"There's going to be a lot of men overboard" because heterosexuals won't tolerate gays on board, said Gunners Mate Richard Phillips, 24, of Louisville, Ky., who serves aboard the USS John F. Kennedy.
Said Seaman Paul Fleming, 22, of Memphis: "At least 98 percent of the crew says they shouldn't be here."
On the other side of the issue were the voices of sailors who believe President Clinton should keep his promise to lift the ban. Aboard the nuclear- powered attack submarine USS Baton Rouge, the senior enlisted man said his crew could handle the change.
"I don't think it'll be that big of a problem," said Chief Petty Officer Johnny Smith, 44, from Lyons, Ga. "I've seen a lot of changes in my 22 years in the Navy, and this will be just one more."
Mack Hairston, 26, a gunners mate from Bridgeport, Conn., agreed. "I have no problems with gays in the military," he said.
Quartermaster Seaman David Couture, 22, said that he had had friends who are gay and that he would not mind if Clinton lifted the ban. "As long as they don't let sexual preference get involved with their job, it would not bother me," he said.
Speaking yesterday to the Cleveland City Club, Clinton sought to play down differences over the issue.
"Here is what this whole debate is about: It is about whether someone should be able to acknowledge . . . homosexuality and do nothing else, do nothing to violate the code of military conduct, and not be kicked out of the service," Clinton said. "I just believe there ought to be a presumption that people ought to be able to serve their country unless they do something wrong. It is not such a big difference."
Aboard the warships yesterday, the senators toured showers, latrines and quarters where men sleep on bunks stacked three high. They saw how some sailors slept underneath stored torpedoes and must crawl over one another to reach their berths. They walked down corridors so narrow they couldn't pass without bumping one another.
Opponents of lifting the ban often cite this forced intimacy as the main reason for keeping openly gay people out of the military.
After the morning touring the warships, the committee conducted a formal hearing in a base auditorium before nearly 1,000 sailors and officers, many of whom cheered their colleagues' vocal denunciation of Clinton's proposal.
Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Sam Nunn (D., Ga.) told the crowd that Clinton's plan to allow homosexuals in the military "is not a done deal." He said he preferred the existing policy of "no questions asked." Sexual-orientation questions were dropped for military recruits after Clinton took office.
Of the 17 witnesses who appeared at the hearing, only two gay officers spoke in favor of lifting the ban.
"I am a red-blooded American. . . . I am the person you have been talking about all along," said Lt. j.g. Tracy W. Thorne, a Naval aviator who is soon to be discharged from the Navy for homosexuality. Describing the removal of his name from the Navy aircraft he flew, Thorne told senators bluntly: "This policy has wiped my dream away."
Thorne's comments drew scattered jeers. As Thorne and Lt. j.g. Richard Selland, a gay submarine officer being discharged, came before the committee, roughly one-fifth of the uniformed personnel walked out.