SIEGEL: Hello, Admiral. When we finished our last session, you were describing the Little Rock’s rather fitful start for her Med deployment.
U.S.S. Little Rock Association
ORAL HISTORY PROGRAM
The following is Segment 8, one of many segments from the Oral History of Rear Admiral Peter K. Cullins, USN (Ret.). Five interviews pertaining to RADM Cullins' time aboard USS Little Rock CLG 4 are provided, numbered as Segments 7 thru 11. The segments are in chronological order. The entire 174-page Oral History which concentrates on Rear Admiral Cullins' naval career, along with short descriptions of his youth and post Navy retirement work can be obtained from the Naval Historical Foundation.
Interviewee: RADM Peter K. Cullins, USN (Ret)
Interviewer: CAPT Kent R. Siegel, USN (Ret)
CULLINS: Yes, Kent. That was the picture. As I said before, we sailed for the Med on 15 August (1973). Limping as I remember, with plant difficulties and a largely untrained crew. But we had a good batch of FltTraGrp people aboard and they helped a lot. I had almost daily General Quarters drills for the first part of the transit, mostly so people could just find their way to their stations. One incident that was sad – there was a huge bump one day, and when I came to the bridge I saw that we had struck a huge whale. We stayed around for awhile, feeling helpless and watching the other members of the pod trying to keep the injured whale surfaced. A sad scene it was.
SIEGEL: Gosh, that's a real downer and there's absolutely nothing humans can do to help in that situation. Was there any good news on the Atlantic crossing?
CULLINS: Yes, I did stop the ship in mid-ocean for a swim call, which I've always done on my other ships, as sailors seem to love this. We also did the hoary ‘Sea Bat’ routine where the bosun's mates put a box on the forecastle and I announce from the bridge to the crew that “We have an extraordinary thing just happen. A sea bat has flown onto the anchor windlass and has been captured. This is a very rare occurrence and anyone who has never seen a sea bat is welcome to come to the foc’sle to see it before it dies. Don't handle it – it has sharp teeth”. Of course lots of the ‘newbies’ come topside to bend over and peer into the [empty] box, at which time the bosun's mates give them a mighty swat on the posterior. (Some traditions just should not disappear regardless of the fact that we now have women aboard ship!). I think we went into Rota, Spain on the 26th to essentially offload the FltTraGrp teams. We then passed into the Straits of Gibraltar and received the usual “What Ship” visual signal from the British. I replied “What Rock”, which I had done eight years earlier in Luce. Eventually we replied truthfully, and I should have said “To the Large Rock from the Little Rock”.
SIEGEL: One of those great lines you think of… but only too late to deliver.
CULLINS: They could fill a book in one's career. We got into Gaeta, essentially a smallish Italian fishing village and tourist town (in Roman times a resort for the Caesars), on the coast about halfway between Naples and Rome, on the 29th– the first time in three years for the Rock. She had been the first Sixth Fleet flagship to homeport in Gaeta from 1967 to 1970.
SIEGEL: As I recall, the Sixth Fleet flagship home port shifted to Gaeta from Villefranche when DeGaulle pulled France out of military membership in NATO and invited us to leave.
CULLINS: Yes, and the Italians were happy to accommodate our Navy’s needs. As the Rock approached her second home-porting assignment in Gaeta, CLG Springfield was anxiously awaiting our arrival. Crossdecking was accomplished. Unlike the Japan homeporter crossdecking times, most of the Sixth Fleet flagship crossdeckers that came to us were the married types who liked overseas living, not the single men. From Springfield, we got about 150 people and transferred about half that many to her (they were non-volunteers who had helped us get across the Atlantic). She sailed for home on 31 August. I don't feel we came out very well in the crossdeck exchange, as to numbers. We were headed for a three year deployment while Springfield was headed home for stand-down.
SIEGEL: How far below your authorized manning level were you and how did you feel about the quality of the overseas veteran crossdeckers that you received?
