Has there ever been a mutiny aboard a U.S. naval vessel?

January 26, 2007

Dear Cecil:

Last weekend I watched the classic 1954 film The Caine Mutiny, which sparked the question: Have there been mutinies aboard U.S. naval vessels, and if so, what were the outcomes?

The Caine Mutiny opens with the words, "There has never been a mutiny in a ship of the United States Navy." This may be narrowly true - so far as I can determine, nobody has ever been formally charged with committing mutiny aboard a commissioned U.S. naval vessel. But let's not bandy words. There have been mutinies in the U.S. Navy, including one conspiracy aboard a ship at sea; U.S. Navy personnel have been formally charged with mutiny and punished for it; and a few poor sods hanged. We've just never had a case where all these things applied at the same time. Here's how it all sorts out:

(1) Navy ship but no formal charges. The ship was the brig Somers, discussed in this space before. (See The Straight Dope: 060630.) In 1842 the Somers set sail on a training mission in the Atlantic with a large number of apprentice seamen. During the voyage the ship's officers heard reports of an impending mutiny, with 18-year-old midshipman Philip Spencer pegged by an informant as the ringleader. With only ten officers to control more than 100 men, the ship's captain, Commander Alexander Mackenzie, quickly arrested Spencer and two alleged coconspirators. The three were accused of plotting to seize the vessel, throw loyal seamen overboard, and turn the Somers into a pirate ship. No formal court-martial was held; rather the assembled officers decided the men were guilty and on December 1 Mackenzie had all three hanged. An inquiry once the Somers returned to U.S. waters determined that Mackenzie had acted properly, but fearing he might be brought up on criminal charges in a civilian court (Spencer's father was secretary of war), the captain requested and was granted a full court-martial. Though widely criticized for acting precipitously, Mackenzie was cleared on all counts after a two-month trial.

(2) Formal charges but not navy ship. This mutiny took place at the Port Chicago/Mare Island naval complex northeast of San Francisco during World War Two. Port Chicago was a major ammunition depot for the Pacific fleet, where ships were loaded hastily with minimal regard for safety, perhaps because most menial labor was done by black sailors commanded by white officers. On July 17, 1944, the merchant ship E.A. Bryan was being loaded with 4,600 tons of explosives when it blew up, killing all 320 men on duty and injuring 390 others. When the surviving workers were told to resume loading ammunition at nearby Mare Island less than a month later, 258 refused. The navy hit 208 of the men with bad-conduct discharges and court-martialed the rest for mutiny. All 50 received lengthy prison terms, but their sentences were commuted shortly after war's end.

(3) Formal charges, ship at sea carrying U.S. military cargo, but not navy. In March 1970 during the Vietnam war, two sailors used smuggled guns to seize the merchant ship Columbia Eagle, en route to a U.S. Air Force base in Thailand with a cargo of napalm bombs. Most of the crew was tricked into leaving the ship for a lifeboat drill, and the mutineers steamed for Cambodia, where the government granted them asylum as anti-war revolutionaries. Unfortunately for the plotters, two days later the regime was overthrown and they were held as prisoners. One was ultimately returned to the U.S. and convicted of mutiny and other charges; the other escaped from custody in Cambodia and was never found.

(4) Navy ships but only near-mutinies. Famous incidents during the Vietnam war include the race-driven clashes on the carriers Kitty Hawk and Constellation in 1972. But the events that came closest to replicating The Caine Mutiny took place aboard the Vance, an aging destroyer escort sent to Vietnam in December 1965 for patrol duty. The captain, one Marcus Aurelius Arnheiter, was alleged by his crew to have been a Queeglike character who inaugurated a program of inspections, etiquette lectures, and mandatory religious services led by himself, kept a stash of alcohol on board, and at one point ordered an officer to act like a "pompom girl." After Arnheiter supposedly told subordinates to falsify reports, shelled a Buddhist pagoda and almost grounded the ship in the process, and shouted hysterically at ricochets from his ship's own gun, junior officers got word to HQ and the captain was relieved of command after just 14 weeks. He accused his underlings of mutiny, but a naval hearing upheld his removal and no mutiny charges were filed.

So we've got navy ships, mutinies, charges, and punishment, just not all at once. Still, you won't catch me knocking The Caine Mutiny. Sure, some prefer Caddyshack. But to me there's no finer movie moment than when Lieutenant Maryk grabs a Bible (my books weren't available) and declares, "That's the straight dope!"

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