The Presidio “Mutiny”

The New Republic, July 5, 1969

Fort Ord, California

THERE WERE TEARS and shouts of joy outside the barren one-room courthouse on the afternoon of June 7.  Four­teen GI’s charged with mutiny for conducting a peace­ful sit-down demonstration last October at the San Francisco Presidio stockade had just been given light — by Army standards — sentences.  Two of the fourteen had been found guilty of lesser crimes than mutiny and sentenced to three and six months additional confine­ment.  Of the twelve convicted of mutiny, Private Richard Gentile, a Vietnam veteran, was rewarded for his year of battle duty with a sentence of only six months at hard labor.  Others, whom the Army tagged as lead­ers of the mutinous cabal, were let off with just fifteen more months in the brig.  To add to the euphoric feel­ings, Lt. Col. Richard Potter, president of the five-man court-martial panel, assured the prisoners, “You fellows pull yourselves together and you’ll be home for Christmas.”

Mounting public pressure was responsible for the shorter sentences imposed upon the latest batch of “mutineers” to be court-martialed.  (The first three demonstrators to be tried received sentences of 14, 15 and 16 years confinement, subsequently reduced by the Judge Advocate General’s office in Washington to two years each.)  And perhaps some of them would be home for Christmas, if they could withstand the strain of more dismal months inside an Army stockade.  But the reason these young men were on trial in the first place was that they could not play the cover-your-ass games demanded of them by the Army.  Each of them, sooner or later in their military experiences, had cracked, gone AWOL, and been thrown in the Presidio stockade.

Some had lasted longer than others.  Private Gentile, 20, of Hampton, Va., had served a year as a rear-door helicopter machine-gunner in Vietnam, where his best buddy was killed when he stepped on a land mine right in front of him.  Back in the states, Gentile went off base one Saturday to participate in a peace march and was thrown into the Presidio stockade.  Shortly thereafter, he attempted suicide by slitting his fore­arm with a razor.

Private Roy Pulley, 19, of Lakeport, Cal., enlisted in the Army in 1968 after being assured by his recruiter he would be trained in fixed-wing aircraft maintenance.  His father was critically ill, his mother was crippled, but the chance to learn a trade enticed Pulley to leave his family.  He got through basic, only to discover he would then be trained not as an aircraft mechanic but as a helicopter machine-gunner.  His home situation worsened, he began taking LSD and finally went AWOL.  He was caught and tossed into the Presidio stockade.

Private Larry Sales, 21, of Modesto, Cal., had just been released from a state mental hospital.  He thought it would be a good idea to join the Army to “get straight­ened out. “ After one day of basic at Fort Lewis, Washington, Sales realized he had made a great mistake.  He ran AWOL to his family, tried unsuccess­fully to commit suicide, was taken to the Presidio where he attempted once again to put an end to his life.

Private Danny Seals, 21, from Auburn, Cal., was mildly retarded mentally from a childhood brain in­jury.  Drafted as one of “McNamara’s 100,000,” he sought to become a medic, flunked the course, then went AWOL in a fit of despondency.

Each of the other Presidio “mutineers” court-mar­tialed at Fort Ord had backgrounds different only in detail from Gentile, Pulley, Sales and Seals.  One was a drifter, aban­doned by his parents.  He had tried to find himself in the Haight-Ashbury before join­ing the Army.  Another was an orphan and an American In­dian.  The mother of another married twelve different men in fifteen years.  The fathers of several more were alco­holics or mentally unstable, often cruel personalities.  A few, like Gentile, had acquired a wholly apolitical distaste for killing (Gentile stunned the court-martial panel by read­ing from his personal Bible a passage from St. Matthew: “Blessed are the peacemakers…”), but none could be said to be part of the Movement, much less rioters or mutineers intent on seizing control of a stockade.  Yet in the warped minds of the Army brass, these lonely, disturbed runaways were associated with dangerous, fuzzy-thinking campus trouble-makers.  There would be no disrespect for authority in the Army.  No, Sir.