CULLINS: We had sailed with about 800, 75% of whom were ‘volunteers’. Our Allowance was 915. I wanted to wait and see about the crossdeckers. I somewhat mistrust ‘nest builders’, although I can understand those with Italian wives wanting to crossdeck. Ashore – liberty wise – it was a zoo! The first night all hell broke loose in the ‘Gut’ in Gaeta. (“Gut” was the term of endearment applied to the string of sailor bars in one of the back alleys.). Our young black sailors (we had close to 100 as I remember) couldn't find any black clubs or bars, as they were used to, and were roaming in packs around the Gut. Some of our young white sailors, away from boot camp for the first time, clashed with the Italian Carabinieri and the result was that we had a couple of sailors in the Latina provincial prison the next morning, charged with stealing a car. They of course claimed they were only sitting in the car. The Italian system, like in most other European countries, was that you were guilty until proven innocent. So it took some doing to get them released. (The Carabinieri station commander in Gaeta eventually owned up to the fact that this ‘roundup’ was routine for them, in order to get the attention of the new homeporters right away).
SIEGEL: That was a real wakeup call and I'm sure the ready availability of drugs in Gaeta quickly entered the equation.
CULLINS: Yes, we had some frightening drug experiences for awhile. One could buy ‘uppers’, ‘downers’, and ‘greenies’ without prescription in any Italian drug store. Also the Springfield had allowed their mess decks to be open to all sorts of Italian ‘entrepreneurs’ (salesmen, tailors, painters, photographers, cleaners, laundries, leather goods people, etc.) during Gaeta in-port periods, and I had information that drugs were being sold there. So, I kicked them off. An interesting sidelight to this was that right before we went to sea on 11 September, Valaree received a typed note in the mail stating that she would be killed if I didn’t rescind the ban on ‘merchants’ being aboard ship. It was signed “M. Fossi”. Checking with the Carabinieri CO, he said “Yes, it is them”. Naturally I didn't let them back aboard, and for the time we were away at sea, Valaree had police in the bushes around our house every night. (Our Italian house that we rented was in Gaeta itself, on the coastal highway leading to Rome).
SIEGEL: Now that must have been really disquieting. As I remember, your house was in a semi-rural spot surrounded by tomato fields. Was the Sixth Fleet staff any help with this problem?
CULLINS: Many of the staffers lived in other parts of town or in Formia, the next town toward Naples so they weren't nearby our house, and besides, I didn't interact a lot with the staff yet, as we were trying to get everyone settled and provide people to staff the ‘shore establishment’. The Sixth Fleet Chief of Staff (COS) was very understanding during this time. That was not particularly so with the Admiral's wife. Valaree, as a veteran of many deployments, wanted to establish an Officers’ Wives’ Club and an Enlisted Wives’ Club for the ship, mainly for support of the wives while the ship was at sea. She was informed in no uncertain terms that there would be no separation of the ship from the staff as our sole function was to support the staff. (That was an omen of things to come – to a degree). Of course the staff wives had been there for some time and had their own networks for support, and most didn't interact with our ship’s wives very much.
SIEGEL: The cold shoulder can certainly build a ‘them-and-us’ atmosphere that is very prickly. Did you get into this issue with the COS?
CULLINS: Yes, to a degree, but I didn't have much time to focus on shore or morale issues as we were due to sail and the Gaeta ‘shore establishment’, i.e. NSA Det, was doing a yeoman job getting our dependents organized. My immediate problem was tamping down on the drug problem, integrating the Springfield people into our ship’s company, and dealing with ‘culture shock’ by our young sailors.
SIEGEL: What were the main rubs that created the culture shock?
CULLINS: The problem was particularly acute with our young ‘inner city’ blacks who had been swept up in ADM Zumwalt’s zeal to change the racial balance in the Navy. Many of these young men had ‘GCTs’ (General Classification Test scores) way under 50, which had been the long-term standard for enlisting. Plus many, if not most, were high school dropouts. The complaints ranged from no black culture ashore (bars, women etc); the Italian girls wouldn’t date them; Italians would rub their skins to see if the color came off; and the fact that they got stared at all the time. (Stared at mostly, I believe, because of their colorful, and sometimes exotic, dress when on liberty, which in the late 60’s - early 70’s was commonplace among inner city black youth).
SIEGEL: What sort of senior black enlisted leadership did you have, and weren’t they able to help relieve some of the tension?
