Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Troubled Water: Race, Muting, and Bravery on the USS Kitty Hawk

Troubled Water

Race, Mutiny, and Bravery on the USS Kitty Hawk

Author: Gregory A. Freeman

Reviewed by: L. Gregory Graham

Imagine sitting in your bunk in a labyrinth of decks, passageways, and work areas that make up the underbelly of an aircraft carrier as gang warfare rages out of control around you. You know nothing for sure, but you hear that black radicals in the crew have taken over the ship and killed the captain. You’ve read news stories where reporters claim the Black Panthers are looking for ways to sabotage the war effort. Shouts echo up and down the corridor, and you sweat in the tropical heat wondering who is in charge of the ship and if rampaging blacks will choose to storm your compartment next.

This is not a techno-thriller dreamed up by a writer; this is historical fact. It happened aboard the USS Kitty Hawk at the shank end of the Vietnam War. Gregory Freeman does a masterful job of allowing the reader to walk beside the captain, the executive officer, and crewmembers as an aircraft carrier, the pride of the modern Navy, is overwhelmed with a race riot, and possibly a mutiny.

Troubled Water is a blow by blow description of how bad things can get when a perfect storm of bad policy, an unpopular war, extended deployments, and the Civil Rights movement turn a ship into a crucible mirroring the unrest in civilian society.

The narration is well balanced, a difficult task when your subject is race and the Vietnam War. There is ample opportunity to take sides, but the author does not. Was institutional discrimination against blacks a problem in the Navy at that time? Yes. Were recruiters lying to black and white kids alike about career opportunities in the Navy? Yes. Had the Navy set its standards too low to get warm bodies aboard ship? Yes. Was the Navy allowing blacks, whites, and Chicanos to self-segregate aboard ship? Yes. Did the blacks avail themselves to the proper channels to get their grievances out? No. Would it have ameliorated the situation? Questionable. Did the rampaging blacks go after the wrong people? Yes.

We see the captain’s side of events. He knows his job is to keep the ship on line and launching aircraft on missions over North Vietnam. He takes steps to protect the planes and to break up the rioters. We see the executive officer’s side of the event. He quickly decides that this is a race riot, and that it must be stopped at all costs before there is loss of life or aircraft. He takes radical, decidedly unnavy steps to quell the riots. We also see the black enlisted men’s side. The Navy lied to them to get them aboard the carrier, gave them the worst jobs on the ship, did not explain to them that all seamen spent their first tour on the mess deck, and denied them advancement on the basis of their lack of education, and low test scores. In addition, the Navy keeps delaying the Kitty Hawk’s deployment home because, you guessed it, other aircraft carriers are having racial problems.

You cannot read the narration without feeling sympathy for the captain who is white and the executive officer who is black. They both do what they can with the information they have available facing a unique situation. There is no section in any of their procedure manuals marked ‘Race Riots’. Unfortunately, two excellent careers are ruined as a result. Both careers grind to a halt in the face of a Congressional Investigation by congressmen with staffs who criticize their actions on the basis of hindsight and complete knowledge of the situation. One cannot help but wonder how the Navy manages to prosper when it is so determined to rid itself of such good men.

One question that I do have is where were the other officers aboard ship? The narration gives the impression that only the captain, the executive officer, and the officer in charge of the Marine attachment responded to the riots. If that is the case, then perhaps the captain should be criticized for not using the resources he had at hand. The other possibility is that the roles of other officers were minimized to keep other careers from crashing and burning on the rocks of the riot. The lack of involvement by other officers makes the narration feel incomplete. The executive officer spends a great deal of time defending the infirmary from attack. Would there be an officer in charge of that area, and would he be down there defending it also?

This book is also a measure of how far things have come since. I am sure that an aircraft carrier is still labyrinth of testosterone crazed nineteen-year-old men of all races, but the Navy has learned how to handle them now. The signs of racial tension are divined early, and steps taken to ameliorate the problem.

The aftermath is nearly as troubling; the congressional hearing concluded that ‘they could find no instances of racial discrimination that could have justified the Kitty Hawk riot’. Although, unofficially, the Navy recognized the ‘simmering discontent among black sailors and showed the some of their anger was justified because of how they were recruited and how they were treated in the Navy.’ Obviously, change did happen, but apparently it was important that the Navy make it look like it was their idea.

I would recommend this book to anyone who is a student of the Vietnam War, race relations, or the Navy. It encapsulates a very difficult time for the Navy and for society in general.

This book is non-fiction and can be purchased from:

Barnes and Noble

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