I am incredibly proud of being a Navy Veteran
The US Navy has been a part of my family DNA for more than a hundred years. We have answered the nation’s call since the Great War and served as part of the greatest navy that has ever sailed the seas.
Having said that, even the navy has had its moments of darkness and more that its share of blemishes. In the nineteen sixties and seventies, one of those great blemises was how it responded to the social and political upheavals of the day. Specifically, racism.
So a disclaimer: if you are looking for a feel good story about the navy or submarines, please come back another day.
Violence in America
You read a lot about violence in America these days. To be honest, we have short memories. Looking back over the past fifty years, there have been too many cases of violent incidents that have shocked the nation. One of the most shocking and evil happened on January 7, 1972 in New Orleans.
The nation was going through a lot of upheaval and one of those elements was being perpetuated by a group called the Black Panthers. The Panthers were part of a general upheaval in America that was based on racial disparity.
The sixties were known for many changes to the basic social structure of America. For the first time, many groups that had been disenfranchised for a very long time started coming to the front. Old prejudices and societal norms were being exposed and people who had remained silent for generations finally found their voices. Civil rights were really about human rights. Leaders like Martin Luther King were instrumental in raising the awareness of the injustices and things that had been hidden were exposed and questioned.
The Navy saw its own turmoil. There were increasing amounts of push back which ultimately led to violence on board ships. It was a reminder of the oldest truism in any organization like the military: the military is a microcosm of society. The Vietnam War meant that the nation was still drafting men into service and many of them chose the Navy in a way to avoid service in Vietnam itself.
Racial violence flares aboard U.S. Navy ships on October 12, 1972. Forty six sailors are injured in a race riot involving more than 100 sailors on the aircraft carrier USS Kitty Hawk en route to her station in the Gulf of Tonkin off Vietnam. The incident broke out when a Black sailor was summoned for questioning regarding an altercation that took place during the crew’s liberty in Subic Bay (in the Philippines). The sailor refused to make a statement and he and his friends started a brawl that resulted in sixty sailors being injured during the fighting. Eventually 26 men, all Black, were charged with assault and rioting and were ordered to appear before a court-martial in San Diego.
Four days later, a group of about 12 Black sailors aboard the USS Hassayampa, a fleet oiler docked at Subic Bay, told ship’s officers that they would not sail with the ship when the ship put to sea. The group demanded the return of money that allegedly had been stolen from the wallet of one of the group. The ship’s leadership failed to act quickly enough to defuse the situation and later that day, a group of seven white sailors were set upon by the group and beaten. It took the arrival of a Marine detachment to restore order. Six Black sailors were charged with assault and rioting.
These incidents indicated the depth of the racial problems in the Navy. All of the services had experienced similar problems earlier, but the Navy had lagged behind the others in addressing the issues that contributed to the racial tensions that erupted on the Kitty Hawk and the Hassayampa. Admiral Elmo R. Zumwalt, Jr., Chief of Naval Operations, instituted new race relations programs and made significant changes to Naval Regulations to address many of the very real issues raised by the Black sailors regarding racial injustice in the Navy.
While racism was prevalent in much of the country, some areas were more adjusted.
Emporia Kansas was one such place
Mark James Robert Essex was born in Emporia, Kansas, the second of five children born to Mark Henry and Nellie Essex. He was raised in a close-knit and religious household. His father was a foreman in a meat-packing plant and his mother counseled preschool-age children in a program for disadvantaged children.
The community in which he was raised consisted of 28,000 people, and prided itself in a long tradition of racial harmony. As a child and adolescent, Essex had numerous friends of all races and seldom, if ever, encountered any form of racism.
As a child, Essex developed a passion for the Cub Scouts and an aptitude for music; playing the saxophone in his high school band. He also developed a passion for hunting and fishing in the rivers and streams within and around the city, and developed ambitions to become a minister in his teens.
Service in the Navy
Essex enlisted the Navy on January 13, 1969, committing himself to a four-year contract at advanced pay. Within three months, he was assigned to the Naval Air Station at Imperial Beach, California. His family would later reflect that, as Essex prepared to enlist, he was “happy go lucky”
His experiences there began to change him. The Navy had its own form of segregation in the form of separate but equal access to a number of facilities. Essex began to find that it was not just his diminished rank that impacted how he was treated. It was too often the color of his skin. He began to associate with men who were more radical in nature who introduced him to the teachings of the Black Panthers and over time he embraced this new philosophy. Eventually he would go AWOL in 1970. He eventually returned and paid a price for violating his contract but once he was free from the Navy his radicalization would continue and grow.
Mark James Robert Essex (August 12, 1949 – January 7, 1973) was an American serial sniper and black nationalist known as the “New Orleans Sniper” who killed a total of nine people, including five policemen, and wounded twelve others in two separate attacks in New Orleans on December 31, 1972 and January 7, 1973.
Essex was killed by police in the second armed confrontation.
Essex was a former member of a New York-based branch of the Black Panthers. He is strongly believed to have specifically sought to kill white people and police officers due to racism he had previously experienced while enlisted in the Navy. His increasingly extremist anti-police, black supremacist, and anti-white views are believed to have solidified following a November 1972 violent clash between Baton Rouge police officers and student civil rights demonstrators, during which two young black demonstrators were shot and killed.
After shooting a police officer a week earlier, Mark Essex, a former Black Panther party member, shot 19 people (10 of them police officers) with a sniper rifle from his vantage point at a Howard Johnsons hotel in the U.S. city of New Orleans. His stated motive was “retaliation for police killings” of African-Americans. Essex had killed a black police cadet and fatally wounded a white police officer on New Years’ Eve. In a single day, Essex caused the deaths of two hotel guests, two hotel employees, and three additional New Orleans police officers before being shot dead by a police marksman firing from a helicopter.
Mark Essex’s mass shooting comes to an end after he is shot by police more than 200 times on the roof of New Orleans’s Holiday Inn hotel. He killed nine people, including five policeman.
There is much more to his story.
If you enter his name into search engines you can find a number of stories and vidoes about the key players in this particular story. Many of them are slanted by the bias of the people who created them. Essex is either characterized as a monstrous killer or a freedom fighting hero.
I was reminded how much of my early Navy experience was eye opening to me as well. Boot Camp in Great Lakes gave me my first living experience with people who did not look like me. In some ways, the language of those men who came from the south side of Chicago was as foreign to me as if I were in a foreign country. There were a lot of adjustments. Some of the young men I served with already had a hard edge in 1972. Their world was different than mine. But after fourteen weeks drilling and working together we had blended into a unit together. We made it work despite our differences.
After graduation we all sent in different directions and it would be years before I served directly with large groups of people from other ethnicities. In those days, submarine service was voluntary but the majority of the men that I served with were white. There were a few exceptions along the way but not too many.
In the world outside of our isolated cocoon of submarine training and later operations, the world would keep evolving into something that it had never been before. When I see the continued violence and large areas of poverty, I can’t help but wonder when the next revolution will begin. I wonder if it already has but like before, I just haven’t seen it for what it is yet.