CULLINS: They were good, but there was as wide a cultural gap between them and the young blacks as there was between our white CPOs and young white sailors. According to the young complainants, their seniors were as much of the problem (“communications”) as was any one of the ill-defined ‘problems’. Later, I’ll describe an ugly situation at sea involving young blacks, where I didn’t see any senior black effort at ‘defusing’ things as they were occurring.
SIEGEL: The Navy had a generational divide that the Zumwalt policies seemed to magnify. What kind of support were you getting from the NSA Det in Gaeta?
CULLINS: It was good, but more oriented to supporting the dependent community than the young sailors. One of the shore problems was that due to past practice, NSA Det wanted more and more people from the ship to support the families. A real “American Ghetto” syndrome had taken over regarding dependent services. The more manpower we gave NSA Det, the more the dependents wanted. While underway, 35 of our crew had to be provided; 7 CPOs / PO1s, 9 lesser POs, and 18 non-rated men. They were used for dependents’ assistance, drivers, mechanics, postal clerks, shore patrol and you name it. When the ship was in port, an additional 47 had to be provided. Also, two officers were assigned, while the ship was both underway and in port. On top of that, the Sixth Fleet staff had their own druthers on our people that included all Communications Department officers (although assigned to the Little Rock ODCR (allowance for the ship), radiomen, communications electronic technicians (ETs) and signalmen. (This was standard procedure for the assigned flagship and went with the territory.). Also, four other line officers had to be sent TAD to the staff for various purposes, plus four enlisted for the COS’s gig, one driver each for the COS/Admiral, three to the print shop, and three to the photo lab area.
SIEGEL: Admiral, as the incoming XO toward the end of your tour, this continuous hemorrhage of ship’s personnel to all manner of ‘special needs’ was a real torment to me.
CULLINS: I thought you’d be a sympathetic listener. Anyway, it was time to go to sea, on 11 September. One of the seldom mentioned delights of a normal deployment from the States is that after the pier side and sortie tears have dried up, invariably sailors’ faces brighten up as they realize they can get on with doing what they have been trained to do without worrying about all the shore-side distractions, as there always has been a significant infrastructure to take care of family problems. They also realize that the invariable inspections by higher command have gone by the board. Not so in the Rock as you were always worried about what was happening back in Gaeta. We were psychologically ready for sea – even though it had only been 10 days or so that we had to get settled. Only a few of the dependents had moved into their permanent homes as most were still in TLA (Temporary Lodging Allowance) hotels. This, of course, was somewhat of a strain for both the dependents and husbands on board. I was ready to shift gears and start getting to readiness state C1 after being C4 (the lowest) as we left Norfolk.
SIEGEL: With all the concern about conditions behind in Gaeta and your crew of reduced size and dubious quality, I expect you approached this challenge with less confidence that in your first cruise in Waddell.
CULLINS: That’s true and on top of that I was to have a few problems of my own. We went to Athens for a few days where I got into trouble. The Admiral had informed me that he preferred civilian black tie for formal occasions (dinners) aboard ship, so I was forced to frantically message back to Washington to a clothier I knew to expedite sending a tuxedo to Athens, care of someone (I forget) where I could pick it up on 14 September. Come the 14th in Athens with a dinner party scheduled that night, hosted by the Admiral on the ship, I departed in my gig for the fleet landing to pick up my tux and meet Valaree, who had flown in. We were then to join the Admiral, with his guests, and return to the ship in his barge. On the way in, I was thrown down with a tremendous jolt as my gig rammed an uncharted concrete block in the harbor. Hard down, we couldn’t move. Frantically, we waved to passing boats – they didn’t see us. After awhile, we saw the barge, probably with Valaree aboard, returning to the ship. Waving did no good. After another fifteen minutes or so, a sailor-filled utility boat, returning to another USN ship in the harbor, stopped and I talked them into returning me to the Rock (without my tux of course). I hurriedly changed to a dress uniform and popped into the flag cabin dinner during the salad course (after the main course in the European style), to explain myself. As you might guess, I got frosty looks from the Admiral. (Ultimately, I got my tuxedo).
