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Race, Mutiny, and Bravery on the Usskitty Hawk
By Gregory A. Freeman
Palgrave Macmillan Copyright © 2009 Gregory A. Freeman
All rights reserved.
SEAL THE HATCH
October 12, 1972 Gulf of Tonkin, off the Coast of South Vietnam
The low, rumbling sound outside the berthing compartment got the attention of twenty-three-year-old Robert Keel, who was trying to relax with his buddies on a Thursday evening, about 11:15 P.M. Their days on the USS Kitty Hawk were always long and hard. They were exhausted by the time their shifts ended and they crashed on their simple metal racks in the berthing compartment under the aft mess deck, the thin mattresses offering only a bit of relief for tired backs. They tried to rest, despite the uncertainty of just how much danger they might be in.
Normally Keel wouldn't have paid any attention to the noise. An aircraft carrier is a raucous place at all times, and the berthing areas where men slept and spent their personal time were no exception. A man might have a steam pressure pipe running across the ceiling six inches from his face when he lay on the top bunk, and when high-pressure steam shot through on the way to the flight deck catapults, it made a noise that only the most dog-tired sailor could sleep through. So a low rumble in the passageway outside wouldn't normally elicit any concern. But this wasn't a normal day on the Kitty Hawk.
"Maybe it's just a fight," one of the men said, sounding as if he were trying to convince himself. With 5,000 young men locked in a tin can in the middle of the ocean, fights were inevitable. Another scrap between some hotheads was no reason for alarm. There had been a huge fight during their recent stop at Subic Bay in the Philippines, in the Sampaguita nightclub, mostly black sailors versus white ones. Keel had been in the middle of the brawl, but he had managed to get out of it without any serious injuries, and without getting arrested by the shore patrol.
"I don't know," Keel replied. "Listen to that. That sounds like something big. I think it might be them. They could be heading this way."
Keel was in many ways typical of the sailors on the Kitty Hawk, but on this night he was in a unique position. He knew more about the violence that had been happening throughout the ship than most of his buddies. He had been in the middle of some of it, and he had heard nearly frantic officers discussing a violent rampage by black sailors. Keel's buddies had heard rumors that evening about blacks attacking whites, but the carrier was so big and mazelike that even a huge disturbance in one area might not be seen by sailors going about their business elsewhere. They were left to depend on the information passed from one man to another and they didn't know how much of it to believe. Some of it sounded too incredible—stories had been circulating about white sailors being attacked by black sailors for no reason, even rumors that the captain was missing and claims that black rioters were trying to take over the ship.
Eventually the sound faded away. The men didn't want to go looking for trouble if their immediate area seemed calm, so they remained where they were and tried to relax even as they worried about the rumors. A few stretched out in their bunks, a couple sat up playing cards, one wrote a letter. They were a good representative lot of the Kitty Hawk's crew, mostly eighteen- or nineteen-year-old men, with a couple, like Keel, in their early twenties. They were mostly white, and unlike many black sailors on the ship, the black men hanging out with Keel that night seemed at ease. Almost all of them were riding out a tour in the Navy to avoid being drafted into the jungles of Vietnam. Earning a few bucks along the way was a plus, since jobs were pretty scarce back home for young men with little education.
Keel had had similar motivation for joining up. He had also been spurred by his father's naval career. Though he had started out as a rebellious young man he was now looking at maybe making a career in the Navy. Keel had a wife and four-year-old daughter at home to keep him motivated, and he was quickly becoming one of the most reliable hands on the Kitty Hawk.
Because he was a bit older than many of his bunk mates, in a situation in which a few years' experience set you worlds apart from guys still learning their jobs on the fly, Keel had some influence over his buddies. If nothing else, they respected the fact that he was on his second "WestPac" cruise to the western Pacific, already having spent one tour off the coast of Vietnam. Now he was at it again, grinding through the long days of work in compartments belowdecks, rarely seeing sunlight and seldom getting more than a few hours off in a row. The other sailors in his living area found it a little harder to complain when they knew Keel had already been through it once and survived.
Keel stuck his head out of the hatch leading from their berthing compartment and listened for any trouble, but he heard nothing. With what he had seen and heard earlier, he was still worried, however. Something was terribly wrong on the ship, and from the scuttlebutt Keel had heard, many of the sailors who had been assaulted on the Kitty Hawk had not known what was going on until a mob attacked them. Keel was worried that maybe that was about to happen to his bunk mates and to him, but he couldn't be certain, and he didn't want to say it out loud to the others and risk looking paranoid. He had been attacked twice that day, though, so he had good reason to be on alert.
The first attack had come when he was sitting in the aft mess several hours earlier, with a bit of free time before going on watch. Keel had been alone, taking advantage of the quiet and uncommon solitude to write a letter home. He had heard a rumble of noise—the same banging and raised voices that he had just heard outside the berthing compartment—and looked up just as a group of black sailors burst in through a hatch. They were loud and angry, shouting obscenities and screaming about getting even. The thing that most got Keel's attention, however, was the fact that they were armed. The sailors, about thirty of them, were carrying wrenches, pipes, chains, and other heavy tools. A couple were carrying fog foam nozzles—heavy metal wands, several feet long, with nozzle heads that are used to apply fire-extinguishing foam in an emergency. They were found all over the carrier as part of the crew's firefighting gear, and now sailors were wielding them like clubs.
