At 0610 on 10 July 1975 a slender, hazel-eyed young woman going by the name Cat Futch arrived at the main gate of the naval facility at Port Canaveral, Florida. Clad in a white robe, she made her way to the dock where the USS Finback (SSN-670), a Sturgeon-class nuclear-powered attack submarine, lay moored. She was welcomed aboard by some of the boat's 121-man crew then making preparations for getting under way. What happened next would be one of the most notorious incidents in the history of the Navy's nuclear-powered submarine force.
Officers and enlisted men of the Finback knew Futch as a dancer at the Cork Club, a local nightspot. During this early-morning visit, some of the officers suggested to Commander Connelly D. Stevenson, the sub's captain, that Futch be allowed to perform her seminude act as a way to boost morale and reward the crew for long hours of work during a recent shipyard overhaul. A "mustang" commissioned from the ranks, Stevenson fatefully agreed to let her perform on board as the boat left Port Canaveral.1
Morale problems occupied many Navy commanders during the mid-1970s. How to maintain positive attitudes in the face of long deployments and critical shortages of equipment and spare parts that hobbled operations in the post-Vietnam War era was chief among them. Discipline problems, many related to substance abuse, sapped readiness of ships and shore bases. Reenlistment rates sank to record lows, while officers and petty officers grew frustrated. Anything that seemed likely to build morale and get a crew ready for sea duty seemed acceptable.2
The Finback soon cast off all lines, and a tug took her under tow to help ease the sub's way to sea through the restricted Canaveral inlet. By 0700 electrician's mates had rigged audio speakers in preparation for the anticipated special entertainment. Music began playing as Cat Futch stepped out onto the sail's port fairwater plane. She dropped her robe and, clad only in a thong and sneakers, danced for about ten minutes. Just as the Finback glided past the Alexander Hamilton (SSBN-617), a Lafayette-class ballistic-missile submarine, the dancer ceased her gyrating. She then pocketed a cash fund collected from the crew and received an autographed photo of the submarine. Captain Stevenson gave her a good-bye kiss and his own submariner dolphins insignia as a souvenir. She than boarded a waiting pilot boat for a quick return to the pier.3
Some Finback crewmen were surprised by Futch's performance. Chief Paul DeLange, in charge of the submarine's aft line handlers that day, looked on in astonishment. He thought to himself that this was not a good idea, but "if the CO let it happen, so be it." Others probably harbored similar opinions as the provocative dance went on.4
The nuclear-powered vessel proceeded to her destination somewhere off the Bahamas. All was normal until a radio message arrived on 1 August from Captain Austin Scott, commander of Submarine Group Six in Norfolk. The Finback was to abort her mission and return to base immediately. Naval authorities had learned of Cat Futch's performance in Florida, and Commander Stevenson was in serious trouble because of it.
Not Your Normal Captain
Connelly Stevenson, 41, was far from being the typical nuclear-powered submarine captain. A former Finback officer recalled that Stevenson had once converted the officer's wardroom table into a Ping-Pong table. It was not unusual for the captain, clad in his pajamas, to watch films with the crew. He also enjoyed wearing unusual and definitely non-regulation hats while on the bridge of his submarine. Often he would barter his own cap for headgear worn by pilots in foreign ports. A submarine officer who knew Stevenson summed him up by stating that he was simply "a people guy."5
When the Finback reached Norfolk, Stevenson was relieved of his command "pending the investigation of an incident of a non-operational nature." Ironically, his three-year tour as skipper was almost over and he was to be soon relieved. In any case, the entire military command structure from Secretary of Defense James Schlesinger on down was upset by the Futch incident. Some wanted Stevenson court-martialed for conduct unbecoming a naval officer and reckless endangerment of his ship.6
Another officer who knew him well added a different dimension. Captain John M. Donlon had been the commanding officer of Submarine Squadron Six, to which the Finback belonged, up until two weeks before the Cat Futch incident. "The skipper was properly relieved," he said in a recent interview, "but in his defense I have to add that, as an operational guy, he was pretty good. In fact, he was very good." Three months before the dance, the Finback was undergoing an Operational Reactor Safeguard Examination by the Atlantic Fleet Nuclear Powered Examining Board when she had, according to Donlon, "an actual casualty, a real radiation spill. . . . The captain's reaction was nothing short of magnificent." Captain Donlon noted that, despite those exemplary actions, "you have to keep your priorities straight, and he didn't."