BEHIND THE REBELLION in the Presidio stockade is a broad range of problems that reflect rather damagingly on the way the Army is run: the way it recruits its manpower, the way it treats its misfits, the way it han­dles grievances, the way it dispenses justice.  Except that their breaking points are lower than most people’s, the GI’s charged with mutiny at the Presidio represent a fair cross-section of the popula­tion strata that pro­vide most of the warm bodies for the Army.  Of the fourteen tried at Fort Ord, all came from small towns or me­dium-sized cities.  All but one was unable to finish high school.  None came from wealthy, well-educated or established families.  Their average age was 19.

Like many high-school dropouts, several of the fourteen joined the Army after being prom­ised useful voca­tional training: Pulley was to be trained in aircraft maintenance; Private Danny Wilkins, 19, of Safford, Ariz., had signed for computer training; Private Stephen Rowland, 21, of St. Louis, the only high school graduate, enlisted to be train­ed as an occupa­tional therapist.  None received the assignments they had expected, nor did being yelled at by drill sergeants help make them into “real men,” as some had been led to believe.  Other youths with stronger egos might have been able to adjust to these disappointments; the “mutineers’” response was to run away.

In civilian life, running away from a stress situation is usually ignored by society, or when heeded, is ap­proached with therapy in mind.  In the Army, running away is looked at as a disciplinary, if not criminal, challenge to be met with punishment.  As the Vietnam war has mounted and draft rates have corresponding­ly risen, the Army’s AWOL problem has grown apace.  (A recent Senate Armed Services Committee report disclosed that 208,893 GI’s went AWOL or deserted last year.)  The Army’s response has not been, as in the past, to let obviously disturbed misfits be dis­charged, but to throw them into stockades that are now full past the bursting point with mis­er­able, mal­adjusted soldiers.

The San Francisco Presidio stockade, while prob­ably worse than others, is a reflection of the entire system.  Building 1213, which contains virtually all of the cellblocks, is a white stucco structure, with a good view of the Bay, which was built in 1912 to accom­mo­date 43 persons.  The normal capacity of building 1213, by the Army’s current standards, is 88 persons.  Capt. Robert Lamont, the 25-year-old stockade command­er, testified that for 54 days preceding the October 14 demonstration, the prisoner popu­lation exceeded a hundred.  On the day of the so-called mutiny itself, there were 123 prisoners jammed into Building 1213.

“The tension brought on by being unable to move without dodging other prisoners is enormous,” says one ex-GI who was formerly an inmate of the Presidio stockade.  Beyond the inevitable anxieties created by stuffing large numbers of people into a small space, there were other continual annoyances.  The antiquated building had only four latrines; to go to the bathroom or to take a shower, a prisoner frequently had to wait for more than two hours.  Much of the time the latrines were backed up with filth or excrement.

When the population in the stockade rose above emergency levels, food would become scarce.  In the weeks prior to the sit-down demonstration, food in the stockade had to be rationed.  Those at the end of the chow line were lucky if they got half a cup of milk and a cheese sandwich.

Added to the physical discomforts of the stock­ade were constant instances of harass­ment by some of the guards.  Early in the summer, one inmate was dragged down the stairs in such a manner as to have his head hit every step, apparently because he didn’t set out of bed quickly enough.  A sick GI was forced to stand at attention in the cold despite his pleas that he was very ill and an epileptic; he suffered a seizure while undergoing this treatment.  Another time, guards fired at prisoners with water pistols filled with urine.  Conversations among black prisoners were broken up by guards with such comments as, “What’s this, a Black Panther meeting?”

Perhaps the most barbaric practice at the Presidio stockade was not a result of indivi­dual guards’ misbe­having but of official policy.  Inmates who unsuccess­fully attempted suicide were punished by being thrown into “segregation” — 6-by-5 foot black-walled cells with cold cement floors and no mattresses, cots or blankets.  One of the prisoners who kept track of such things counted 33 suicide attempts by 21 prison­ers in a six-month period prior to last October.  The tech­niques varied.  Some GI’s drank chrome polish, lye or other poisons; some slashed their wrists or forearms; some tried hanging.  One prisoner, Private Ricky Lee Dodd, 21, of Hayward, Cal., slit his forearm with a razor, was bandaged and sent to “the box,” where he proceeded to hang himself on his bandages.  He was pronounced dead-on-arrival at Letterman Army Hos­pital, and is alive today only because a disbelieving doctor succeeded in resuscitating him.