Keel didn't know what to make of the group at first, whether they were running from a fight or looking for one, but either way they were pissed off and heavily armed, and he knew he didn't want to get involved. He just sat at the table writing, looking up as the black sailors filed by and hoping they had somewhere else to go. He was relieved when they passed by without acknowledging his presence. But then the last guy in the line did notice Keel.
"What are you doing here?" he shouted.
"I'm writing a letter home," Keel said, as matter-of-factly as he could in spite of his fear. He didn't want to provoke these guys, but he didn't want to cower in front of them either.
The black sailor looked around the mess hall and saw a stack of bomb fins, metal parts that are attached to 500-pound bombs when they are loaded onto airplanes. He picked up one and heaved it across the room at Keel, who ducked as it clanged across tables and fell away. The black sailor looked as if he were about to charge Keel, but then he realized that the rest of his group had left. Not wanting to be left behind, or unwilling to attack Keel without backup, the sailor took off.
Shaken but unharmed, Keel went to work his shift as a communications technician in damage control, the heart of the ship's emergency response system. There he was privy to news about what was happening throughout the Kitty Hawk. What he saw and heard left him unnerved. Then, on his way back to the berthing compartment after his watch, he was forced to hole up in a mess deck with some other white sailors and fend off a crowd of rampaging black sailors who were trying to get in. Why? Keel had no idea. He had defended himself with a chemical fire extinguisher, ready to spray the caustic purple powder into the face of any sailor who made it through the hatch.
From what he could tell, the attacks he had endured were just two examples of what was going on throughout the ship that day. The Kitty Hawk's leadership apparently was aware of the violence, but it sounded like the captain had been taken by the rioters. And even worse, the command structure wasn't kicking in. That was what worried Keel. If a group of sailors was running wild on the Kitty Hawk and even trying to mutiny and take over the carrier, why weren't the captain and the XO stopping it quickly? Just how bad was the situation if neither the captain nor the XO could get the job done?
Keel had related his experiences to his buddies when he returned to the berthing compartment. He had more firsthand experience with the day's violence than they had, but he still couldn't piece it all together. Were they safe?
The group of sailors sat or lay around, too tired for action but too worried to really relax. Everyone was uneasy, not sure how much of what they heard was just rumor and how much was really happening. They couldn't help but imagine the worst.
"I heard they're in control of the 04 deck," one man said.
"Yeah, I heard they got the second deck too," another said. "But I don't think they have the hangar deck. The flight deck is okay too, and I don't think they made it to the island," referring to the key part of the ship that contained the bridge and other command operations.
Another sailor said, "They're tearing white guys out of their racks and beating the shit out of them for no reason. I saw a guy whose face was messed up real bad." The chatter continued, the men passing on bits and pieces of whatever they had seen or heard during the day.
"Where's the skipper?" someone asked. "I heard them calling for him on the 1MC like he was lost or something."
No one answered right away, so Keel spoke up. He told the men what he had heard in damage control, that no one seemed to know where the captain was. That news made everyone quiet for a moment. The captain of the Kitty Hawk was missing?
"For all we know, he's dead," another sailor said. No one argued with him.
The men were silent as they thought about their predicament, stuck in an interior compartment of an aircraft carrier, with little means of communication and no authority to do anything but just wait and see if a mob came charging down the passage toward them.
Keel kept glancing at the hatch leading to their compartment. It was the only way in and the only way out.
"We need to seal that hatch," Keel said.
He didn't have to say it twice.CHAPTER 2
A NEW CAPTAIN
Marland Townsend was an unlikely figure to appear before a congressional hearing in November 1972, defending himself against accusations that he had lost control of one of the world's most powerful war ships.
In 1972, Townsend, known as Doc to his friends and his crew, was at the top of his game. As captain of the aircraft carrier USS Kitty Hawk, a shining star in the U.S. fleet, Townsend had climbed just about as far as a Navy officer could get and still be on the water, not behind a desk in Washington, DC. This was the glory assignment for any Navy officer, the opportunity to lead thousands of men into battle and help direct the outcome of the Vietnam War. In addition to the immense pride he felt in being given such great responsibility, Townsend knew that this role typically led to becoming a flag officer. After his service on the Kitty Hawk, it was very likely that Townsend would retire as an admiral—well deserved after a distinguished career.
By May 1972, when he took the helm of the carrier, Townsend had already amassed a long list of achievements in the Navy, everything from winning a Distinguished Flying Cross for daring bomb raids in North Vietnam, to risking his life as a test pilot, to developing the "Top Gun" school for training the best fighter pilots in the world. His assignment as captain of the Kitty Hawk was the next logical step in an outstanding career. Born in 1927 in a decidedly middle-class, peaceful suburb of Washington, DC, known as Mount Ranier, Townsend knew early on that he wanted to fly jets for the Navy. After he had achieved that goal, he kept looking for another.
