SAN DIEGO -- The tone for the Tailhook sex scandal that erupted in the hallway of a Las Vegas hotel was set a few hours earlier in a workshop where about 2,000 male aviators raucously hooted the idea of women as combat pilots, said three Navy officers who attended.
The mostly male audience roundly cheered speakers who opposed deploying women as combat aviators, according to a videotape of the Sept. 7, 1991, workshop, and jeered female officers who asked about their futures in naval aviation. Top Navy brass who observed did not call for order or chide the male aviators.
Some male aviators who attended the Tailhook Association convention blame the admirals and former Navy Secretary H. Lawrence Garrett III, who were at the workshop, for not admonishing the pilots.
Three male aviators, who agreed to be interviewed on the condition that they not be identified, said that the workshop created an atmosphere that fostered acceptance of sexist behavior and led to the sexual harassment that followed within about two hours.
The aviators said that the flag officers -- including Adm. Frank B. Kelso, chief of naval operations, and Adm. Robert J. Kelly, commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet -- who were present at the symposium should have put a stop to the conduct. Instead, they allowed things to get out of hand and then let the blame fall on junior officers, the aviators said.
"Not one of the gentlemen on the panel, not Kelso, not Kelly, not any of the senior people [stood up to] say, 'Gentlemen, that's inappropriate sexual behavior,' " said an officer who attended.
More than 25 women, half of them Navy officers, charged that they were mauled and assaulted on the third floor of the Las Vegas Hilton by Navy and Marine pilots who lined the hallway.
A spokeswoman for Admiral Kelso said that he was unavailable for comment.
In a telephone interview Monday, Admiral Kelly scoffed at the charge that he and the other admirals contributed to the assaults later that evening by not putting a stop to the jeers and catcalls by men in the audience.
"To say that set the tone for the misbehavior of some individuals on the third floor is ludicrous," Admiral Kelly said. "What caused the problem on the third floor was too much alcohol."
Admiral Kelly also said that in his opinion the workshop catcalling and derisive comments did not get out of hand.