The Washington Post broke the submarine's dancer story on 9 September 1975, and it found its way into most media outlets. Commander Stevenson unwillingly became the most famous American submarine commander afloat, and Cat Futch became the most famous go-go dancer in the world. Reporters wanted to know more about the young temptress who was the center of the controversy, and she happily cooperated with the press.7
A native of rural Georgia, Cat was a runaway at age 14 and claimed to have been briefly married to a Sailor, as well as to having earned a college degree. She had been dancing professionally for almost five years in clubs all over Florida. Now basking in the media spotlight, Cat told a reporter: "I know quite a bit about the Navy and I never saw such a smiling bunch of men go out to sea. I really think it boosted the men's morale. It didn't hurt them or me."8
The Navy did not agree. On 7 August Commander Stevenson, who had been assigned to desk duty in Norfolk, received an official letter of reprimand signed by Vice Admiral Joseph "Jumping Joe" Williams. The commander of Submarines Atlantic, Williams stated that allowing a go-go dancer on the deck of the Finback "tended to demean" his position as captain. The letter also faulted him for not following standard procedures for having female civilians on board his vessel. Stevenson also garnered a poor fitness report, the first of his career, and a possible fine. The captain could and would appeal the punishment to the commander of the Atlantic Fleet and ultimately to Chief of Naval Operations Admiral James L. Holloway III.9
Wits, Wags, and Whimsy
Officers throughout the Navy worried about the ramifications of the Futch episode and whether Stevenson's penalty was merited. Some privately expressed the opinion that the Navy's relieving him of his command may have been a bit extreme. The Washington Post quoted one unnamed junior officer who stated: "This whole thing poses a really serious question on how far a commanding officer can go to help the morale of his men. This case has serious implications."10
Government officials and other public figures had a field day as the story unfolded. Secretary of the Air Force John L. McLucas joked at a public function that "even the Navy thinks $100 million is far too much to spend for a go-go dancer platform." He went on to suggest that Cat Futch was some new sort of secret weapon. Humorist Art Buchwald picked up on that notion and wrote a column on how a "Mark I Cat Futch" would be placed on American submarines to "mesmerize the crew of an enemy ship."11
Other columnists and editorial writers also questioned whether the Futch affair was as serious as the Navy's reaction made it seem. The Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, Wall Street Journal, and TIME magazine all suggested that too much was being made of it. Some argued that the Cold War threat posed by the Soviet Union might be more significant. Even President Gerald Ford, himself a World War II naval officer, declined to make any extended comments on the case when asked about it during a press conference.12
While the controversy boiled, Stevenson began taking steps to save his endangered career. He engaged retired Captain Joseph K. Taussig, who earned the Navy Cross for action at Pearl Harbor, to represent him. Stevenson told the press that his "only purpose in hiring a lawyer is to insure that I'm able to take full advantage of the rights accorded me within the Navy's administrative system. I've been a naval officer and have been proud to be one and want to continue to be one."13
Taussig concluded that Stevenson had indeed been an excellent officer, and strove to have the Navy ease its punishment from formal removal from command and a negative fitness report. He called the Futch dance "a fun thing" and thought the reaction to it "has been far out of proportion to anybody's judgment of the importance of the event."14
Stevenson himself continued defending his actions at Port Canaveral. He reminded reporters that the officers and enlisted men of the Finback routinely worked 65- to 85-hour weeks during the overhaul in 1974, and that his submarine had been at sea for the best part of six months the year before. In an interview published in the Trenton Times, Stevenson explained that in his view "a commanding officer uses everything he can to maintain morale . . . morale and the ability to maintain it are significant facets of leadership. Two ways to do that are to set high standards and make the men proud of what they are doing."