Tall and handsome, a hale and hearty fellow who made the uniform look good, Townsend clearly was destined for greatness. He had entered the Navy in 1945, when the service was eager to replace the many pilots returning home after World War II. The Navy's Flying Midshipmen Program paid for two years of college at Georgia Tech in Atlanta, and then Townsend went on to Memphis for flight training. By 1948, he was flying F8F bearcats with fighter squadron VF–91 out of Charleston, Rhode Island, and in 1950, he returned to Georgia Tech to complete a bachelor's degree in aeronautics. But sitting in a classroom wasn't enough for Townsend. He still had to fly, not because the Navy required it but because he needed to be in the air, so he maintained his flight skills by flying Corsairs with the Naval Reserve unit in Atlanta.
Townsend welcomed his return to active duty in November 1952, when he and the rest of VF–53 joined the carrier USS Valley Forge and headed to Korea to fly F9Fs in air strikes against Communist artillery and antiaircraft sites. Another deployment to the Pacific followed aboard the USS Philippine Sea, after which Townsend earned a master's degree in aeronautical engineering from Princeton University. But as always, he was eager to get back in the air. And the Navy wanted him flying. They knew what a good pilot Townsend was and what an asset he represented for the Navy. So in 1962, when the Navy needed a test pilot, they called on Marland Townsend. True to form, Townsend quickly conquered that role and went on to become an instructor at the test pilot school in Patuxent River, Maryland. Townsend prided himself on never being beaten by a student in a dogfight.
Townsend clearly was among the Navy's very best, moving steadily from one challenging assignment to the next. When the conflict in Vietnam started heating up, the Navy called on pilots like Doc Townsend. From July 1965 to June 1967, he was executive officer and then commander of squadron VF–143, the "World Famous Pukin' Dogs" out of Oceana, California, flying off the carriers USS Ranger and USS Constellation. It was during this time that Townsend earned a Distinguished Flying Cross for his role in an air strike against a series of warehouses and then coordinating the rescue of another pilot who had ejected. But it was also during this time that Townsend started looking at the big picture, not necessarily just what the Navy told him about the war. Though he committed himself fully to each mission, Townsend was beginning to doubt the American involvement in Vietnam. Every time the three-man crew took to the air, they were risking their lives and a $3.6 million Phantom to strike some ramshackle buildings and supplies. Townsend just couldn't see the sense in it. Risking so much to support troops on the ground was one thing, but many of their objectives didn't seem worth the danger of getting shot down. He advised his pilots to play it safe, never to take an unnecessary chance with these missions. The caution paid off; Townsend's unit suffered only two operational aircraft losses in over two thousand combat sorties under his command. That concern with men's lives didn't mean that Townsend held back or took the easy routes: On June 6, for example, he flew the mission that earned him his second Distinguished Flying Cross—a dicey strike on a target eight miles south of Hanoi, through heavy artillery and surface-to-air missile fire.
After his time in Vietnam, Townsend continued his ascent. In 1967 he went on to command VF–121 in Miramar, California, and spearheaded development of the now-famous "Top Gun" school for training elite fighter pilots, using a captured Russian MigG–21C fighter. His personnel jacket was stuffed with outstanding evaluations, so when he was ready to leave VF–121, the Navy brass was open to nearly any request he had for his next assignment. He had plenty of opportunity for more flight commands, but Townsend was thinking about taking his career in a different direction. When he heard in 1968 that there was an opening on the Constellation for an operations officer, he was intrigued. The ops officer is usually found on the bridge of the carrier, near the captain, responsible for controlling many of the ship's functions related to flight operations. It would be a different sort of job from what Townsend had been doing, but not too far afield, and he wanted the experience of working in the carrier system. The job was his for the asking, and Townsend found that he enjoyed the position. After six months as ops officer, he moved up the ladder to become the executive officer (XO) on the Constellation, working under three captains he admired and considered mentors, all three of whom went on to become admirals. Not wanting to give up his flying altogether, Townsend had worked out an agreement with the first skipper that would allow him to fly off the Constellation occasionally, though never on actual missions. He could hop in a Phantom once in awhile for a training mission, just to stay current and see what the deck looked like from above. It was an unusual arrangement for an ops officer, and he continued to fly every month or so when he became XO. Townsend enjoyed being able to take a plane up once in a while, of course, because no Navy pilot is satisfied to take a job where his feet never leave the ground, but the jaunts also kept him well connected with the flight operations, the pilots, and the crew. Standing up on the bridge and watching flight ops just isn't the same as actually flying off the deck and seeing firsthand how everything is working.
Excerpted from Troubled Water by Gregory A. Freeman. Copyright © 2009 Gregory A. Freeman. Excerpted by permission of Palgrave Macmillan.
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