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In the strange case of Lieutenant Commander Marcus Aurelius Arnheiter, did fact emulate fiction, or did fiction presage the facts?
By William Scheck
If fiction often draws on fact, the reverse is also true. There have been cases where fiction has been the basis of action and has foreshadowed things to come. For example, the widely read 1925 novel "The Great Pacific War", by Hector Bywater, was used as the blueprint for Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto's attack on Pearl Harbor as well as his operational planning during World War II. Yamamoto lectured extensively on that book at Japanese military schools. Bywater's exhaustively researched novel became a slavishly followed outline for war against the United States.
In 1951, former naval officer Herman Wouk completed his novel "The Caine Mutiny". The book swiftly became a bestseller, as well as the basis for a stage play and a successful motion picture. Wouk's fictional mutiny was not in the classic style, in which a rebellious crew takes over a ship. Instead, USS Caine suffered a "virtual mutiny," in, which support from the commander's junior officers eroded to the point where control slipped from his hands. A strikingly similar situation developed on a destroyer escort named USS Vance while the ship was on station off the coast of South Vietnam in 1965-66. As a result, Lt. Cmdr. Marcus Arnheiter was relieved of duty and his career was crippled.
Mutinous activity occurred on several occasions in the Royal Navy-most notably in 1795 at Spithead, off the Isle of Wight, when an uprising was put down by benign negotiation and followed by brutal punishment. The single recorded successful mutiny in the Royal Navy took place aboard HMS Bounty in 1789. The Imperial German High Seas Fleet underwent a mutiny in 1918, as World War I was drawing to a close. A bizarre aspect of the German mutiny was that the ships involved were not at sea but in their homeport. The only recorded, and somewhat questionable, mutiny on a U.S. Navy ship at sea occurred aboard the brig Somers in 1842, after which two midshipmen were hanged for "acts of mutiny."
Andrew Allen Harwood frequently dealt with mutiny in his definitive work "The Law and Practices of U.S. Naval Courts Martial", published in 1867. Harwood focused on conspiracy as the key element in a mutiny, noting that conspiracy required more than a single person.
A legal definition of mutiny was established by Lt. Cmdr. William Winthrop in his "Military Law - 1886". When he authored the book, Winthrop was serving as professor of law at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. Disrespect or violence done to a superior officer, defiance of his orders and threats directly against him or voiced at protest meetings were offenses in and of themselves. But according to Winthrop, none of those actions constituted mutiny unless they were deliberately done to "usurp, subvert- or override military authority."
In the British forces, Winthrop's equivalent jurist was S.T Banning, who wrote that a single person, however insubordinate, could not commit a mutiny. Banning's theory of "collective insubordination" is the basis for Section 8 of Britain's Naval Discipline Act. However, Article 94 of the American Uniform Code of Military justice (UCMJ) provides that a single person can be convicted of mutiny. It states, "Any person subject to this chapter who, with intent to usurp or override lawful military authority, refuses in concert with any other person, to obey orders or otherwise to do his duty or creates any violence or disturbance is guilty of mutiny."
The UCMJ changed the concept of mutiny previously defined in Section 46 of Naval Courts and Boards, which stated that while mutiny did not require concerted action, "it will be rare that this is lacking." Somewhat different was the U.S. Army's 66th Article of War, which held that "mutiny necessarily includes some combination of two or more persons." The UCMJ, introduced after World War II, cleared the way for a prosecution for mutiny without concert of action being present. Thus, the entire concept of mutiny was redefined in the years following World War II, and it was tested in the turbulent years of the 1960s.
USS Vance was a destroyer escort, hull No. 387 of the Edsal class, built in Houston, Texas, in 1943. After hard service with the Atlantic Fleet during World War II, she was redeployed and assigned to the Pacific Fleet. On the smallish side, 306 feet long and 37 feet wide, Vance could give a rough ride. She had an authorized complement of 220 officers and enlisted men. Vance was under staffed, nevertheless, and she was crowded by the recent installation of new communications and surveillance equipment. The vessel had been refitted after returning from her first Vietnam patrol in the Gulf of Tonkin, and she was required to be back on station without delay.
