Navy caught the attention of Congress, and by the end of 1972 it held hearings looking into the incidents.
Roots of Unrest
According to Dr. John Sherwood, author of "Black Sailor, White Navy" and historian at the Navy History and Heritage Command, in the early 1970s racial tensions were somewhat new in the Navy. In a January interview with Navy Times, Sherwood said that "the first misconception is that the Navy suffered a lot of racial unrest in the '60s … Racial unrest in the Navy really started in the early '70s."
Sherwood cites that in the early days of the Vietnam War, the percentages of blacks in the Navy was very low, with only 0.2 percent as officers and 5 percent in the enlisted forces. Sherwood notes that these numbers were so low due to the draft. "We had a draft up until the early '70s. When you have a draft the Navy becomes very, very desirable for all races."
This meant as more eligible men tried to avoid the draft, there was increasingly more and more competition among those trying to get in. Sherwood posits that with a flood of potential recruits, the Navy could afford to be picky, it "meant that Navy recruiters at the time could easily hit 102 percent of their quota, enlisting only those candidates who scored the highest on the Armed Forces Qualification Test."
According to Sherwood, the Qualifications Test created a system that "allowed the Navy to focus on what was called qualitative recruitment, meaning it recruited the highest quality sailors it could recruit, and by the way those sailors just happen to be white." Blacks, who largely did not have the same access to education "as many in the white populous," often posted lower scores than their white peers.
The change started in 1968 when Richard Nixon was elected president and began to work toward converting the U.S. Armed Forces to an all-volunteer military. By 1971, the U.S. was working toward turning the war over to the Vietnamese Army, and though the draft was not abolished completely until 1973, the numbers of Americans being drafted began to fall.
"All of a sudden the recruitment pool literally dried up overnight," Sherwood said. "Navy Recruitment quotas that were being met 102 percent at the beginning of 1971, fell to 50 percent by the beginning of 1972." The result was that the Navy now had to accept lower scoring candidates into the service to fill the fleet, opening up more opportunities for less educated blacks. In 1972 black recruits in the Navy rose to 20 percent.
A boiling pot and racial explodes
Black sailors on the Kitty Hawk in 1972 were very much a minority. Of a crew numbering 348 officers and 4,135 enlisted men, just five, or less than 1 percent were officers, and only 297 enlisted men were black — just 7 percent of the enlisted crew.
Life wasn't very good for those enlisted blacks, either. Most had scored low on their qualification exams, due to lower average education levels than whites and were more likely to be placed in less desirable jobs within the Navy. The majority of blacks were assigned to the toughest and dirtiest Navy jobs, in the deck force and on flight decks, while whites populated the more coveted and higher tech jobs in the crew.
According to Sherwood, most of the enlisted blacks onboard had been in the service less than a year. Many had come from lesser educated backgrounds and all had grown up with the racial and anti-war unrest of the 1960s. "You have kids who are inculcated in the etiology of the Civil Rights movement, but do not have the education to move up into higher skilled jobs," Sherwood said. "That is what really leads to a blowup in the fleet — it was that situation that really created the powder keg that led to this explosion."
By October 1972, in addition to the present racial strains, tensions were beginning to mount on the ship. According to dates and port visits documented in the Kitty Hawk 1972 cruise book, by Oct. 12, it had been 239 days since the ship left San Diego — nearly eight months. For 202 of those days the ship had been out at sea.
A record 155 of those days had been spent "on the line," which is what the Navy called Yankee Station — a position off North Vietnam that launched an average of 120 sorties daily in round-the-clock flight operations. This meant that the ship only spent a total of 37 days in port since leaving home. Seven of those visits had been to the then U.S. Naval Base in Subic Bay Republic of the Philippines. Seven others came on a port visit to Hong Kong.
Ships in port must maintain enough of its crew onboard at all times to get the ship underway in the event of an emergency. This meant that not all sailors got to go ashore — making 12 days the average time off for sailors since leaving port in San Diego. To make matters worse, the ship had been told more than once that they'd be heading home, only to be turned around and sent back to Yankee Station to launch more airstrikes into Vietnam and Laos.
