Navy Secretary Ray Mabus has riled conservatives by once again naming a warship after a liberal activist, in this case slain gay rights icon Harvey Milk.
Conservatives say there is an ample list of Navy and Marine Corps war heroes and longtime maritime leaders who would be more fitting choices for the TAO-125 fleet-replenishment oiler.
But Mr. Mabus has veered from tradition to affix the names of liberal Democrats, such as Milk, to war vessels in a special and coveted military honor during his long tenure as President Obama’s only Navy secretary.
Milk deliberately misled voters in his San Francisco Castro Street district about his Navy service, according to a biography.
He was honorably discharged a lieutenant (junior grade) in 1955 after serving just short of four years. But to burnish his reputation amid the growing homosexual movement, he repeatedly told predominantly gay voters that he was a victim of discrimination. The Navy kicked him out because he was gay, he said. He ran for and won a seat on the city’s Board of Supervisors, the first openly gay person to achieve an election victory.
“If anyone said something to Harvey about his fondness for such stunts, he would gesture wildly as he launched into a lecture,” Randy Shilts wrote in his Milk biography, “The Mayor of Castro Street.” “‘Symbols, symbols, symbols,’ he insisted. Sure, he had not been kicked out of the military, but he had a dozen friends who had had their lives muddled by anti-gay purges in the services. The point of the story was to let people know that service personnel routinely do get kicked out. Besides, he once confided, ‘Maybe people will read it, feel sorry for me, and then vote for me.’”
Shilts also wrote that Milk said he had been a chief petty officer onboard the USS Kittiwake, which the author described as an aircraft carrier but was actually a submarine rescue vessel. That senior enlisted rank would seem to have been difficult for Milk to attain because he spent less than four years in the Navy. Shilts wrote that Milk entered Officer Candidate School eight months after enlisting.
The Washington Times asked the Navy to provide Milk’s ranks and type of discharge. A spokesman said his service record was in an archive and not immediately available.
‘Long list of war heroes’
The American Family Association has cited another storyline in Shilts’ biography: Milk’s penchant for post-pubescent boys.
“Milk was a pederast,” Bryan Fischer, a host on the American Family Radio network, wrote on the American Family Association’s home page. “A pederast is a man who fancies sex with post-pubescent boys. Milk conducted a notorious fling with a 16-year-old runaway boy, Jack Galen McKinley, an escapade which makes Milk a rapist (of the statutory kind), and someone who belonged in San Quentin and on a registry of sex offenders rather than on a postage stamp. McKinley subsequently committed suicide after Milk was through with him.”
Rep. Duncan Hunter, California Republican and former Marine Corps officer, has been a frequent critic of Mr. Mabus’ liberal priorities, especially his ship naming.
“What makes these decisions so insulting is what they say to the Navy’s legacy and its long list of war heroes and military leaders that are far more deserving of the recognition,” said Joe Kasper, Mr. Hunter’s chief of staff. “It’s quite possible Mabus has been auditioning for another job in the next Democratic administration. It’s the only thing that can explain things.”
Elaine Donnelly, who runs the Center for Military Readiness, said Mr. Mabus has endorsed enlistment quotas for women and overturned his Marine generals’ view that mixed-sex land combat units are less effective.
“Secretary Mabus is the longest-serving secretary of the Navy and possibly the worst,” Ms. Donnelly said. “He seems to see his role as an eight-year-long opportunity to promote liberal social causes, including LGBT law and gender diversity quotas that he simultaneously denies. There are many Navy heroes who deserve the honor of having a ship named after them, but Secretary Mabus has once again allowed his obsession with LGBT and other liberal causes to take precedence.”
A Navy spokesman declined to respond to the criticism.
Matt Thorn, executive director of the gay support group OutServe-SLDN, expressed full support of Mr. Mabus’ decision.
“It was welcomed and exciting news that the Navy announced its intent to name one of its newest ships after Harvey Milk,” Mr. Thorn said. “It is a testament and honor to Harvey’s legacy of fighting for inclusion, freedom and equal rights. As we approach the fifth anniversary of repeal and most recently the lifting of the ban on transgender service members, sailors will be able to see a name on one of their ships of a man who embodies and gave so much to our LGBT movement. We applaud the Navy for this announcement.”
Milk’s political career was cut short in November 1978 when Dan White, a fellow Board of Supervisors member, fatally shot him and Mayor George Moscone at City Hall.
White, who had resigned but wanted to be reinstated, was opposed by Milk and others, according to biographies. White served five years in prison for manslaughter and later committed suicide.
Naval service lies
Milk is not the only person whose name will go on a warship and who lied about his Navy service.
In another decision that rankled conservatives, Mr. Mabus in May 2011 announced that farm labor activist Cesar Chavez will have his name on a Lewis & Clark-class cargo ship.
Chavez served in the Pacific as an enlisted sailor from 1946 to 1948 but told supporters and at least one biographer that he served during World War II in 1944.
Biographer Miriam Pawel got the dates correct in her biography “The Crusades of Cesar Chavez.” She said that when he decided to become a farmworker organizer in the early 1960s, Chavez started falsifying his naval service.
“From then on, Chavez would backdate his Navy service by two years, claiming he signed up in 1944 rather than in 1946, a small change reflecting his calculation the war veteran would prove a useful embellishment,” she wrote.
A PBS documentary on Chavez said he told friends that his stint in the Navy was “the two worst years of my life.”
Mr. Mabus has dedicated the TAO-205 oiler fleet to civil and human rights advocates. He named the first ship after Rep. John Lewis, Georgia Democrat and a leading fighter for civil rights starting in the 1960s.
Mr. Lewis is an anti-war activist and member of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, which puts out a yearly “People’s Budget.” It calls for an immediate troop pullout from the Afghanistan War and an end to an overseas contingency budget that funds the war against the Islamic State group.
The People’s Budget would likely result in a smaller Navy because it calls for reduced defense spending. The budget is backed by liberal nonprofit groups such as Planned Parenthood, Moveon.org and Win Without War.
Mr. Mabus also named a littoral combat ship after former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, an Arizona Democrat who was seriously wounded in a 2011 assassination attempt and courageously battled back to become a gun control advocate.
Some Republicans said better choices would be the many wounded Navy and Marine Corps combatants who courageously returned to service in the long war against Islamic extremists.