SIEGEL: That’s one for the book…a good script for a Hollywood ‘born loser’ comedy. I guess you survived the Admiral's wrath (and Valaree’s admonishments?) to fight again another day.
CULLINS: Since he didn’t relieve me of command, I was still in charge on the 18th when we sailed for Antalya, Turkey for a pre-sail conference followed by about 10 days of participation in Exercise Deep Furrow, which was good training. There were multi ship formations to train JO OODs, lots of refueling, and many opportunities for CIC and weapons people to practice their skills. Thinking back a few years, I was sick and tired of my former CO’s keeping OODs on a one-in-three watch section, (just because John Paul Jones did it) because it either tired people out or they got no work done during the day. So, we ultimately got the LCDRs off the bridge and established a one-in-six rotation, with 12 JOs or WOs (Warrant Officers) so that once a day they stood OOD watch and the next day they were the CICWO (Combat Information Center Watch Officer). The Admiral was good in supporting our training requests (and even better later), wanting as we did to be combat ready in our own right, not just a point-to-point taxi/hotel. (Apparently, this was not the case in former CO/ADM relationships. According to my research, no Sixth Fleet flagship had ever been C1 before).
SIEGEL: You were getting a lot of valuable training and I’m sure your officers appreciated the watch rotation you developed. Did you get any good liberty ports on that trip and how did the crew behave ashore?
CULLINS: Yes, after Deep Furrow it was off to Istanbul (what a history as Constantinople and capital of the Byzantium Empire) for a few enjoyable days. (Some wives were there, including Val). We found a few hash smokers on board and shipped them off, but other than that, the port visit went smoothly. On 5 October, we headed back to Gaeta. BUT, the Mideast blew up with the October War and we were off to join TF 60 in the Eastern Med, rather than back for a needed break in Gaeta. We were really tiring our senior enlisted people where we had a shortage of about 50 in our CPOs/PO1s/PO2s, particularly among our engineers, where we were not above 67% of allowance in any rating.
SIEGEL: Did your task force ops allow for any relaxation in tempo that would permit some slack for your engineers?
CULLINS: Yes, the ops weren’t real intense for us during the October War so the crew fell into a pretty steady routine. At times it was almost humdrum as we basically orbited around in the Eastern Med, as a command center for ComSixthFlt, rather than actually joining a Task Force. We tracked aircraft resupply of the Israelis (the sky to the north on radar was almost a solid mass of aircraft flights going east) and monitored the message traffic. Although I attended the daily flag briefings, and was cleared for SI (Special Intelligence), I was excluded from that part of the daily briefing, so was mostly in the dark about what was going on.
SIEGEL: You’d been at sea for a pretty long, unplanned period. How was the crew morale holding up?
CULLINS: The crew was getting sullen/feisty, particularly the non-rated sailors, as we had been out of Gaeta for almost two months, I got in trouble during this time because seeing how bored our people were, I stopped on a calm day and authorized a ‘swim call’. This got me chewed by the Admiral because, “Don’t you realize there might be a sub out there to sink us if the balloon goes up?” (Not that we were exactly doing radical course/speed changes as we ‘orbited’). So, on the 4th of November, we headed back to Gaeta for two days to offload the Admiral then back to rejoin TF60 again on 8 November for another ten days. The Gaeta two days was a mistake as it just gave the younger sailors a chance to get blind-drunk in the ‘Gut’. You don’t stay out for two months then return for two days and go out again. Surely we could have gotten the Admiral heloed to a carrier, and then flown ashore.
SIEGEL: That wasn’t much more that a ‘kiss and ride’ stop for the married people so they weren’t well served either. So, you went back to sea with a crew that was sea weary and frustrated.
CULLINS: That, unfortunately, is putting it mildly. In the afternoon of the 8th, a black seaman apprentice (SA) struggled with a white seaman (SN) in the mess decks until the scrap was broken up by a Master-at-Arms (MAA). The MAA detected alcohol on the breath of the SA. At about 1845 the same SA initiated a verbal argument with a white seaman recruit (SR) on the mess decks. At about the time of ‘Taps’ (2200), the black SA proceeded to the white SR’s berthing compartment and began a fight with the SR who was in his bunk. The fight was broken up, but the white SR broke loose from restraint, picked up a dogging wrench, and struck the black SA. Word of this incident spread through the compartment and a group of thirteen non-rated black sailors began to move through various berthing compartments, indiscriminately assaulting individual white sailors. The XO and I were notified of this disturbance about 2215.