The Army’s attitude, as stated by Presidio psychia­trists during the court-martial, was that these repeated suicide attempts were merely “gestures” designed to trick the Army into transferring prisoners into the hospital.  Shrewdly, the Army saw through these ma­neuvers and demonstrated to the troublemakers that such ploys would not work.

Throughout this period, there was virtually no way the prisoners could make their grievances felt.  In the­ory, a prisoner desiring to see a psychiatrist, lawyer or stockade official, needed only fill out a DD-510 form.  GI’s in the Presidio stockade submitted literally scores of such forms.  Somehow, though, the docu­ments had a way of getting lost at the bottom of the command chain, and very few of the requested con­sultations ever occurred.

Given the conditions within the stockade and the nature of the prisoner population, it was not surpris­ing that a tense, combustible situation existed for some time before the “mutiny.”  In July, a prisoner went on an extended hunger strike; he was placed in segrega­tion.  Later in the summer, rumors seeped out that there had been minor dis­turbances in the stockade: struggles with guards, the smashing of windows, the throw­ing of garbage.  Many inmates tried to escape.

THE SPARK that ignited the October 14 demonstra­tion was the killing by a guard of 19-year-old Private Richard Bunch, a frail, boyish-faced brooder whom everyone inside the stockade knew was insane.

Bunch got through the first year of his Army duty with no apparent problems.  Then he was transferred to Fort Lewis and something went wrong.  He went AWOL, wandered through Haight-Ashbury on drugs, then turned up at his mother’s home in Dayton, Ohio.  Mrs. Bunch scarcely recognized her own son.  He bab­bled that he had died twice and been reincarnated as a warlock.  She tried to have him hospitalized for psy­chiatric treatment but no institution would accept an AWOL GI.  In desperation she called the Army and received a written promise that her son would receive psychi­atric care.  Instead, he was thrown into the stock­ade, first at Fort Meade, Md., then at the Presidio.

It didn’t take long for Bunch’s fellow-inmates to realize he was mentally deranged.  Bunch would sit on his bunk in a lotus position and mumble about his re­incarnations.  He would announce that he could walk through walls, and then he would walk into them.  At night the whole stockade would be awakened by Bunch’s frantic screams.

One day in October, Bunch asked a prisoner to rec­ommend a fool-proof method of committing suicide.  The prisoner suggested running away from a shotgun detail.  On Friday, October 11, while on a shotgun detail, Bunch asked a guard, “If I run will you shoot me?”  The guard replied, “You’ll have to run to find out.”  Bunch requested the guard to shoot at his head, then skipped away directly in front of him.  He had gone barely thirty feet when the guard killed him with a shotgun blast straight at his back.  No one had heard the guard yell “Halt. “

When word of the shooting reached the stockade, the prisoners could barely contain their fury.  Someone walked over to Bunch’s bunk and found a hand-writ­ten note that said, “Fuck it, it ain’t worth living.”  Stockade officials quickly declared the shooting a “jus­tifiable homicide.”  To the prisoners it was the last straw in a long train of cruelties that threatened their sanity and now, they thought, their lives.  In their agi­tated state, some inmates talked of killing a guard or burning down the stockade.  By Sunday night, pas­sions had cooled enough for the prisoners to agree upon a nonviolent, orderly demonstration the follow­ing morning.  The idea was to sit down until someone listened to their grievances.

A list was drawn up with seven main demands: elimination of shot­gun details, com­plete psychological evaluations of all prisoners and guards, elimination of racist guards, rotation of guards to prevent the build-up of antagonisms (guards worked twelve-hour shifts with nine days on and three days off), better sanitary facilities, decent food in suf­fi­­cient quantities, and a chance to tell the press the pris­oners’ version of Bunch’s slaying.  Surely, they be­lieved, if only those in authority could know what was realty going on in the Presidio stockade, help would be quickly forthcoming.  Human beings couldn’t be treated this way; Americans couldn’t be treated this way.  If only people knew…

Monday morning at 7:30, twenty-seven prisoners broke from the roll-call formation, sat down in the grassy area of the stockade and asked to see Capt. Lamont, the stock­ade com­mand­er.  Lamont arrived, accompanied by a fire truck and an Army photo­grapher who circled the demonstrators, taking pictures from all angles.  Private Walter Pawlowski, one of the three “mutineers” who has since escaped to Canada, stood up and started to read the fist of grievances.

