Milk naval ship makes maiden voyage to San Francisco

  • by Matthew S. Bajko, Assistant Editor
  • Friday March 29, 2024
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Former San Francisco supervisor and current BART board President Bevan Dufty stood on the deck of the USNS Harvey Milk during a tour March 28. Photo: Matthew S. Bajko<br>
Former San Francisco supervisor and current BART board President Bevan Dufty stood on the deck of the USNS Harvey Milk during a tour March 28. Photo: Matthew S. Bajko

The Navy's USNS Harvey Milk (T-AO 206) made its maiden voyage Thursday through the Golden Gate and sailed into San Francisco Bay 28 months after being christened in the San Diego shipyard where it was built. It docked at Pier 30/32 at the Port of San Francisco and sets sail Saturday for its homeport in Norfolk, Virginia.

Helming a ship under the Golden Gate Bridge for the first time was Captain James J. White, who served in the Navy three years on active duty and has spent more than three decades as a Military Sealift Command civilian mariner. This is his first time back in the Bay Area since he came through Oakland during his time in the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy.

USNS Harvey Milk Captain James J. White, center, pointed to lifeboats on the ship during a private tour with gay leaders March 28. At left are Bevan Dufty and John Carrillo (obscured); to the left of Smith is Donna Sachet (out of drag). Photo: Matthew S.  

"It was very exciting. One of those once in a lifetime things," said White about commanding a vessel under the iconic landmark. "The crew loved it."

The all-civilian crew serving on the 746-foot vessel numbers 79 at the moment; it will number 99 when fully staffed. Throughout its interior are photos of Milk from various stages of his life, including his time in the Navy and later when he became a civil rights leader in San Francisco. The lone color photo shows Milk in his dress uniform with his mother.

"This is a great ship with a message of inclusion," said White as he gave a private tour of it to half a dozen gay leaders Thursday evening.

Taking part was John Carrillo, a local hotel manager who is the 28th elected Emperor After Norton of the Imperial Court of San Francisco. The drag-based philanthropic group's 70 chapters across North America had sent letters from its members and local officials in support of seeing the Navy name a ship after Milk.

"It's really touching," said Carrillo, who had seen the vessel several times while it was being built. "When I woke up Thursday, a friend had sent me a picture of it when it was out in the Golden Gate. It is so significant to have it here in San Francisco. This was Milk's home."

John Carrillo looked at a photo of Harvey Milk aboard the USNS Harvey Milk. Photo: Matthew S. Bajko  

Milk was the first gay person elected to public office in California when he won a San Francisco supervisor seat in 1977. Tragically, a year later he and then-mayor George Moscone were assassinated in City Hall by disgruntled former supervisor Dan White.

Two decades prior, in 1951, Milk had enlisted in the Navy and attended Officer Candidate School in Newport, Rhode Island. By 1954 he was a lieutenant (junior grade) stationed at what was then called the Naval Air Missile Test Center in Ventura County in Southern California. Milk, a naval diving instructor, was on active duty during the Korean War aboard submarine rescue ship USS Kittiwake (ASR-13).

An LGBTQ San Diego advisory group in 2012 had first called for a naval ship to be named for Milk. Four years later the Navy agreed to name one of its fleet replenishment oilers after Milk. The official naming ceremony took place on Treasure Island in San Francisco in August 2016 with Ray Mabus, at the time secretary of the Navy, and Congressmember Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco), then the House minority leader.

It wouldn't be until December 13, 2019 that the vessel's first cut ceremony took place at the General Dynamics National Steel and Shipbuilding Company's San Diego shipyard. Nearly two years later, in November 2021, naval officials, servicemembers, and LGBTQ community leaders witnessed the USNS Harvey Milk leave dry dock for the first time, as the Bay Area Reporter had reported at the time.

Before the ship left the Southern California city's harbor earlier this week, gay San Diego city and county commissioner Nicole Murray Ramirez was able to tour it. Jack Nooren Films posted a short video of the visit to its YouTube page.

The USNS Harvey Milk docked at Pier 30/32 in San Francisco March 28. Photo: Bill Wilson  

Significant turnaround
Murray Ramirez, who as the Queen Mother I of the Americas and Nicole the Great is the titular head of the international court, first thought of the ship-naming proposal after the repeal of the military's homophobic "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy over a decade ago. The ship honor for Milk marked a significant turnaround from how he was treated by the military during his enlistment.

As the B.A.R. reported in February 2020, Milk was given an "other than honorable" discharge from the U.S. Navy and forced to resign on February 7, 1955 rather than face a court-martial because of his homosexuality, according to a trove of naval records obtained by the paper. It contradicted an archival document housed in the San Francisco Public Library's San Francisco History Center that authors of several biographies of Milk had used to claim that Milk was honorably discharged from the Navy.

At the Milk ship's christening ceremony Secretary of the Navy Carlos Del Toro had noted he wanted to be there in order "to amend the wrongs of the past" in terms of the harassment LGBTQ servicemembers had faced.

Touring the ship Thursday with its captain was former San Francisco supervisor Bevan Dufty, who served in what had been Milk's board seat. Years ago Dufty had been one of the few individuals invited to take a sneak peak tour of the ship while it was being constructed in San Diego.

Seeing it docked along San Francisco's waterfront near the support pillars for the San Francisco—Oakland Bay Bridge was a bit overwhelming, said Dufty.

