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Black Sailor, White Navy

Racial Unrest in the Fleet during the Vietnam War Era

John Sherwood

Publication Year: 2007

It is hard to determine what dominated more newspaper headlines in America during the 1960s and early ‘70s: the Vietnam War or America’s turbulent racial climate. Oddly, however, these two pivotal moments are rarely examined in tandem.

John Darrell Sherwood has mined the archives of the U.S. Navy and conducted scores of interviews with Vietnam veterans — both black and white — and other military personnel to reveal the full extent of racial unrest in the Navy during the Vietnam War era, as well as the Navy’s attempts to control it. During the second half of the Vietnam War, the Navy witnessed some of the worst incidents of racial strife ever experienced by the American military. Sherwood introduces us to fierce encounters on American warships and bases, ranging from sit-down strikes to major race riots.

The Navy’s journey from a state of racial polarization to one of relative harmony was not an easy one, and Black Sailor, White Navy focuses on the most turbulent point in this road: the Vietnam War era.

Published by: NYU Press


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p. v

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pp. vii-ix

The U.S. Naval Historical Center (NHC) is the U.S. Navy’s institutional memory. Its staff of historians, archivists, librarians, archaeologists, curators, and naval personnel work conscientiously to preserve the history of America’s Navy. In one way or another, every member of the command contributed something to this book. Our director, Rear Admiral Paul Tobin, USN (Ret.), not only supported this project throughout but carefully read the manuscript and ...

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Prologue: Storm Warning

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pp. xi-xix

At 5:30 p.m. on Sunday, 8 February 1970, a group of black and white inmates glared at each other in Post 3 of the Navy’s brig at the Great Lakes Naval Training Center, a large boot camp located forty miles north of Chicago. A dispute had erupted earlier in the day over the program to be watched on television: white inmates wanted to watch a movie, and blacks, a basketball game. Because whites outnumbered ...


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pp. xxi-xxiv

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1. The Black Sailor: Chambermaid to the Braid and Nothing More

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pp. 1-15

During the early 1970s, most black sailors viewed the Navy’s record on race relations with a profound sense of skepticism. As of March 1971, blacks accounted for only 5.3 percent of the Navy’s enlisted personnel and a mere 0.7 percent of officers. By contrast, their representation in the other services was much more substantial. “The ...

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2. Racial Unrest Strikes the Army and Marines

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pp. 16-29

The U.S. Army and Marine Corps experienced serious racial unrest several years earlier than the Navy and the Air Force. The reasons for this have more to do with the draft than with the institutional culture of the Army or Marines. During the Vietnam War, many draft-aged American youth perceived the ground services as the most dangerous way of fulfilling their commitment to Uncle Sam. As a consequence, ...

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3. The Zumwalt Revolution

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pp. 30-54

During his 1967 election campaign, Richard M. Nixon strongly endorsed the concept of an All-Volunteer Force (AVF). Nixon believed that the draft, with its various exemptions for college students, unfairly targeted America’s working class, a core constituency of his new conservative coalition, and rewarded his enemies—college students involved in the antiwar movement. By eliminating the draft in favor of a ...

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4. Kitty Hawk: The Pot Begins to Boil

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pp. 55-83

On 12 October 1972, the aircraft carrier Kitty Hawk was steaming off the coast of North Vietnam, launching air strikes in support of America’s longest conflict. The Vietnam War had been dragging on for seven years, and President Richard Nixon was losing his patience. He wanted to achieve an honorable exit from the war, but North Vietnamese diplomats had been stalling negotiations since he first took ...

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5. Blow Off: The Kitty Hawk Riot

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pp. 83-102

The Kitty Hawk left Subic Bay on 11 October. It conducted air operations from 1:00 p.m. until 6:00 p.m. the next day while in transit to Yankee Station. Once the operations concluded, the aircrews debriefed, ate, and filed into their ready rooms to watch movies. Enlisted men, many still exhausted from liberty and angry about having to return to the line, either ate, slept, or went on duty. Black sailors, in particular, ...