Lamont was not interested in grievances.  He had been tipped in advance about the demonstration and was interested only in mutiny.  He walked over to a loudspeaker in an MP patrol car and proceeded to recite Article 94 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice, the mutiny article.  Then he ordered the demonstrators back to Building 1213.

The prisoners didn’t budge.  They remained in a circle, chanting for the press, for freedom, and for Terence Hallinan, a young San Francisco attorney with several clients in the stockade.  They sang “Amer­ica the Beautiful,” “This Land is My Land,” and “We Shall Overcome.”  They flashed the V sign.

After about forty minutes, Lamont turned to the chief of the fire truck — a civilian and requested him to hose down the demonstrators.  The fireman refused.  Lamont then ordered MP’s to escort the demon­strators back to their cellblocks.  According to an Army fact sheet, “no force was required other than physical­ly carrying some of the prisoners off.”  The Army pho­tographer had to admit it was a “very moving demon­stration.”

Dr. Price Cobbs, co-author of Black Rage, sub­sequently examined several of the prisoners.  “They reacted like black people,” he said.  “They sat down and sang ‘We Shall Overcome.’ That was probably the first time in their lives they had ever sung that song.  They reacted in a nonviolent fashion, like Martin Luther King.”

Nonviolent or not, the deed at the Presidio had been done and the wheels of Army “justice” quickly began to spin.  Under the UCMJ — the US military code adopted in George Washington’s day from the British Articles of War and revised only minimally since then — the commanding officer of a soldier’s unit brings the charges against him, appoints military counsel, selects the court-martial panel (jury), and even approves or disapproves of the verdict and sentences levied.  In the case of the San Francisco Presidio, headquarters for the U.S. Sixth Army, the commanding officer is Lt. Gen. Stanley Larsen, a three-star general whose rapid ascent in the ranks was much the envy of his fellow-officers.  (They’re not so envious any more: Larsen’s mishandling of the Presidio demonstration may well have cost him his fourth star.)

Larsen could have brought charges less serious than mutiny, a capital offense.  Or he could have handled the whole problem administratively.  But Larsen was evidently determined to show that youthful dissent would never be tolerated in the Sixth Army as long as he was in command.  He decided to back up Lamont and call it a mutiny.

Not all of the brass at the Presidio felt this was wise.  After a pretrial hearing required by Article 32 of the UCMJ (the military’s equivalent of grand jury pro­ceedings), hearing officer Capt. Richard Millard rec­ommended that the demonstrators be tried by special court-martial with a maximum sentencing power of six months, or instead be simply separated from the Army with less than honorable discharges.  “The charge of mutiny under Article 94 does not apply to the facts of 14 October 1968,” Millard stated in his offi­cial report.  “There are three elements to the offense of mutiny, one of which is the intent to override lawful military authority.  The element is absent in the present case.”  Millard noted that “conditions in the stockade were not up to the standards we should expect,” and that the prescribed grievance procedures for prisoners, as imple­mented at the Presidio, were “shoddy and in­efficient.”  “To charge [the accused] with mutiny, an offense which has its roots in the harsh admiralty laws of previous centu­ries, for demonstrating against con­ditions which existed in the stockade, is, in my opinion, an overreaction by the Army.”  But Larsen ignored Millard’s report and plunged ahead with the mutiny charges.

THE COURT-MARTIAL trials of the demonstrators at various West Coast bases are now part of history.  At Fort Ord, where fourteen were tried, Terence Hallinan con­ducted a brilliant defense that included extensive testimony about stockade condi­tions and statements from prominent psychiatrists concerning the effects of such condi­tions upon the de­fendants.

All of the Presidio mutiny sentences are in the process of being appealed.  But more important than the severity or leniency of any of the sentences are the broader issues of Army policy raised by the “mutiny” itself.

