• U.S.

ARMED SERVICES: Keelhauling the United States Navy

7 minute read

TWO years ago Chief of Naval Operations Elmo Zumwalt set about changing what he called the “lily-white racist Navy” into an even-handed institution that would be able to attract recruits and keep and promote blacks within its ranks. Of all his innovative ideas, the attempt to fully integrate the Navy seemed to many to be the most courageous and substantial.

Yet precisely because of that attempt, the Navy has found itself buffeted by a series of racial outbreaks. In early October, the decks of the aircraft carrier Kitty Hawk, which was en route to Viet Nam, became the stage for a wild slugfest in which unhappy blacks vented their spleen on white seamen. Three of the 46 who were injured (40 white, six black) had to be evacuated by helicopter. A few days later a similar scene was played out on the oiler Hassayampa in Subic Bay in the Philippines; four whites were injured and eleven blacks were put off the ship in order to stand trial.

The most ominous incident occurred three weeks ago on the aircraft carrier Constellation. Charging “calculated racism,” 120 black members of the crew—joined by twelve whites—staged a sitdown at sea. Explained Radarman Third Class Lonnie Brown, 23: “We wanted to air our views and tell the captain what was actually happening. We had to get the word across to the man who runs the ship.” But Captain J.D. Ward refused to see the men. Instead he called for a general muster, and the blacks were suddenly surrounded by thousands of whites. Later they were put off the ship at San Diego for “counsel.” When the carrier returned from maneuvers to pick them up, the men refused to board. They staged a second eight-hour sitdown on the pier, lifting their arms in black power salutes. They were finally taken off the ship’s rolls and sent before captain’s masts (naval disciplinary hearings).

The cause of the flare-ups is the same as that which ignited racial violence across the U.S. in the seemingly progressive 1960s: rising civil rights expectations rubbing against static reality. Although the Navy has managed to recruit and promote more blacks, their representation remains dismal. Less than 1% of the officers and only 5.8% of the enlisted personnel are black. The blacks insist that they are assigned the most menial tasks and receive harder punishment than whites for equal offenses. Says Lonnie Brown: “Two men have to chip down a wall. The black man will be told to get up on the ladder and chip above his head. The white guy will chip from the waist down. When that happens constantly, you know what’s happening.”

Menial. One chief tool of discrimination, according to blacks, is the periodic job evaluation rating. Consistently low ratings not only keep a man from being promoted, but can lead to a general rather than an honorable discharge. Blacks believe that they are given lower ratings than whites for the same level of performance. As Harvey Peters, a black member of the Constellation’s human relations council, explains: “A man can work twelve or 16 hours at work that is menial. For example, in the laundry, he may press and fold clothes for the officers. They get their clothes on time and there are no complaints. Yet the man gets a low rating.”

The core of the problem seems to be stubborn residual racism among the Navy’s “middle management.” All too frequently, Zumwalt’s pleas for equality have fallen on deaf ears, from skippers all the way down to petty officers. Addressing a flotilla of admirals and generals at the Pentagon in the wake of the three outbreaks, Zumwalt pulled no punches in blaming his subordinates. “Uncomprehending response or response which lacks commitment from the heart—no matter how correct—is essentially obstructionist,” said the Chief of Naval Operations. “Just as obstructionist is a man who puts an order in a drawer and forgets it.” To underscore his point, Zumwalt said: “Equal means exactly that. Equal.”

There were other factors that contributed to the unrest as well. All three ships had been on duty off Viet Nam, where the Navy has doubled its strength and taken on an ever larger role in the war. The men were forced to work 18-to 20-hour days and go long stretches without weekend passes. The lack of sleep and shore leave simply compounded the racial tensions to be found on any stateside naval vessel.

Indeed, the antiwar sentiment that has so bedeviled the Army in recent years seems to be finding a home in the Navy now that it is doing much of the fighting. Acts of sabotage have surfaced in recent months, several of which were apparently perpetrated not by blacks but by antiwar whites. The Navy is holding a white seaman as the suspected arsonist who set a multimillion-dollar fire aboard the aircraft carrier Forrestal at Norfolk. The carrier Ranger was recently laid up in drydock for almost four months because metal parts had been thrown into its delicate gears. The Navy is conducting court-martial proceedings against a white sailor for the sabotage. And the skipper of the ill-fated Constellation, while discussing his racial problems, admitted to newsmen that some of his ordnance-handling equipment had been tampered with; other pieces had simply disappeared over the side.

Insurrections and sabotage at sea have touched off insurrections and sabotage of a different kind ashore. Ever since Zumwalt took command of the Navy in 1970, the more conservative admirals have watched in horror as he set adrift one tradition after another. In their view, permissiveness and luxuries have no place at sea. They ridiculed his reforms as the “three B’s—beer, beards and broads.” Armed with the ammunition provided by the race riots and sabotage, many admirals have shown their own lack of discipline by campaigning for Zumwalt’s ouster.

Some have made late-night phone calls to Pentagon correspondents. Administration officials and politicians have been cornered at cocktail parties. The message is the same: Zumwalt has gone too far. One of his critics is Admiral Isaac Kidd, 53, thought to be the most likely man to replace Zumwalt. Even Secretary, of the Navy John Warner threw out hints that he was not altogether pleased with the direction in which Zumwalt was heading. In an interview with TIME’s John Mulliken, Warner indicated that he might consider withdrawing some of Zumwalt’s more controversial Z-grams (a nickname for his naval operational orders).

“I’m not for a moment hesitant about rolling back some of those advancements,” said Warner. “We will look at the whole general bag of things, all the way from the celebrated Z-grams on hair, beards and beer.” Warner admitted that he was “under a great deal of pressure” from Zumwalt’s critics, and said: “Yes, I would say there is free discussion of this subject in the Navy right now and I welcome, I encourage it.”

Furor. Interestingly, it was Warner himself who delayed taking any action about the sitdown of the Constellation’s crewmen on the San Diego pier, thereby making the Navy seem even more permissive. Zumwalt’s staff claims that he was on the point of sending a formal written protest to Warner when the Secretary finally acted and had the men bused off to their trials. Nevertheless it will inevitably be Zumwalt who will be hurt by all the publicity.

The furor will continue. Congressman Edward Hebert, a hard-line traditionalist, is opening hearings this week in the House Armed Services Committee on the Navy’s lack of discipline. And the Kitty Hawk returns this week to San Diego, where its officers will continue with courts-martial against the blacks involved in the October riot.

What is at stake in the controversy and the behind-the-scenes struggles for power is nothing less than the entire reform movement in the armed services, initiated by Zumwalt. If he is replaced or even hobbled in his revolutionary shakeup of the Navy, it could well signal an end to the attempts to humanize all three services. That in turn could make it far more difficult to recruit the qualified men who will have to staff the country’s all-volunteer army when the draft officially ends in June 1973.

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com