Luis Cruz: Welcome to “San Diego News Fix: The Backstory,” where we address important questions about journalism ethics and give you an inside look at our newsroom.
Today we are going to revisit an incident that rocked the Navy just over 50 years ago. It was a race riot aboard the aircraft carrier Kitty Hawk. Union-Tribune Editor-in-Chief John Wilkens, Managing Editor Kristina Davis, Managing Editor Lora Cicalo, and we begin with Publisher and Editor-in-Chief Jeff Light join us in discussing the incident .
Jeff Light: John, thank you for coming and sharing this story with us. It’s interesting to me, not so much as a matter of media ethics or decision-making, which is often our topic here, but your story is about a participant at a moment in history, who – 50 years later – presents itself and tells a story in a different way than has been generally accepted over the decades surrounding this rather significant moment in Navy history and San Diego history. Why don’t you briefly outline the background, and I think Lora and Kristina also have some questions that you might be able to answer.
John Wilkens: In October 1972 the Kitty Hawk was in the waters off Vietnam as part of the Vietnam War and they had been at sea for quite a while. There are racial tensions aboard the ship, and it boiled over overnight, over a period of about six hours where tensions rose and there were groups of black sailors circling the ship beating white sailors and vice versa. Subsequently, many of the defendants were sent to San Diego, where the Kitty Hawk was brought home, and stood trial. They were court-martialed for rioting and assault. One of the defense attorneys in the Navy was a guy named Marv Truhe, who represented six of the defendants. He kept all of his records from those trials, and 50 years later he decided it was finally time to write a book and tell what he describes as the full story.
Jeff Light: So this lawyer – Marv – was 27 at the time, and now he’s carried the records of this case with him throughout his life, right? You were describing to me how he moved across the country. He took that record with him, and now, finally, 50 years later, he’s sat down to write. Tell me a bit about what motivated it and the story it tells, as opposed to the story that was generally known.
John Wilkens: This story has come down through the ages primarily as a story of black sailors going wild on the Kitty Hawk, and there’s been some discussion of why they might have done this – the injustices they suffered aboard the ship . But the story he tells is a bit more complicated than that.
He was embarrassed as the trials unfolded about how the stories had unfolded. He was bothered by some of the injustices he saw in the justice system as he tried to defend these sailors, and it always kind of bothered him. This raised questions in his mind about the Navy – an institution he respected then and still respects. This raised questions about the fairness of the legal system, which he made his life’s work. And it made him question things like honesty and integrity. He is a farm boy from South Dakota, raised by a father who spoke out against prejudice against Native Americans in his hometown. So this thing never quite went over well with him over those years, and he felt that he kind of had to tell a fuller story about it.
Jeff Light: You were telling me a bit about some of these points of injustice that seemed particularly flagrant. For example, six black sailors were arrested and charged, and one white sailor.
John Wilkens: Twenty-five black sailors. It was the original group that was charged a few weeks after the incident unfolded. Two of them agreed to be tried on the ship, so they were punished on board and they hoped to stay in the navy. The others requested outside counsel, and the courts-martial moved to San Diego. So 23 sailors were eventually court-martialed in San Diego and only one of them was white. He was charged three months after the initial incident, when everyone was back in San Diego.
Jeff Light: And the prosecutor in the case against the white sailor?
John Wilkens: He was a newcomer; he was brand new and had almost no experience. As Marv Truhe explains in the book, he didn’t really have a clue what he was doing and was very nervous because these cases had received national attention. He presented his case and it took the jury about eight minutes to acquit him.
Jeff Light: So you get the impression that this may have been a symbolic pursuit of the only white sailor.
John Wilkens: Yeah, and the black sailors, I think almost all of them were held in the brig at Naval Station 32nd Street on remand, which was unusual, for over three months. Marv Truhe discovered that the Navy was hiding evidence from him and other defense attorneys as it went on. And there were some pretty crazy things that happened. At some point, after one of his clients was convicted, they hired a private detective to befriend the main witness in this case to try and catch the witness admitting that he was a racist and that he had lied during the trial. It’s the kind of thing you could read in a detective novel. They did and it worked, and those tapes started to undermine the story the Navy had been telling throughout the incident.