SIEGEL: That’s a startling report that no skipper ever wants to get. What action did you take?
CULLINS: The Master-at-Arms Force (MAA) force had broken up the initial confrontations and assembled the majority of the dissident blacks on the mess decks. At 2220 I proceeded to the mess decks to discuss the alleged grievances of the assembled black sailors. The XO followed at about 2225. I ordered all officers and CPOs to assemble in their respective messes where they were directed to report to their crew’s berthing areas to ensure order was maintained. Lengthy discussions on the mess decks with the black sailors by the XO and myself followed until we were notified of a pending counter action by a group of assembled white sailors in one of the berthing compartments. The XO departed to meet with these sailors to hear their complaints and quiet their fears. In about 30 minutes the XO returned and continued the discussion with the black sailors while I proceeded to the berthing area to hold discussions with the white sailors. I might mention that the Marine Detachment was on full alert at this time if needed to stop any further rioting.
SIEGEL: Was the Sixth Fleet COS aware of the situation at this point and how was the Marine Det prepared to deal with an expanding riot?
CULLINS: I’m sure he was, although I don’t remember seeing him. The Marine Det was stationed in the starboard passage forward of the mess decks, awaiting a decision to assist in restoring order. A sad commentary was the fact that my trusted black corporal who was one of the two “orderlies” always stationed outside my door, later confided to me that he didn’t know which way he’d jump if the order came to stop the riot of the ‘brothers’. Fortunately, we didn’t need to resort to any Marine involvement. The discussion with the white sailors continued until about 0330, when they turned into their bunks. It turned out that small groups of black sailors had broken away from the mess decks and continued to indiscriminately assault individual white sailors (about 25 ‘assaults’ in one form or another). At about 0430 the last of the belligerent black sailors returned to their bunks.
SIEGEL: Did any serious injuries result from the assaults?
CULLINS: Not really, as I remember. There were some bumps, bruises and a couple of lacerations. At 1500 on 9 November, the black SA, white SR and a Marine PFC, as the principal focal points of tension, were transferred to NSA Naples by helo for custody pending completion of an investigation and possible disciplinary action. A ComSixthFlt staffer who had previous Naval Investigative Service (NIS) experience, conducted a quick investigation, aided by a CVA NIS agent who arrived in the AM of 9 November and a NIS agent from NSA Det. Gaeta who arrived in the AM of 10 November. Six or seven more black sailor suspects were then transferred by helo to NSA Naples.
SIEGEL: Were you getting an idea of what kicked the whole thing off?
CULLINS: Yes. The essence of the black sailors’ complaints in the mess decks discussions were as follows:
SIEGEL: This last gripe you mention, of course, was not in your power to control. So, were the perpetrators held in Naples pending disciplinary action?
CULLINS: No such luck. We of course reported this incident to higher authority. The NIS continued the investigation. In the morning of the 10th, the COS got a call from the Admiral, who had left the ship in Gaeta on the 8th and was somewhere else. The Admiral asking the COS to tell me to have the offloaded ‘rioters’ returned to the ship. I was with the COS during the call and said that I wouldn’t do it – that tempers were so high with the white sailors that we’d have a full-scale riot on our hands. The COS backed me up.
The Admiral also was upset that we had reported the incident to higher authority (as we were required to do!).
SIEGEL: So, common sense prevailed?
CULLINS: Not exactly. We returned to Gaeta on the 18th, and were welcomed, to our dismay, by the seven black sailors who were frolicking on the pier with raised-fist ‘black power’ salutes. Immediately, rumbles started among the white sailors around the bridge level. I told the XO that before anyone left the ship that the MAA force should collect them on the pier and return them to custody in Naples. It just blew our minds that NSA Naples would be so stupid as to let them return to the ship without checking with us first.
SIEGEL: Did the MAA Force accomplish the round-up without a skirmish?
