WASHINGTON — It started about 9 p.m. when 200 or so Navy and Marine aviators began to mill about a third-floor corridor of the Las Vegas Hilton Hotel waiting for their prey.
By that time, Navy investigators said, most of them were so drunk that the hallway reeked of the smell of stale beer, urine and vomit but things were destined to get far uglier as the night wore on.
If a woman approached--and over the three nights of the 1991 Tailhook Assn. convention hundreds did--a scout would shout out "clear deck" and when she tried to make her way through, the walls would close in with a flurry of grabbing, pinching and groping of her breasts, buttocks and legs. Some women had part of their clothing ripped off.
In its investigative report on the Tailhook incident, the Defense Department inspector general's office provided the first comprehensive account of what actually happened over the three nights in September, 1991, when the military's cult of the "young warrior" moved beyond coarse, fraternity-style hi-jinks to public indecency and alleged assaults.
At least 83 women were assaulted during the three days of debauchery, the report said. The activities were far from unprecedented in the history of the convention, which dates to 1956.
"Similar behavior had occurred at previous conventions," the report said. "The emerging pattern of some of the activities, such as the gantlet, began to assume the aura of 'tradition.' There is even some evidence to suggest that Tailhook '91 was 'tame' in comparison to earlier conventions. . . . In fact, many of the younger officers who attended Tailhook '91 felt the excesses that occurred there were condoned by the Navy."
Acts of indecency included "streaking" through hotel suites or across the hotel patio, sometimes in groups as large as 10 and "ballwalking," or exposing one's testicles to onlookers, a practice investigators said was engaged in by 14 officers.
The report also said that "mooning," exposing one's buttocks to others, was common among male and even some female aviators. In one incident, "an unspecified number of individuals mooned the patio crowd from a window on the eighth floor of the Hilton Hotel. That apparently caused a large plate-glass window to break and crash down onto the patio area," cutting two guests badly enough to require medical treatment.
Other acts included publicly shaving the legs and occasionally pubic areas of women, exchanging "belly/navel shots," in which people of opposite sexes drank shots of liquor from each other's navels, and "butt biting," described as "individuals biting attendees on the buttocks."
The origin of "butt biting" at Tailhook conventions is unknown, the report said, "but one Marine major reported that, in his squadron, (it) was a common activity between males and females dating back about 20 years."
The major said the stunt was "no longer widely practiced because it is now considered socially unacceptable." Although the act is usually consensual, seven women and one man told investigators they had been forcibly bitten on the buttocks.
The most serious offenses at the convention occurred near 22 "hospitality suites" clustered on the hotel's third floor. Strippers and prostitutes plied their trade there to the background of pornographic videos. Beer and liquor flowed freely.
As the report emphasized, sexual activity in the suites was almost exclusively consensual. Unwilling participants, however, were drawn into the events in the hall--in what the fliers called the "gantlet."
The inspector general said the gantlet swept up some women who seemed to enjoy the attention along with others, including female Navy officers, who were outraged and shaken by the experience.
The third-floor hallway was about six feet wide and dimly lighted. The report said the corridor was extremely crowded on Friday and Saturday evenings. According to three witnesses, a sign was posted on the floor warning: "Gantlet--enter at your own risk."
The report said the gantlet appeared well organized even though most of the participants were drunk. When a woman appeared, a scout would shout "clear deck" if he considered her attractive enough to molest or "wave off" if he thought her too unattractive. The terms are drawn from aircraft carrier flight operations.
Many women reportedly were lured unwittingly into the gantlet by officers who steered them toward it casually. The awaiting aviators appeared to arrange themselves so that women would not recognize what they were approaching, the report said.
When they emerged, one Navy enlisted man told investigators, victims looked like they had been through a pinball machine.
"Many eyewitness accounts described women who had articles of clothing ripped or removed as they went through the gantlet," the report said. "One particularly disturbing incident involved an intoxicated college freshman who was stripped from the waist down as she was passed overhead through the gantlet and then left on the hallway floor.