Lieutenant Commander Marcus Aurelius Arnheiter took command on December 22, 1965. Arnheiter had graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy with midclass standing. As his career progressed, he received some less- than-outstanding fitness reports, which delayed his promotions. When he was assigned to Vance at age 41, he was one of the oldest officers in the Navy at his rank, and he had a burning ambition to rectify that situation.
Arnheiter came from a distinguished family. His grandfather, Baron von Arn- heiter, was an aviation pioneer, and his father was an accomplished musician. Marcus himself had written a novel, "Shadow of Peril", published by Doubleday & Company, that dealt with incidents aboard a Soviet submarine.
Arnheiter was promoted to lieutenant in 1956. He spent the early 1960s in the Pentagon, working on antisubmarine warfare plans. He had a reputation for brashness. He also had a flair for verbal criticism and was known for his stubbornness and considerable ego.
Based on a superior report in his personnel file and the endorsement of his former commanding officer, Captain Richard G. Alexander, the Navy's Ship Command Board cleared Arnheiter for command. However, the chief of Naval Operations endorsed the approval with the proviso, "The board having decided in your favor, albeit with reservations." It seemed clear that Arnheiter's superiors considered him capable within certain limitations.
Vance sailed for the Vietnam coast on December 28, 1965. Although the ship was cramped and the crew was tired, her new commander was ambitious. Lieutenant Commander Arnheiter appeared competent enough to the crew, though he exhibited some eccentricities. Early on, he ordered the replacement of a black toilet seat in his quarters with a white one. For some reason, the ship's executive officer, Lieutenant Ray S. Hardy, was embarrassed by the order, and that started a series of jokes circulating around the ship. Arnheiter also began to tighten discipline in the wardroom, insisting upon neat dress and correct table etiquette. He had a strong dislike for coffee stains and spilled ashes, and he also protested the pinup pictures from girlie magazines plastered on the bulkheads.
Vance had earned a reputation as a slack ship under her previous commanding officer, Commander Ross W, Wright. Wright was a personable and easygoing individual, popular with his junior officers and with many of the enlisted personnel, but most of the petty officers regarded him as less than forceful in certain areas. The crew had become known for its unkempt appearance, and the ship reportedly was infested with cockroaches. Arnheiter felt he had to stiffen the demeanor of the ship's company in general, and the junior officers in particular. In so doing, however, he displayed several characteristics similar to those of Wouk's literary character, Lt. Cmdr. Philip Francis Queeg of USS Caine.
Arnheiter felt he had to stiffen the demeanor of the ship's company In general, and the junior officers in particular
Arnheiter told his crew on many occasions that he would "take them where the action was." As part of his preparations, he acquired a secondhand fiberglass speedboat to augment the ship's assigned single-motor whaleboat. He used the ship's recreational funds to buy the power boat an action that in itself could have been sufficient to justify Arnheiter's relief. Surprisingly enough, the enlisted men serving aboard Vance seemed to have no great difficulty with his directives, and his disciplinary actions touching them were few and minimal in nature. But among the junior officers an underlying tension was developing.
On December 28, 1965, USS Vance departed for duty in the South China Sea as part of Operation Market Time. The operation's mission was to screen South Vietnam's coastal waters against VC infiltration. A major supply line for the VC and NVA was a seemingly endless series of sampans running the coastal gantlet and delivering cargo to myriad concealed inlets.
As part of the preparations for her forth coming deployment off the coast of South Vietnam, Vance took aboard a supply of empty oil drums and sandbags during a stop at Guam. After departing Guam, Arnheiter ordered the crew to undertake small-arms target practice, with 30-man teams using stacked sandbags as improvised parapets and firing at floating empty drums,
Arnheiter's alleged peculiarities started to emerge during the first leg of the cruise. One consisted of having the crew awakened in the morning by a fife-and-drum reveille, rather than the customary bosun's call. The new reveille was called "Hellcats' Reveille." Arnheiter also established a "boner box" in the wardroom for officers errors, which included failure to maintain proper dress or permitting lax discipline in their divisions. Officers were fined 25 cents for each infraction, and the offenders were not happy when they had to pay fines. The captain also issued detailed operations orders at the wardroom table, and he was always ready to berate or fine junior officers for trivial matters, such as misplacing cutlery. Vance's officers began to avoid the wardroom and the captain's lectures.