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6. More Unrest: The Hassayampa Riot

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pp. 103-129

Four days after the Kitty Hawk riot, on 16 October 1972, another riot erupted in WESTPAC—this one on Hassayampa (AO 145), a fleet oiler moored to a pier at the Subic Bay Naval Base in the Philippines. The Hassayampa had a much smaller crew than Kitty Hawk (324 sailors as opposed to 4,582), so this riot was smaller in scale and scope. Only 11 black sailors rioted, and only 5 white sailors were injured in the affair. ...

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7. The Sit-down Strike on the Constellation

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pp. 130-149

On 3 November 1972, racial trouble again erupted in the Pacific Fleet, this time on the carrier Constellation (CVA 64). Until that point, Washington had paid little attention to the racial problems of the Navy despite several stories in the New York Times on the Kitty Hawk and Hassayampa riots. Preoccupied with the upcoming presidential election, policymakers in the capital had little time to worry much ...

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8. Negotiations with the Protesters: A Comedy of Errors

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pp. 150-166

At 9:45 p.m. on 3 November, Commander James Yacabucci convened a meeting of the Constellation’s human relations council to hear the grievances of the men on the mess deck. The HRC consisted of three officers and five enlisted crewman. One officer was black, and the other two were white. The enlisted cadre consisted of two blacks, two whites, and one Asian. The HRC had the authority to listen to grievances and ...

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9. The Hicks Subcommittee Hearings: Questions and Motives

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pp. 167-192

With the breakup of the beach detachment on 9 November, the attention of the media, Congress, and the Nixon administration shifted to Admiral Elmo Zumwalt. Each of these groups expected Zumwalt, as the Navy’s top uniformed official, to act swiftly to address what many perceived as a serious breakdown in discipline in the Navy. Many also blamed Zumwalt for the problems, arguing that his “programs for ....

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10. Violence on Nearly Every Ship: Race Riots after Constellation

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pp. 193-226

The Kitty Hawk, Constellation, and Hassayampa affairs were the opening thunderclaps of a storm that nearly brought the Navy to its knees. During the 1972–1974 period, racial unrest struck hundreds of Navy ship and shore installations, and this unrest continued virtually unabated until 1975. Between July and November 1972, the ...

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11. The Struggle to Eliminate Bias in the Fleet

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pp. 227-242

Racial unrest in the fleet spurred policy changes in the Navy immediately after the unrest on Kitty Hawk, Hassayampa, and Constellation. These changes ranged from improving the quality of Navy life for all sailors to specific policies aimed at eliminating racial bias in the fleet. Recruiting more minorities and advancing more minorities to management positions was also a goal of these early programs, but such ...

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12. From Awareness to Affirmation

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pp. 243-261

The racial awareness training component of Phase I of the Navy’s equal opportunity/race relations program sought to improve the racial climate in the fleet by making majority sailors aware of inequality and institutional racism in the fleet. It also made it patently clear that any language with racist overtones was unacceptable. In essence, the awareness training implemented by Admiral Elmo Zumwalt was shock ...

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pp. 262-270

In Peter Weir’s film Master and Commander (2003), Captain Jack Aubrey, played by the actor Russell Crowe, declared to his officers, “This ship is England.” Anyone who has served on a naval vessel immediately grasped the significance of his line. Aubrey’s ship, the HMS Surprise, was a microcosm of its country. She represented all of England’s ideals, aspirations, and strengths, as well as the country’s contradictions, ...

Appendix: Navy Ranks and Ratings, 1973

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pp. 271-274


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pp. 275-314


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pp. 315-330


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pp. 331-343

About the Author

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E-ISBN-13: 9780814786789
E-ISBN-10: 0814786782
Print-ISBN-13: 9780814740361
Print-ISBN-10: 0814740367

Page Count: 360
Publication Year: 2007

OCLC Number: 629863272
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Black Sailor, White Navy

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Subject Headings

  • Zumwalt, Elmo R., 1920- -- Relations with African American sailors.
  • Race discrimination -- United States -- History -- 20th century
  • Racism -- United States -- History -- 20th century
  • African American sailors -- Social conditions -- 20th century.
  • African American sailors -- Civil rights -- History -- 20th century.
  • Vietnam War, 1961-1975 -- African Americans.
  • United States. -- Navy -- African Americans -- History -- 20th century.
  • United States. Navy -- History -- Vietnam War, 1961-1975.
  • Protest movements -- United States -- History -- 20th century.
  • United States -- Race relations -- History -- 20th century
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