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Anatomy Of A Crisis
Forty years ago the USS Maddox fought the first battle of America’s longest war. How it happened—and even if it happened—are still fiercely debated.
February/March 2004 | Volume 55, Issue 1
From the combat information center (CIC) of the Destroyer USS Maddox, Commodore John Herrick radioed: “Am being approached by high speed craft with apparent intention of torpedo attack. Intend open fire if necessary.” America claimed the Tonkin Gulf was international water; the North Vietnamese thought otherwise.
The mission was Herrick’s, but the ship belonged to its captain, Herbert L. Ogier. As the boats reached the 10,000-yard mark, Ogier said to the Maddox ’s gunnery officer, Lt. Raymond Connell, “Tell Corsette, ’Slow salvo fire. Commence fire.’” Connell relayed the order via phone to Ens. Richard Corsette, stationed just above the bridge in the Main Battery Director.
Corsette called his gun crews: “Mount 51 and 52, slow salvo fire. Load.” Both acknowledged the order. Corsette replied, “Commence fire.” With a shattering blast, the five-inch rounds tore through the sky toward the enemy craft. These initial shots were meant as a warning to the boats to break off. They did not. Ogier gave the next order: “Continuous fire.”
It was August 2, 1964. This action, and another one two nights later, became the Tonkin Gulf “incident.” President Lyndon Johnson declared them unprovoked attacks against a “routine patrol in international waters.” He ordered Navy jets to bomb North Vietnamese naval bases and fuel supplies and rallied Congress to sign his Southeast Asia Resolution, authorizing him to take further military action. The result was the longest war the United States ever fought.
Over the past 40 years legions of scholars and polemicists have assessed the USS Maddox with the scrutiny worthy of a medical examiner. Thousands of pages have presented the view from Washington in the summer of 1964. Most accounts devote only a page or two to the view from the Tonkin Gulf; readers are lucky to learn much beyond the names of the Maddox ’s two senior officers. But these men, and the sailors they commanded, are the people at the sharp end of history. These men, some of them seasoned veterans of World War II, some of them new to the service, are the ones who made a momentous voyage from peace to war. This is their story.
“You find out very, very quickly how close-knit a destroyer can be, and how close quarters a destroyer can be.”
By the summer of 1964 the Maddox had had an impressive career. The keel of DD-731 had been laid in 1943 at the Bath Iron Works in Maine. Measuring 376 feet long and displacing 2,250 tons, she was a Sumner -class destroyer, designed to counter Japanese air attacks. With three twin five-inch/.38-caliber mounts and many smaller guns, the Maddox was a fast, sturdy watchdog for carrier task forces.
Commissioned in June 1944, she headed west to join Admiral Halsey’s 3rd Fleet for the autumn invasion of the Philippines. She threw withering fire against attacking planes, rescued downed American pilots, and survived a typhoon in December that sank three other destroyers. She was hit on January 21,1945, by a kamikaze that killed 7 of her crew and injured 33 more. She came through it all.
When the Korean War broke out in June 1950, the Maddox was one of the first warships to reach the Korean coast. By spring 1953 she had fought many duels with North Korean shore batteries. The U.S.S. Maddox Association vice president Ken Chestnut was there. “We were the most shot-at ship in the U.S. Navy,” he said. “Try that one on sometime.”
Now the Maddox was 20 years old, but with plenty of life left. The Cold War was approaching its third decade. Demand was high for good men to keep the Navy running: some graduated from high school and enlisted to become sailors; some went to the U.S. Naval Academy; others earned commissions through their college Naval Reserves Officers Training Corps (NROTC) programs or attended officer candidate school in Newport, Rhode Island.
Lt. Bill Buehler joined the Maddox in 1962. He was the operations officer, second only to the executive officer and the captain. The son of a Navy officer, Buehler had earned his commission in 1956 through the NROTC at the University of Michigan. “From there I went to Maddox ,” Buehler remembered. “I didn’t have a postgrad school, and I wasn’t really in track for destroyers. I had been on a DE [destroyer escort], but as an engineer officer, and on a bird farm [carrier] too, but that doesn’t count for anything, at least not with the surface people. So, even though I was hell on wheels in all those jobs, it was not really a command profile. But my boss at ASW [antisubmarine warfare] school talked to ’em, and so they sent me to a destroyer. I was not really a gung-ho CO motivated type; I had a different path to follow. But happily, Divine Providence was running the railroad, and it all worked out perfectly.”