Initially, the tightening of discipline was accepted, albeit grudgingly, by the junior officers. But when the captain went on to initiate "character-building sessions", his crew began comparing Arnheiter's behavior to that of Captain Queeg of "The Caine Mutiny". These sessions were held on the fantail and usually commenced with "Prayers at Sea," taken directly from a U.S. Naval Institute manual. Arnheiter normally followed with an address, touching upon the heritage of figures like Stonewall Jackson, George Washington or George Patton. The sessions closed with the rendering of "Eternal Father, Strong to Save," a familiar hymn without reference to any specific religious persuasion. These apparently innocent meetings became the match that set the powder train afire.
The real trouble started with the operations officer, Lieutenant William T Generous. His complaint, which he privately discussed with his colleagues, was that he believed the sessions were thinly disguised Protestant services. One of the sessions was conducted by the executive officer, Lieutenant Hardy, standing in for Arnheiter. Hardy spoke of God and the universe, but no hymns were sung. Nevertheless, Generous took umbrage and wrote a letter of complaint, addressed to Arnheiter but handed to Hardy for delivery. Hardy declined to forward the letter to Arnheiter and advised Generous to "seek counsel off ship." A minor wardroom murmur began to escalate on January 23, 1966, however, when Generous filed a letter of complaint with the Catholic chaplain at Pearl Harbor.
Generous had graduated from Brown University and had earned his commission through the Reserve Officers' Training Corps. His service record was good, but it contained an entry that he once had suffered a "temporary emotional disorder." His illness had been treated on an outpatient basis in the psychiatric section of the naval hospital at Camp Pendleton, Calif. He was admitted after an incident in which he allegedly struck his girlfriend repeatedly during a quarrel.
Generous was an introspective type who nursed his grievances. He later wrote that his concern for his family kept him from skipping the character-building sessions. He apparently believed that his right to challenge an order he deemed improper followed from the principles of the Nuremberg trials, which he believed had defined and explained the loyalty a military person must show his superior.
Generous' grievances continued to simmer as Vance entered the coastal waters of Vietnam. At one point the ship sent a heavily armed landing party ashore to investigate a group of Vietnamese. As it turned out, they were refugees from a distant village that had been hit by an air strike. The landing party withdrew, but the review of the after-action reports resulted in Arnheiter's being commended for his "alert and aggressive action." Generous, however, concluded that the operation had been unwarranted, and he recorded the incident in a file he began keeping on Arnheiter.
Meanwhile, the letter written by Generous began to generate action. The investigation of the complaint was assigned to Lieutenant George Dando, a Presbyterian minister who had been in active naval service just under six months. Dando visited the ship and, after a short conversation with the commander, advised the officers to draw up court-martial charges against Arnheiter. Dando also spoke with a group of chief petty officers who generally supported Arnheiter's actions. Based on his limited experience, Dando concluded that the chief petty officers were lying in their support for the captain. The chaplain filed the report of his findings with Captain Donald Milligan, commander of Destroyer Squadron 7 at Subic Bay.
There were apparently other unsettling incidents that took place while Vance was on station off Vietnam's coast. The vessel had once strayed into the area of responsibility of USS Mason and interfered with its gunnery while Mason had been firing in support of the 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile). In February 1966, Mason's commander filed a report asserting that, in addition to interfering with a fire support mission, Vance had expended useless firepower shelling sand dunes and rocks.
Generous also claimed that Arnheiter sent false position reports to the Navy Coastal Surveillance Center at Qui Nhon. None of the filed reports, however, generated any official action.