"It's beautiful that it is here," said Dufty, board president for regional transit agency BART. "This being the first Navy ship being named after someone who wasn't honorably discharged, it's poetic."

Witnessing its arrival as it sailed past Alcatraz Island, a onetime military prison turned national park, was Milk's gay nephew Stuart Milk. He and his family now run a foundation to carry on the legacy of their famous relative.

"It has been a long trajectory," noted Stuart Milk to the B.A.R. as he stopped by to see the ship docked Thursday evening.

Sometime in 2025 the Milk oiler will be sent overseas to refuel and restock other Navy ships. Stuart Milk is looking forward to the day when it sails into the territorial waters of countries where LGBTQ rights are either under attack or the LGBTQ community has no legal protections.

"I think it is important that here is a ship named after someone forced out of the military because they were gay and now this ship will go to parts of the Atlantic like the Baltic region and the Red Sea and the ports of a lot of countries where LGBTQ people are not accepted," said Milk. "This sends the message that things can change."

Bevan Dufty stood next to a photo of Harvey Milk aboard the USNS Harvey Milk. Photo: Matthew S. Bajko  

Ship welcomed to SF
Naval officials, veterans, and local leaders welcomed the ship to the Port of San Francisco with a special arrival ceremony and celebration of its namesake March 29. A special National Vietnam War Veterans Day awards presentation for local veterans was also held in conjunction with the arrival of the Milk ship, as March 29 is annually observed as National Vietnam Veterans Day.

Pelosi and Mayor London Breed were at the ceremony, as was gay District 8 Supervisor Rafael Mandelman.

Rear Admiral Richard W. Meyer of the U.S. Third Fleet, second from right, joined former Milk campaign manager Anne Kronenberg and Supervisor Rafael Mandelman at the USNS Harvey Milk arrival ceremony March 29 in San Francisco. Photo: Matthew S. Bajko  

Mandelman told the B.A.R. he was happy for all those who worked to bring the ship from an idea to reality.

"This is very cool," he said. "I don't think I appreciated how massive it is."

The United States of America Vietnam War Commemoration and Rear Admiral Richard W. Meyer of the U.S. Third Fleet presented official lapel pins to roughly 50 Bay Area Vietnam War veterans. Due to inclement weather, there was a closed media event on board the USNS Harvey Milk. The veterans event honoring those who served during the Vietnam War was moved to the Port of San Francisco building at Pier 1.

Meyer, a Bay Area resident, said he takes pride in seeing a ship named after "a champion of equality and universal rights." He acknowledged that "unfortunately, (Milk) had to hide a very important part of himself when he served."

With DADT now rescinded, Meyer said, "I am proud to say in today's Navy we welcome everyone."

Lewis Loeven, the executive director of the San Francisco Fleet Week Association since 2010, has watched the progression of the Milk ship from its inception. A straight ally who grew up in a U.S. Marine family on Long Island, Loeven has repeatedly pressed naval officials on when the Milk ship would come to San Francisco.

He had once again asked Del Toro about it in February when they were both at an event in Miami. Three weeks later Loeven received word it would arrive to town on March 28.

"It was important for me to have the ship come in and show the San Francisco community and Harvey Milk's community that the Navy cares and they honor his legacy," Loeven told the B.A.R. as he saw the ship docked on Thursday.

Coordinating a crew from the local CBS affiliate KPIX-5, which had livestreamed the Milk ship's arrival and was interviewing Stuart Milk where it had docked, was Brian O'Rourke, the media relations officer for the Navy Region Southwest. A gay man who grew up in Philadelphia and enlisted in the Navy in 1983 to see the world, O'Rourke was stationed in San Diego a year later and has spent his career with the Navy over the last 41 years in various roles.

He lives and works in San Diego, and could see the Milk ship from his office window. Having served before and during the DADT period in the military, O'Rourke told the B.A.R. to now have a naval ship named after an LGBTQ icon personally means a lot. It is another example of how quickly the military adjusted to having LGBTQ people serving openly, he noted.

"There was a lot of arguments about unit cohesiveness and the troops would never accept us. The reality was when DADT went away, it changed overnight. There was no long process to adjust to it," said O'Rourke, who retired from active duty in the Navy in 2005. "It just happened and everybody was fine. The next year Navy ships were holding Pride events."

The Milk replenishment oiler is one of four posthumously honoring civil rights leaders, with the first named after Georgia congressmember John Lewis. The others' namesakes are U.S. attorney general Robert Kennedy and U.S. Supreme Court chief justice and California governor Earl Warren.

All four are part of the Military Sealift Command. The oilers can each carry 162,000 barrels of diesel ship fuel, aviation fuel, and dry stores cargo.

Captaining the Milk ship is a special honor for White, as he has a son and a daughter who are members of the LGBTQ community. He told the B.A.R. that his "kids support my career. They get a big kick out of it. They think it is pretty cool."

As for sharing a surname with White, who's middle name happened to be James, the captain noted it is the fifth most common last name in the country, particularly back in Boston where he is from.

"I am aware of it. I have heard a lot less about it than I thought I would," said the captain, whose full name is James Joseph White. "It is ironic. Maybe it is some kind of cosmic karma thing."

Updated, 3/29/24: This article has been updated with comments from the arrival ceremony.

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