On Oct. 4, the first racial flare-up came during a visit to Subic Bay. The first night ashore a large fight erupted between black and white sailors at the enlisted club on base and had to be broken up by shore patrol. That night, black sailors got the short end of the stick and vowed revenge.
On the last night ashore, black soldiers sought to even the score at a popular, off base establishment called the Sampguita Club. The ensuring fight turned into a riot and Marines from the base were called to break it up. Most of the Kitty Hawk sailors avoided arrest, but showed back up on the ship in disheveled uniforms, bloody and bruised.
By Oct. 11 the Kitty Hawk left Subic Bay and was in transit back to Yankee Station. Combat operations were slated to begin the next day with five hours of flight operations being conducted to get pilots and the deck crews ready for combat.
The following sequence of events was put together from Sherwood's book "Black Sailor, White Navy" as well as author Greg Freeman's book "Race, Mutiny and Bravery on the USS Kitty Hawk." In addition, some details were added from accounts in a Report by the House Committee Special Subcommittee on Disciplinary Problems in the U.S. Navy dated Jan. 2, 1973.
Many black sailors were upset over the fights in Subic Bay. One of those sailors was 18-year old Airman Apprentice Terry Avinger from Philadelphia. Half an hour after flight operations, Avinger was on the mess decks, looking for food.
Avinger wanted two sandwiches but was told by a white mess cook that he was only allowed one. It was when Avinger reached across the food line and grabbed an extra sandwich that the two men got into a shouting match.
Not long after that a white mess cook who was stacking metal food trays accidentally stepped on a black seaman's foot and another confrontation began.
According to Freeman, Avinger then went to a berthing area where he and a number of other black sailors spoke angrily about the mistreatment they felt they were being subjected to by whites onboard the ship. Freeman describes the young Avinger as a "charismatic type who was a natural leader." Now in the berthing area, he was telling others he regretted "that he didn't just beat the racist cracker's ass right there."
As anger rose among the sailors, Avinger continued to incite his fellow seaman, "telling them that black sailors on the Kitty Hawk had had enough and it was time to stand up for themselves."
The group, led by Avinger, left the berthing compartment and headed down one of the ship's passageways, pulling things from the bulkheads while encouraging each other and insulting whites.
"The group roamed through the passageway," Freeman wrote. "They soon began accosting white sailors, beating them until the men could scramble away to safety."
By now the group had grabbed makeshift weapons such as broom handles, wrenches and pieces of pipe. Unwittingly, a white mess cook ran right into the group, freezing in his boots as the black came rushing towards him. "Get him," someone yelled and the crowd began to pummel the sailor until his clothes were soaked with blood.
As the crowd backed off, one black sailor grabbed a foam fog nozzle off a nearby firefighting station and proceeded to use the nozzle as a club. The black sailor continued to beat the mess cook, urged on by the rest of the group. The onslaught continued, ending only when the white seaman was thrown down a ladder well. The group moved on, continuing to roam below deck, trashing compartments. Other small groups of black sailors began to form, and followed suit. Rumors spread among the white sailors that it wasn't safe to be out and about — let alone to go to bed that night.
Approximately at 8 p.m., a large number of blacks began to congregate on the aft mess deck. One of the ship's cooks, noting the hostile attitude of the surrounding men, called the ship's Marine detachment, which promptly sent the ship's reaction force to the mess deck. The place quickly became a stand-off between the Marines and the blacks.
News spread of the problems on the mess deck, reaching Kitty Hawk's executive officer Cmdr. Ben Cloud, who had only been onboard Kitty Hawk for two months. A native of El Cajon, California, Cloud was black himself and was one if the first African Americans to rise to command levels in the aviation community.