For twenty years, the biggest source of manpower for the Army has been the draft as actually applied and as a threat to spur enlistment.  Yet it is common practice for the Army to lie to, or at least grossly mis­lead, young men whom it seeks to recruit.  They are promised one type of training or duty, and more often than not assigned another.  (Part of the reason, of course, is the inter-service scramble for enlistees; but that is small consolation to naive recruits.)  Most of the unrest within the Army comes not from “anti-war agitators” but ordinary guys like the Presidio 27, often high school dropouts, who unhappily discover that military life bears little or no resemblance to the image portrayed by recruiters, movies and advertise­ments.  Perhaps a more honest recruitment approach, and considerably more care in screening applicants with psy­cho­logical problems, would reduce the num­ber of AWOL’s and diminish bitterness.

America’s armed forces have many self-images.  One of the more popular is that of the Army as a great rehabilitative agency — a tough, highly skilled organi­zation which, in addition to fighting wars, knows how to make good productive citizens out of social degen­erates.  Undoubtedly, for many an unsettled man, ser­vice in the military can pro­duce salutary results. But there are others for whom rehabilitation, Army style, is not only unproductive but painful and damaging.

Of course, no Army operating on the premise of a uni­versal military obligation can simply release all indi­viduals who are disgruntled or give their superiors a hard time.  But when a soldier compiles a long record of AWOL’s, heavy drug-taking, suicide attempts or other desperate acts that indicate unsuitability for military service, it is hard to see what benefit accrues to the Army, much less to the individual, from throw­ing him in a stockade that is more oppressive than any ghetto.

Under present Army policy, only persons who are “psychotic or severely neurotic” can qualify for psy­chiatric discharges.  GI’s with character disorders that fall short of these medical extremes may, if they are clever and ambitious enough, seek administrative dis­­charges for specific acts of bad conduct.  Their chances of success, however, are not great.  Military bureau­cracy is excruciatingly slow; and since the Army pre­fers to court-martial misbehavors before it lets them go, military misfits who apply for admin­istrative dis­charges usually wind up in the stockades anyway.

Capt. Dean Flippo, summing up the Army’s case at the Fort Ord court-martial, stated very well the pre­vailing Army philosophy: “If it was easy to get an administrative dis­charge, there would be a great many people taking the easy way out.”  The Army is tough; it is opposed to “easy” solutions.  So the military pris­ons fill up not with hard­en­ed criminals, not with dedicated revolutionaries, but with disturbed young men who simply can’t hack it in the Action Army.  How many more “mutinies” will it take before the Army recognizes that there is a difference between letting “a great many people take the easy way out” and responsible, humane treatment of the young Amer­icans placed under Army custody for the purpose of promoting the common defense?

For most of America’s existence as a nation, the question of soldiers’ rights was not a burning one; the peacetime Army was small, and it was raised without conscrip­tion.  Today the standing forces number 3.5 million, including 461,186 draftees.  If the Presi­dio mutiny trials have dramatized one thing above all else, it is that the feudalistic nature of American mili­tary justice must now be critically reexamined.  At a time when civilian courts have taken enormous strides forward in protecting the civil rights and civil liberties of citizens, the military courts seem scarcely to have heard of the Bill of Rights.

Grievance procedures in any large bureaucracy are likely to be “shoddy and ineffi­cient,” to quote Capt. Millard; but only in the military are citizens punished for peace­fully attempting to express legitimate griev­ances.  Only in the military can one man — the com­manding officer — come so close to serving, or having his representatives serve, as prosecutor, jury and judge.  Only in the military can an officer order citi­zens to cease exercising their constitutional rights; any civilian law officer who pre­vent­ed a citizen from exercising his constitutional rights would be guilty of a federal offense.

Now that an enormous standing Army has become a seemingly permanent fixture in American society, some clearly defined civil rights for GI’s — and more humane stand­ards for treating soldiers who shouldn’t be soldiers — are an urgent necessity.  If the Presidio “mutiny” stirs Congress or the Army into action on these fronts, then per­haps Richard Bunch did not die in vain.