That time a US Navy aircraft carrier was shut down by a race riot
The early 1970s were a weird time in the U.S. military in terms of the social fabric across the force. As was the case for the American public, the Vietnam War was increasingly unpopular among service members and that feeling had a big impact on morale and caused myriad challenges for military leaders trying to maintain mission focus. And one of the most dramatic examples of this dynamic was the race riot aboard the USS Kitty Hawk (CV 63) in October of 1972.
A subset of the antiwar movement was a sense among African-Americans that they were being taken advantage of because of their economic status and were used as cannon fodder against the enemy without any consideration for advancing their quality of life in society. This was felt acutely by black service members across all branches of the military.
The seeds of unrest aboard Kitty Hawk were sown the night before the riot happened, which happened to be the ship’s final night in port at Subic Bay, Philippines. The ship’s crew had just received word that they would be headed back to the waters off of Vietnam and not heading home to San Diego as planned. Morale was lower than ever and tempers were ready to flare.
A group of African-American sailors from the crew got into a fight with some other sailors at the enlisted club on base. Once the carrier put to sea, one of the black sailors was called to the investigating officer’s space to answer some questions about the incident. That black sailor showed up with 9 others, all very belligerent. The sailor was informed of his rights under the guidelines of non-judicial punishment. He was told he could make a statement, and he refused. He was allowed to leave.
Mayhem quickly swept across the ship, mostly centered on the mess decks. Black sailors began attacking their white shipmates without warning. The Marine detachment was called into action to try and put down the violence. One Marine started to draw his weapon, which made things worse.
The carrier’s executive officer, the second in command, was Captain Benjamin Cloud. Believing the fact he was black would be a calming factor, he confronted a large group of rioters in one of the aft mess decks. Cloud ordered the Marines who were there to stand down and leave the area. Once the Marines left he tried to reason with the rioters, asking the leaders among them to join him in his cabin to discuss the nature of their grievances.
At that point the carrier’s commanding officer, Captain Marland Townsend (who was white), approached the discussion and saw the XO had things under control, so he left without letting Cloud know he was there. The lack of coordination between CO and XO proved to be a problem as the day wore on.
The CO, having noted the hostile attitude of the group being addressed by the XO, left the area and instructed the the Marines to establish additional aircraft security watches and patrols on the hangar and flight decks. The Marines were given additional instructions by their CO to break up any group of three or more sailors who might appear on the aircraft decks, and disperse them.
As the XO released the group with whom he had been talking, the major portion of them left the after mess deck by way of the hangar deck. Upon seeing the black sailors come onto the hangar deck, the Marines attempted to disperse them. The Marines at the moment were some 26 strong and, trained in riot control procedures, they formed a line and advanced on the black sailors, containing them to the after end of the hanger deck. Several sailors were arrested and handcuffed while the remainder, arming themselves with aircraft tie-down chains, confronted the Marines.
At this point, the ship’s CO appeared and, moving into the space between the Marines and the black sailors, attempted to control the situation. The XO, upon being informed of this activity, headed there, arriving in time to see a heavy metal bar thrown from the area of the black sailors land near and possibly hit the CO. At this point, the XO was informed that a sailor had been seriously injured below decks, so he departed. The CO, meanwhile, ordered the prisoners released and the Marines to return to their compartment while he attempted to restore order personally.
The XO, after going below, became aware that small groups, ranging from 5 to 25 black sailors, were marauding about the ship attacking white sailors, pulling many from their berths and beating them with their fists and chains, dogging wrenches, metal pipes, fire extinguisher nozzles and broom handles. The ship’s dispensary was busy with doctors and corpsmen working on the injured personnel. Alarmingly, another group of black sailors harassed them and the men waiting to be treated.
The XO was then informed by at least two sources that the CO had been injured or killed on the hangar deck. Not sure of the facts but believing the reports could be true, the XO made an announcement over the ship’s public address system ordering all the ship’s black sailors to the after mess deck and the Marines to the forecastle, thereby putting as much distance between the two groups as possible.
The CO, still on the hangar deck talking to a dwindling number of the black sailors, was surprised and distressed at the XO’s announcement. At this point he was still unaware of the various groups of black sailors assaulting their white shipmates in several different areas of the ship, and he was, obviously, neither dead nor injured.
He headed for the nearest public address system microphone, found the XO there, held a brief conference with the XO, and made an announcement of his own to the effect that the XO had been misinformed and that all hands should return to their normal duties. The announcements by the CO and XO, occurring around midnight, were the first indication to the majority of the crew that there was troubled aboard.
The black sailors seemed to gravitate to the forecastle. Their attitude was extremely hostile. Of the 150 or so who were present, most were armed. The XO followed one group to the forecastle, entered and, as he later stated, he believed that had he not been black he would have been killed on the spot. He addressed the group for about two hours, reluctantly ignoring his status as the XO and instead appealing to the men as one black to another. After some time he 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. The meeting broke up about 2:30 in the morning and for all intents and purposes, the violence aboard Kitty Hawk was over.
The ship fulfilled its combat mission schedule that morning and for the remainder of her time on station. During this period Kitty Hawk established a record 177 days on the line in a single deployment. After the incident senior enlisted men and junior officers were placed in each berthing compartment and patrolled the passageways during night-time hours to ensure that similar incidents would not recur.
The 21 men who were charged with offense under the Uniform Code of Military Justice and who requested civilian counsel, were put ashore at Subic Bay to be later flown to San Diego to meet the ship on its return. The remaining 5 charged were brought to trial aboard the ship during its transit back to the United States.
(The Naval Historical Center contributed to this article.)