During one gunnery mission, Arnheiter, wearing a helmet and an ivory-handled revolver, reportedly ducked behind a splinter shield when ricochets began to fly. That prompted another round of disparaging remarks among the junior officers. During another mission, Arnheiter allegedly failed to issue orders to the helmsman to change course. The record kept by Generous noted that the executive officer had to rush to the bridge to order a change of course to avoid running the vessel aground.
Generous began calling the captain "Mad Marcus." That nickname spread when Generous enlisted Ensign Louis Belmonte in his campaign. Generous advised Belmonte to begin listing the captain's peculiarities in a "Mad Marcus Log." Belmonte ultimately compiled 58 pages in his log. The actions of the junior officers on USS Vance were rapidly beginning to mirror those of the fictional USS Caine.
Arnheiter eventually got wind of Generous' actions. He later stated that he felt some of his officers at that point began their "conspiracy to mutiny." Meanwhile, Generous, increasingly distraught about the situation on the ship, frequently was disciplined by the captain for minor infractions. He wrote in his diary that he was in "constant hot water for weeks," Belmonte noted in his diary that the ship was a "concentration camp." In what was becoming a favorite form of entertainment, the officers found ways of mocking their commander, circulating disrespectful cartoons among the crew. Generous began composing and singing disrespectful songs, accompanying himself on a ukulele.
Throughout that period, no complaints were registered by the enlisted men regarding the quality of food, excessive work hours or lack of shore leave. Swimming and beer parties were organized from time to time for the crew. The men seemed to shrug off the eccentricities of their captain in good humor. Enlisted men who made any jokes regarding the captain most likely were following the "lamentable example of the junior officers".
Eventually Chaplain Dando's detailed report was reviewed by Arnheiter's superiors. Dando had noted, "When Arnheiter is at the conn he is a menace." He also stated that there had been a misuse of funds and that false reports had been submitted. He said that Arnheiter did not "appear to be as stable as an officer should be for command, and he needs help." Dando also felt competent enough to observe that Arnheiter did not know the ship as he should - a bold observation on the part of a chaplain with only six months service. His report of February 28, 1966, stated that the morale aboard Vance was the lowest of any ship he had ever visited. Apparently no one ever asked how many ships he had visited and evaluated during his six months of active duty.
Based on Dando's findings, Captain Milligan requested authority from the Bureau of Naval Personnel to relieve Arnheiter. On March 31, 1966, 99 days after assuming command of USS Vance, Arnheiter was notified of his relief. After Arnheiter's departure, Generous and others continued to circulate spurious documents, ridiculing their former commanding officer-a clear violation of Article 1404 of U.S. Navy Regulations. Upon hearing that Arnheiter was being relieved, Generous, in the presence of enlisted men, shouted: "Liberation! Liberation!"
Formal charges and complaints normally would be prepared prior to such drastic action as relieving a ship's commander. In this case, a hearing was held at Subic Bay by a single officer, Captain Ward W. Witter, to deal with more than 40 allegations against Arnheiter. The hearing lasted six days. Witter described the bulk of the charges as a "new kind of mutiny designed for the modern navy," but in the end Witter recommended that Arnheiter never again be given naval command "either ashore or afloat."
Meanwhile, many reports favorable to Arnheiter were submitted by the enlisted personnel of Vance. Petty Officer 2nd Class Matthews stated, "Ship was infested with vermin, crew sloppy when Lt. Cmdr. Arnheiter came aboard and all this changed." Seaman Himelbaugh stated, "He was a competent commander and deserved the respect of the crew." Radionan Striker Burkholder attested, "The captain looked out for the crew." Chief Yeoman Young testified, "He conducted an effective leadership and character-guidance program." But anti-Arnheiter reports made by other enlisted men weighed more heavily in the balance than the favorable reports.
The results of the hearing were reviewed by Rear Adm. Walter H. Baumberger, the commander of Cruiser/Destroyer Forces Pacific. Baumberger, who was based at San Diego, Calif., where Arnheiter had been assigned after his relief, dismissed all but three of the charges, and those remaining were relatively minor. Baumberger and several retired admirals apparently considered Arnheiter a victim of the sort of radical, pacifist and generally unwholesome spirit then manifest in college campus riots and anti-war demonstrations throughout the United States.
