The remarkable story of the closest thing ever to a mutiny aboard a U.S. Navy vessel.
In 1972, nearly 250 days into its deployment in Vietnam, the Kitty Hawk’s 5,000-man crew (295 of them African-American) faced the danger and stress of wartime, during an era when widespread drug use, growing antiwar sentiment and a nascent black-power movement exacerbated tensions. On Oct. 12, following yet another announcement that the ship would delay its return to home base in San Diego, a contingent of black sailors, many recruited under a Navy initiative designed to increase opportunity, spilled out of their berths and began beating white shipmates with broomsticks, pipes and chains. By the time the violence was quelled, medics had treated more than 50 people, three injured seriously enough to be evacuated from the ship via helicopter. Were the rioting sailors attempting to seize the captain and take over? In what amounts almost to a real-life version of Herman Melville’s Benito Cereno, Freeman (The Forgotten 500: The Untold Story of the Men Who Risked All for the Greatest Rescue Mission of World War II, 2007, etc.) makes clear that, no matter the impressions of the officers aboard or the conclusions of a later official investigation, many of the crew believed they were witnessing a mutiny. Efficiently establishing the ship’s atmosphere of seething anger and recounting numerous, racially charged shipboard fights—and one spectacular nightclub brawl during a brief stopover in the Philippines—Freeman focuses on the five worst hours of violence. He also examines the heroic role played by the ship’s black executive officer, Benjamin Cloud, whose unorthodox strategy for ending the riot put him at odds with the captain, but likely saved the ship. Though no lives were lost, the Kitty Hawk incident short-circuited the careers of the captain and Cloud, led to criminal charges against 29 sailors and inspired numerous service reforms designed to prevent similar disasters.
A sharp re-creation of a bloody episode that became “a turning point for race relations in the Navy.”