As Cloud responded to the threat, he was unaware that Kitty Hawk's commanding officer, Capt. Marland Townsend, had been awakened, briefed and was en route to the mess deck. Upon Cloud's arrival, he ordered the Marines to stand down and leave. Cloud then started to assure the rioting sailors that he could be trusted — unorthodox behavior for a Navy officer trying to enforce good order and discipline. As Cloud was talking, Townsend entered the mess decks, unhappy with how Cloud was handling the situation.
"For the first time," Cloud told the men, "you have a brother who is an executive officer. My door is always open." Freeman writes that Townsend was shocked and surprised to hear Cloud identifying himself as a "brother" to the men. As he did so, "Several of the men raised their fists in a black power salute and stared directly into Cloud's eyes, waiting for him to return the gesture, to show that he really was a black man." Though having never previously given a black power salute, and unaware of Townsend's presence, Cloud succumbed to the situation and raised his clenched fist. The sailors cried out 'Black power!' and cheered Cloud as a brother.
After an hour of talking, Cloud felt that he had defused the situation and released the sailors, telling them to continue about their business.
Upon leaving the mess decks, Townsend called the Marine detachment and asked them to increase patrols to protect the aircraft in the hanger bay and on the flight deck.
However, the situation was far from over. Cloud soon got reports that marauding bands of five to 25 sailors continued to move about the ship, attacking whites. Freeman wrote that the mess cook who refused Avinger his second sandwich was found and given a mock trial — then was beaten bloody by those trying him.
According to the congressional report, sleeping sailors were pulled from their racks and beaten with fists and chains, dogging wrenches, metal pipes, fire extinguisher nozzles and broom handles. The report went on to say that as they beat their white shipmates, many shouted, "Kill the son-of-a-bitch! Kill the white trash! Kill, kill, kill!"
Even the ship's sick bay wasn't safe — as the ship's medical officers and enlisted corpsmen were treating the injured, a group of blacks entered the mess decks and harassed the caregivers as well as sailors waiting to be treated.
The final confrontation happened in the ship's forecastle and again, Cloud was in the middle of it.
Cloud followed a group of sailors to the forecastle and according to the congressional report "he believed that had he not been black he would have been killed on the spot." Cloud, the report stated, took charge. He addressed the group for about two hours, putting his military status as the executive officer aside and instead appealing to the men "as one black to another," the report noted.
Going on, the report stated that after some time Cloud "acquired control over the group, calmed them down, had them put their weapons at his feet or over the side, and then ordered them to return to their compartments." Around 2:30 the black sailors disbanded and for all intents and purposes, the violence aboard Kitty Hawk had ended.
Amazingly, the ship didn't skip a beat and the next morning the flight deck was launching combat sorties on schedule. For the next 28 days the ship continued the around the clock combat flight operations racking up a record 177 days of combat operations.
The Kitty Hawk berthed back into San Diego on Nov. 28, 284 days away from home and a month-and-a-half after the riots.
A total of 21 men were charged for their roles in the riots, with 16 of them requesting to be tried by court-martial and flown back to San Diego to face trial. The remaining five accepted non-judicial punishments during the ship's transit home.
Approximately 50 sailors — all but six white — were treated for injuries sustained the night of Oct 12. Three were so serious they required evacuation to onshore medical facilities while the rest were treated aboard the ship.
The immediate fallout from the Kitty Hawk riots triggered more riots and protests on other ships in the fleet in the months following the disturbance. By December, the Congress was investigating and called both Townsend and Cloud to testify.
Many of those then awaiting courts-martial were also asked to testify, though all declined the invitation and no subpoenas were issued to force the issue.
In the final report of the subcommittee investigating the incident, the Kitty Hawk riot as well as other fleet incidents were due to widespread "permissiveness" in the Navy defined by a lack of willingness by seniors to enforce Navy rules.
"Although we have been able to investigate only certain specific incidents in depth, the total information made available to us indicates the condition could be service wide," the report said.
"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."
But the fallout lasted for much of the 1970s and into the 1980s as many within the Navy remained polarized along racial lines — though none ever reached the level of violence that occurred on the Kitty Hawks on October, 1972.