Jeff Light: Lora, I think you had a question for John about the racial justice elements of this story.
Lora Cicalo: Yes. I It struck me as I glanced through your story that the author you are profiling seems to raise this question – perhaps even to himself – of what we have learned, collectively, since this incident. It seemed that in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder, he started looking at this from a different perspective than he had before.
John Wilkens: Yes, I think he may have given more thought to this. He started trying to write this book soon after all of this, and then he put it aside because, you know, life gets in his way. He left the Navy after four years, worked for the attorney general of South Dakota, then went into private practice. He always saw this book primarily as a snapshot in time, but I think while writing it he began to think about the broader messages it might have for the rest of the world – in particular, the questions it can raise about how much progress we have made in America toward racial equality.
Jeff Light: Yes, the criminal justice system – both on the military side and certainly in civilian society – is a great place to look for signs of unfair treatment, and people are very uncomfortable with these issues, I think.
Kristina, you had a question about the Navy itself and the idea of accountability.
Kristina Davis: Yeah, to pick up on what Lora was saying is that he had to sit down 50 years later and review all of this and try to make sense of it. He says something towards the end of the story that he doesn’t really blame the Navy institution for this and he doesn’t say that the Navy is a racist institution or anything like that; he says it was really a few senior officers. So, I was curious who these senior officers were and what were his theories behind it, and was there ever accountability at higher ranks?
John Wilkens: The author, Marv Truhe, was very, very careful, both in the book and in my interview with him, not to skim the whole Navy. He still has enormous respect for the institution. He has enormous respect for people who wear the uniform. He thinks they are senior officers who have gone astray. The ship’s captain, Marland Townsend, had joined the Kitty Hawk just four months before it happened. He was always trying to find his way and his footing with the crew, and as Truhe shows us in the book, he made a few early missteps in terms of disciplinary proceedings against the crew members.
It is quite clear that he punished black sailors more severely than white sailors for similar offences. This kind of thing just fueled what was already a boiling pot over a lot of this stuff. Captain Townsend, I think it’s clear from the book, had his career somewhat short-circuited and he didn’t move into positions that you might have expected if that hadn’t happened. But none of the senior officers faced any immediate disciplinary proceedings because of the matter.
Jeff Light: Every time I read this kind of insider story years later, it’s so unsettling to me. You feel like as a journalist, boy, we don’t have access to the real story. I think he even said that the journalists at the time did their best, or something like that. In a way, he was charitable, but he had a kind of low expectation of what journalists might get.
John Wilkens: Yes, I think that’s true. The military is still a badass, as many of us know from working in journalism over the years, and in this case, for example, the defendants were under a gag order not to speak. Lawyers, as lawyers often do, do not want to talk about the case while it is in progress. They don’t want to say anything that will upset the judge or anything like that. So everyone is speechless. There is no way to access documents like you would in a public court system. But he thought the reporters were trying to do the best they could. They quoted defense attorneys saying things in a fairly circumspect way that raised questions about some of the things that were going on. Truhe himself has been, on several occasions, an anonymous source for the New York Times and other publications, pointing them in certain directions on larger topics regarding what might be happening in the Navy.
But I think you are right. It is very difficult for each of us to have a complete story, especially in the immediate future. Sometimes you have to let a little time pass for the prospect to appear. And I think that’s what happened in this case with this author. The time has passed; he had some life experience; he saw certain things happen. Although, he said, when he went back to those five boxes of banker’s papers and looked through them, it reminded him of how angry he was in 1972 when it happened, and that made him angry again.
Jeff Light: It’s a fascinating story. I really look forward to spending more time on this topic.
Luis Cruz: Thank you very much, Jeff, Lora, Kristina and John. You can read more about the history of John Wilkens on our website. Thank you so much for joining us and supporting local journalism.