January 30, 2023

Against All Tides

New book featuring a local voice chronicles the 1972 USS Kitty Hawk controversy
By Al Parker | Jan. 21, 2023

Simmering racial tensions, inflamed by discriminatory punishments, sparked violent confrontations between Black sailors and white Marines aboard the USS Kitty Hawk during Vietnam War operations in the fall of 1972. A young Navy JAG lieutenant—later a district court judge in northern Michigan—found himself embroiled in the racial tensions as he defended a Black sailor accused of assault and taking part in what the Navy called “a race riot” and some media termed a “racial mutiny.”

Thomas “TJ” Phillips, a recently retired 86th District Court judge, was one of 13 JAG defense lawyers who shared their recollections for the 2022 book Against All Tides: The Untold Story of the USS Kitty Hawk Race Riot written by Marv Truhe, another Navy JAG lawyer and military judge during the Vietnam War era.

As defense counsel for several of the 25 accused Kitty Hawk Black sailors, Truhe was able to set the record straight on a story that many in the Navy preferred to be forgotten. For half a century, Truhe kept his case notes, trial transcripts, investigation reports, hundreds of sworn statements, medical reports, federal court pleadings, and witness interviews.

“I worked for 12 to 14 hours a day for some months doing the research,” Truhe said during a recent Zoom call from his home in Colorado. “The writing came very quickly. There was no writer’s block.”

The Other Side of the Story

His book details in chronological order the “race riot” which was not an organized effort at all, but was actually a series of unrelated attacks committed by white sailors and Marines against their Black shipmates. Though numerous Black sailors were assaulted and injured, not a single white sailor was charged.

Following the arrests of 21 Black sailors, they were locked away aboard the Kitty Hawk’s brig—some in solitary confinement—and eventually returned to San Diego to face charges, potential courts martial, and punishments that could include dishonorable discharges and incarcerations.

It was when they arrived in San Diego that they first encountered Phillips. Here’s the scene, according to Truhe’s book:

“By now, some of the defendants were openly venting their frustration and anger…The sailors immediately sensed something wasn’t right when they saw the rows of small cells encased in steel bars. As the Marines directed them toward the cells, some reacted by yelling at the guards, who in turn shouted back at them. The situation escalated and the Marines wielded their nightsticks, trying to force the prisoners into the cells.”

A Marine captain called for help and got JAG Lt. Phillips on the line, explained the situation, and asked if he could double-time it to the cell block to help out.

Phillips hurried to the brig and was met by the captain, who said someone other than a Marine would be better able to handle the prisoners. Phillips was escorted to the block and into a spacious room where chaos ruled. A large group of sailors were shouting, with some pounding on the metal tables. They seemed to be venting their frustration at a group of charged-up Marine guards, who stood facing them, nightsticks at the ready.

Facing a volatile situation, Phillips didn’t hesitate. He placed himself between the groups and raised his hands. That, plus his uniform, caught the attention of some of the prisoners, and the noise subsided somewhat.

“These were a bunch of young guys, and they sounded angry,” recalls Phillips. “I told them, ‘I’m a lawyer and I’m here to help you.’”

A couple of sailors responded by saying they were innocent and the charges against them were totally unjustified. Phillips told them the last thing an innocent person should do was to commit an offense while awaiting his trial. He urged them to consider the possibility they would be found not guilty of their original charges, only to be charged with their subsequent actions in the brig. (Phillips was not aware of it at the time, but Truhe and another JAG officer had witnessed most of his efforts from just outside the cell block entrance.)

Phillips also advised them of their legal rights, including their right to remain silent. He advised them in no uncertain terms, not to talk to anyone except their lawyers.

“Several of them asked for civilian counsel; I assured them I would personally contact the NAACP and ACLU on their behalf,” says Phillips.

Not Guilty

During the lengthy Navy judicial proceedings, Phillips was assigned to represent Airman Apprentice Vernell Robinson, who was in charge of the aircraft parts inventory aboard the USS Kitty Hawk, one of the largest warships ever built. Almost a quarter mile long, the ship carried a complement of 4,483 officers and enlisted sailors. Roughly 300 of them were Black, about 7 percent of the crew.

The night of the incident, Robinson went to the mess to eat and play cards with friends. When he left, he saw a Black sailor and white sailor scuffling in a passageway. He thought they were just horsing around, but saw more of the same and realized fights were breaking out. He never saw any weapons, never saw any double-teaming during the assault, but heard plenty of profanity and racial slurs. Robinson was never personally assaulted and thought it was because the white sailors recognized him or because he was several inches shorter than most.

After the ship returned to San Diego, Robinson was inexplicably charged with rioting and with assaults on two white sailors during the October incident.

Phillips was immediately impressed with Robinson and found him to be mature for his 21 years. After hearing Robinson’s story, Phillips was convinced he was representing an innocent man.

Phillips relied on two defenses. First, Robinson had an alibi, playing cards with his buddies when the assaults happened. Second, they raised what Phillips called “The SODDI Defense: Some Other Dude Did It.”

The case went to trial on April 4, 1973, and was heard by a jury of three naval officers and presided over by a Marine Lieutenant Colonel.

At the outset, the Marine judge kept referring to “Captain Phillips” when addressing Lieutenant Phillips. The mistake was understandable because the rank insignia of both Marine Captains and Navy Lieutenants are similar. Phillips could see that being called “captain” rankled the Navy officers on the jury who were senior to him. He approached the bench, the judge apologized, and everything sailed along smoothly after that.

Phillips and his co-counsel called several of Robinson’s friends to support his alibi. A senior officer testified to Robinson’s high job ratings, and the sailor’s wife swore to her husband’s good character.

According to a newspaper report, the jury returned a not-guilty verdict in 18 minutes. At that point, an elated Robinson shook the hands of his defense team, shook hands with each of the jurors, then even shook hands with the prosecutors. Only the judge and court reporter didn’t get a greeting from the delighted young sailor.

“He was a very special young man,” says Phillips.

Of the 25 sailors eventually charged with rioting and assault, only Robinson and five others were completely acquitted of all charges. Seven took plea agreements that resulted in guilty pleas to lesser charges, 10 went to trial and were convicted of lesser offenses, and only two were found guilty of rioting charges, according to Truhe.

Where Are They Now?

Robinson’s request to return to the Kitty Hawk was denied, and he soon was offered an honorable discharge which he accepted and returned home to Chicago’s south side. He built a rewarding 30-year career as a regional manager for McDonald’s, then managed a parking garage at a condo complex. In 2014, he suffered a stroke and retired at age 63.

After his naval service, Phillips practiced civil litigation law for 25 years in Traverse City, then served 18 years as a district court judge before retiring.

As a first-time author, Truhe initially thought he would self-publish the book. But he was lucky enough to land an agent, who got him a deal with an editor at Lawrence Hill Books, a subset of Chicago Review Press that “is dedicated to publishing nonfiction that centers, focuses on, highlights, and uplifts Black voices and experiences.”

Truhe has made presentations before a number of veterans groups and has been invited to speak at the U.S. Naval Academy in the spring.

“I get asked if the Navy is upset by my book,” said Truhe. “But if they were upset, I wouldn’t be invited to speak there in the spring. My book takes to task senior officers and is not at all an indictment of the Navy.”

Learn more about the USS Kitty Hawk, Truhe, and his book at marvtruhe.com.

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