Armed with affidavits from Vance's enlisted personnel, Arnheiter charged his former junior officers with "mutiny and conspiracy to commit mutiny." Baumberger advised Arnheiter to withdraw the charges, however, and Admiral Benedict J. Semmes, chief of the Bureau of Naval Personnel, privately advised Arnheiter to prepare for a different career.
But Arnheiter was tenacious. On September 1, 1966, he filed a report citing "additional evidence concerning subversion, mutinous activities, and conditions aboard the USS Vance before, during, and after my command." He charged that subordinate officers had "covertly sabotaged" his efforts to rehabilitate USS Vance and her crew. An affidavit from several of Vance's petty officers stated: "This trouble was people had been too used to being lazy, and not wanting to change. As soon as Arnheiter left the ship, everything slumped again."
Congressman Joseph Y. Resnick initiated a congressional hearing to review the situation. Resnick was convinced that Arnheiter had been railroaded. During a May 1968 hearing, 85 U.S. representatives signed a petition calling for Arnheiter to have his day in court.
It was to little avail. In confirmation of Arnheiter's relief, 20 recommendations for awards for bravery that he had submitted were subsequently rejected and returned without action.
Although he had the benefit of wide support, Arnheiter was subsequently assigned to minor staff positions. The issue was swept under the rug. None of the junior officers who had accused him remained in the Navy.
Captain Richard Alexander was one officer who tried to help his former subordinate, but he paid a heavy price. Alexander had been designated to become the commander of USS New Jersey, the single battleship being recommissioned for the Vietnam War. That assignment was to be the peak of his career. Six weeks after his testimony in support of Arnheiter, Alexander was reassigned to the Boston Naval District.
During the Vietnam era, the findings of the Nuremberg Tribunal were subject to endless review, and their application became cloudy. In many circles, the Nuremberg principles were accepted as supporting the actions of the junior officers of USS Vance. The actual effect, however, was to trivialize the Nuremberg principles and provide a cover for poor behavior. The UCMJ of today has been modified and clarified in regard to the word "lawful" preceding "military authority."
In the Persian Gulf War of 1991, an officer claimed the right to disobey the order assigning him to a combat zone. The defense he raised was that the Nuremberg principles required a member of the United States armed forces to disobey an order he or she considered unlawful. His action could perhaps best be described as classic guardhouse lawyer jurisprudence. Today, the U.S. Manual for Courts,Martial states that "an order requiring the performance of a military duty or act may be inferred to be lawful and it is disobeyed at the peril of the subordinate. Inference does not apply to a patently illegal order." A patently illegal order is one such as ordering troops to kill unarmed civilians or to participate in theft.
The failure of officers to assist in maintaining discipline and good order, coupled with the paucity of support for Arnheiter, may have contributed to later incidents of sabotage and disobedience that plagued the aircraft carriers Kitty Hawk and Constellation in 1972. During the Vietnam era, commanders were reluctant to order courts martial in their organizations - no matter how well deserved - in order to avoid actions that could have been detrimental to their own careers. Their lack of decisive action cast a long shadow over the U.S. military, resulting in a severe degradation of discipline. It took many years to repair the breakdown in the military discipline of the U.S. armed forces.
Arnheiter retired from the U.S. Navy on February 1, 1971. Generous was discharged in 1967. He subsequently dabbled in anti-war activities and continued his education at Stanford University. Belmonte considered staying in the Navy, but he, too, left after one additional year of service.
The USS Vance affair was certainly influenced by the social turbulence of the 1960s, but it also mirrored the events aboard the fictional USS Caine. The striking simiilarity of the incidents on these two ships is so obvious it makes it difficult not to believe that at least some of the individuals involved were playing out roles they had read of or had seen in the film.
William Scheck served in the U.S. Army, the
Air National Guard and the U.S. Maritime
Service, retiring as a lieutenant colonel . For additional reading, see:
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