Patricia Stevenson also rallied to her husband's defense. She told the Palm Beach Post that he "allowed the go-go dancer at the request of the crew for the extra work they did. It seemed to be a perfectly innocent form of entertainment. When my husband told me, I wasn't upset. I thought it was funny."15
Stevenson's case drew a mixed reaction within the Navy. Many Sailors interviewed by the press expressed the opinion that, while letting Cat Futch prance on the Finback was not a proper notion, the punishment was too harsh. A seaman from the USS Milwaukee (AOR-2) commented that "firing the skipper [was] just part of this whole tightening up" of discipline all through the Fleet. Another asked: "what if she had fallen overboard and had been chewed up by the sub's screw? Would the public consider the skipper a martyr then?"16
So Much for Fun
Stevenson's fate was ultimately decided by Admiral Holloway and not by Sailors or newspapers. The admiral strongly believed that the boat's captain should be removed to preserve good order in the submarine fleet. On 2 October 1975 he found the former commander of the Finback "guilty of permitting an action, which could have distracted the attention of those responsible for the safe navigation of the nuclear-powered submarine maneuvering in restricted waters." Holloway agreed with subordinates that Stevenson had failed to exercise good judgment and did not follow regulations governing civilian visitors to naval vessels.17
The Chief of Naval Operations then modified the punishments recommended. Commander Stevenson was to receive a letter of admonition rather than one of reprimand. His service record would be amended to remove the statement that he had been "relieved for cause," and the monetary fine cancelled. Stevenson could still be considered for promotion or given another command, but most officers agreed that such an event was unlikely with such a stained record. His next assignment was to the Naval Research Laboratory in London. He subsequently left active duty.
What were the results of the Cat Futch incident? It certainly reinforced a code of conduct for captains and crews in the wake of CNO Admiral Elmo R. Zumwalt Jr.'s tenure. One unnamed high-ranking submariner told the Washington Post, "We had to put the fun back in the submarine service-to make the nukes more like the spirit of the old days." He admitted that the reaction to Cat Futch on the Finback "said so much for fun."18
The Finback herself went back to sea under new commanders and served with the Fleet for another 22 years. She was decommissioned on 28 March 1997 and placed in the Nuclear-Powered Ship and Submarine Recycling Program in Bremerton, Washington. By the end of that October the submarine had been cut up for scrap.
And what of Cat Futch? She enjoyed the notoriety of her dance on the Finback for a time and would be known in clubs and bars as the "submarine queen." However, she gave up her go-go career shortly thereafter and worked as a customer-service representative at an automobile muffler shop. Then, she enlisted in the Marine Corps. Parris Island boot camp proved too much for Cat, and she was medically discharged with stomach ulcers. She blamed her condition on Marine officers' hostile feelings toward her. Once again a civilian, she tended bar around central Florida. After 1977 she dropped from public view, but not from Sailors' memories.19
Los Angeles Times columnist Jack Smith succinctly distilled the episode. "Ms. Futch, whatever else may happen to her, she has earned at least a footnote in the archives of the U.S. Navy."20
2. George W. Baer, One Hundred Years of Sea Power: The U.S. Navy 1890-1990 (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1994), p. 409.
3. Palm Beach Post, 9 September 1975, See also Thomas Parrish, The Submarine: A History (New York: Viking, 2004), pp. 491-511.
4. Interview with Paul DeLange, ETCS (SS), USN (Ret.), 13 March 2009. Chief DeLange went on to become the Finback's COB in January 1976. See also Interview with Admiral James L. Holloway III, 16 November 2009.
5. Washington Post, 13 September 1975. Stevenson earned a masters degree from the Naval Postgraduate School in 1964.
6. Holloway interview, 16 November 2009.
7. Washington Post, 9 September 1975; Palm Beach Post, 9 September 1975; Fort Pierce [FL] News-Tribune, 9 September 1975; Melbourne [FL] Florida Today, 9 September 1975.
8. New York Times, 10, 14 September 1975; Washington Post, 9 September 1975; Los Angeles Times, 9 September 1975; Jacksonville [FL] Times-Union, 9 September 1975; Fort Pierce [FL] News-Tribune, 9 September 1975.
9. Washington Post, 11 September 1975; Los Angeles Times, 11 September 1975.
10. Ibid., 11 September 1975.
11. Los Angeles Times, 18 September 1975; Washington Post, 12 September 1975.
12. Los Angeles Times, 10, 11 September 1975; Chicago Tribune, 15 September 1975; Wall Street Journal, 16 September 1975; and Time, 22 September 1975. See also New York Times, 17 September 1975.
13. Palm Beach Post, 9 September 1975.
14. Washington Post, 11 September 1975.
15. Palm Beach Post, 9 September 1975.
16. Washington Post, 14 September 1975.
17. New York Times, 3 October 1975; Washington Post, 4 October 1975; Holloway interview, 16 November 2009.
18. Washington Post, 13 September 1975; Norman Polmar and Thomas B. Allen, Rickover: Controversy and Genius (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1982), pp. 332-334; Holloway interview, 16 November 2009.
19. Washington Post, 26 June 1977.
20. Florida Today, 22 May 1976; Los Angeles Times, 11 September 1975.