Troubled Water: Race Mutiny and Bravery on the USS Kitty Hawk
by Gregory A. Freeman, Palgrave Macmillan, 2009
In 2009, it is sometimes hard to remember and reconcile that four decades ago American society was in the grips of social tumult, not just about the Vietnam War, but about the realization of basic human rights of a large segment of its population. While war raged in Southeast Asia, it also raged in Los Angeles, and Detroit, and Newark and Cleveland and countless other American cities, large and small. The civil rights movement that had achieved much through the Ghandi-like civil disobedience strategy of Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. was challenged by a younger and less forgiving generation of leaders who began to boldly and forcefully proclaim “Black Power!” The militancy of this movement rejected incrementalism and embraced a revolutionary-tinged ideology which concluded that peaceful protest had reached its limits and that the only way to overcome violent oppression was with violent resistance.
There was no quarantine to keep the racism and bigotry that thrived on American soil and in American hearts from reaching the combat zones of Vietnam, or the crowded cities at sea that were U.S. aircraft carriers so vital to the war effort. Nor could the seething resentment and militancy of Black Power be cordoned off from the barracks or the berthing compartments.
In vivid, gripping and frequently gruesome and disturbing detail, Gregory Freeman provides a minutely detailed account of the disturbances on the USS Kitty Hawk in October 1972 that left hundreds of sailors injured in a racially motivated riot that came perilously close to a mutinous takeover of one of the world’s most deadly warships. Indeed, as Freeman’s title, Troubled Water: Race Mutiny and Bravery on the USS Kitty Hawk, reveals, the author makes the case— vehemently denied by the Navy—that the October 12, 1972 insurrection on Kitty Hawk reached the Navy’s standard definition for mutiny: loss of control, a rebellion of the first order, a complete failure of the command structure. Many of the thousands aboard that day who experienced rampant mob violence that swept out of control throughout the ship would likely agree with Freeman—if the ship’s officers and the Navy do not.
Through extensive interviews with the ship’s captain, executive officer and numerous sailors, along with the official records and subsequent testimony, Freeman has pieced together the narrow and broad scope of the story, putting the shipboard riot in its proper context. Among the most important facts is that the deployment, mostly in combat operations, lasted nearly 250 days. Several times, plans for the ship to head home were dashed at the last minute, and the weary and frustrated crew was growing more restless.
As with most social outbursts that convulse into violence, the Kitty Hawk riot was foreshadowed and fueled by a string of real incidents that were subsequently misinterpreted and distorted—some intentionally and some unintentionally—driving simmering tensions that ultimately boiled over into uncontrollable rage.
Although the Kitty Hawk riot received considerable media attention and congressional scrutiny, Freeman asserts the Navy has successfully kept a lid on the scope and significance of the incident, considering it “a dark episode that must be described in carefully chosen words, when forced to discuss it at all.” While Freeman acknowledges that more light was shed with the U.S. Naval Historical Center’s 2007 book Black Sailor, White Navy: Racial Unrest in the Fleet During the Vietnam War Era, he notes the official version remains restrained and cautious. This is hard history to stomach at times, and it raises unsettling, uncomfortable questions. It is a bad, bad memory for everyone involved. But it is an important moment in history—the country’s and the Navy’s—and proved pivotal to the Navy’s subsequent efforts to address race relations.
Originally published in the October 2009 issue of Vietnam Magazine. To subscribe, click here.