CULLINS: They did; the MAAs were tough and effective. The next week or so was for wrapping up the NIS investigation The XO and ship’s Legal Officer (in close collaboration with the Sixth Fleet Legal Officer) worked out the charges with their recommendation that I convene a special court martial for the (now) thirteen sailors (two white and eleven black).
Then ensued the newspaper articles (mostly quoting the black sailors about racism in the Navy as well as Little Rock). Legal maneuverings began with the arrival of two civilian attorneys for the black sailors. The ‘Little Rock 11’ held a press conference in a Naples hotel. Because of various legal continuations on the part of the accused, the court martial did not convene until right before Christmas. One white Marine and the white SR were convicted of UCMJ Art. 128, Assault.
SIEGEL: Only the whites were convicted; what of the blacks?
CULLINS; At that point, yes, but prior to that time I was visited by one of the attorneys for those accused, a Robert S. Rivkin of the “Lawyers Defense Committee”, who told me that if I didn’t drop the charges against the black sailors, he would “See my name spread all over the world’s media!”. To which I replied “Be my guest!”, and reported the conversation to higher authority. The substance of the lawyer’s requests and legal maneuverings was intended to get me disqualified as the court martial convening authority. Their claim was that I was so personally involved in the incidents and to “have such a personal stake in the outcome of the cases” that I should be disqualified, and a higher authority such as Commander-in-Chief, U.S. Naval Forces Europe (CincUSNavEur) should do the job. If I failed to agree, they would call me as a witness on a motion to direct re-referral of the charges. The trial counsel, plus other local Navy lawyers, disagreed, saying that our activities to date showed official interest only and therefore I should not be disqualified.
SIEGEL: So things were going your way and the trial could proceed?
CULLINS: No, the case dragged on. I hung in there and went to Naples and got grilled by the court for five hours. There were claims of ‘mystery erasures’ of prosecution witness tapes. The trials were separated into eleven separate trials. One of the continuations was when Rivkin stated that there was possible electronic surveillance of his discussions with another LDC lawyer, a William H. Schaap, in Rome. There was the usual legal battle of wits on a series of defense motions. They also tried to disqualify the Navy judge because he was the assistant director of the Naval Law Center in Naples. The trial judge in Naples disagreed with the lawyers’ motion to take away my convening authority so they appealed it to the Court of Military Appeals (COMA). (By the way, those maneuverings relieved those charged from any form of restraint or confinement).
Incidentally, an interesting sidelight is that I took my only leave in Little Rock from 2-6 Jan ’74, to go back to Columbia, SC where my son Dick was getting married. The Admiral grilled the COS over the phone (he was elsewhere again) as to “what was the real reason for my returning to the States?”
SIEGEL: What a mess. I guess you were getting pretty worn down by then.
CULLINS: Yes, but I sort of tuned out all of this, as we had things to do. Priorities were repairing the atmosphere between the blacks and whites; getting a W & R program started to give the sailors something else to do than drink, fight or do drugs; and paying some attention to my ‘mayoral’ duties in Gaeta.
SIEGEL: I’m sure that was a welcome change of pace. What of the decision by COMA on your convening authority?
CULLINS: The second attorney, William H. Schaap, citing time, manpower and expense plus the possible impact of being at sea during the trial, did send me a letter essentially stating that his office would drop the COMA appeal if I would agree to a Summary Court Martial for the (now 10) black sailors, so that a Bad Conduct Discharge could not be awarded. I would not agree, so it was up to COMA. At least these ‘bad actors’ were gone and we had very few incidents (all quite minor and the result of drinking) during the rest of the deployment.
SIEGEL: Admiral, that’s good to hear. I think we should wrap up this session on that happy note. I look forward to hearing the continuing story of your Med deployment and, of course, the final disposition of the courts martial of the dissident black sailors.
CULLINS: Fine, Kent. I’ll be ready to regale you when next we talk.
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The portion of RADM Cullins' Oral History pertaining to his time on board the USS Little Rock CLG 4 is presented in several segments, chronologically arranged. You have just finished reading Segment 8. Click below to go to any other segment or to go to the Introduction.