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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
It was an announcement: “This is the captain speaking. We believe that we have confirmed the fact that many torpedo sightings were actually the sounds of our rudder and screws.’ Click. That was all.”
The Turner Joy was 10 miles away. She had done plenty of shooting that night and even attempted to ram a possible torpedo boat. She missed—or else nothing was there. Her radar acquired a hard contact to port, about 1,500 yards away. The Turner Joy fired. Radar claimed four hits, and the target vanished. Soon after, lookouts spotted a beam of light, sweeping across the sky. Some believed it was a signal for the boats to withdraw. Herrick called and ordered the Turner Joy to join the Maddox and resume their original course.
News flashed across the United States. Not once but twice , American warships had been attacked on the open sea. President Johnson told the Navy to mount a response. Orders flew from the Pentagon to Yankee Station to prepare and carry out a series of air strikes against North Vietnam.
The Maddox ’s men staggered almost drunkenly from their battle stations. Halpern was at work treating the crewmen who had been overcome by the hellish heat of the engine room. In the wardroom there was relieved laughter, followed by muttering. The consensus was that the crisis had been a mix of genuine threats and weather- or ship’s noise…generated contacts. Still, there were eyewitness reports from both ships and planes of lights in the water.
Men on the Turner Joy had sighted a torpedo wake. “One of the observers was the ASW officer, who had seen many torpedo wakes before,” Buehler wrote. “There is no mistaking [one]. … It is pencil thin, moves faster than anything sailors are used to, and is perfectly straight.”
But the commodore wanted more. Buehler and Lt. (jg) Dale Evans from CIC set to work with Herrick’s officers to prepare a report on the action and to talk with their counterparts on the Turner Joy . Herrick’s preliminary report to the 7th Fleet read: “Review of action makes many reported contacts and torpedoes appear doubtful. Freak weather effects and overeager sonarmen may have accounted for many reports. No actual visual sightings suggest complete evaluation before any further action.”
Now President Johnson and the Joint Chiefs wanted more. Down the chain of command and across the Pacific went the demand for further reports.
Herrick radioed: “Certain that original ambush was bonafide. Details of action following present a confusing picture. … Have interviewed witnesses who made positive visual sightings of cockpit lights.” Then he repeated his request to cancel the patrol.
Admiral Johnson answered: “You are again directed to resume patrol.” Admiral Moorer added that “our operations are receiving the attention of highest authority on a minute by minute basis. …”
Before dawn August 5 Herrick turned his formation north again. Its orders were to find something. Anything. Debris. An oil slick. Pieces of North Vietnamese sailors.
Operation Pierce Arrow began later that morning. Flights from the carriers attacked North Vietnamese boat bases and oil storage tanks, causing heavy damage. But the gunners on the ground were ready. Two of the Constellation ’s planes were shot down. Lt. Richard Sather was killed. Lt. Everett Alvarez endured the next eight and a half years in a North Vietnamese prison.
North Vietnamese and Chinese propaganda bulletins filled the airwaves.
“Following the first attack,” Halpern wrote, “they voiced their disapproval in the most eloquent terms. ’… the imperialist American war mongers and their South Vietnamese lackeys … Ogier and his pirates will be severely punished.’
“On and on it went, threat after threat, personal threats against not just Yankees but Herb Ogier and the Maddox . … A vendetta, a ’get the Maddox ’ vendetta. No mention was made of the Turner Joy , just the Maddox . … We went back into a Gulf that was loaded with death. They wanted a piece of us and nothing was going to stop them from getting it.”
This kind of news does not stay secret. Every man aboard quickly got the word. Reports of North Vietnamese boats or Chinese aircraft operating close by blurred the lines between the threats. One afternoon, Radarman Arcorad “picked up aircraft over China.… All you saw was this mass of green globs coming at you. And I said, ’Well, I guess I don’t get home. This is gonna be it.’ It was an unbelievable amount of planes. … But when they got over water, they slowed down all of a sudden, made a big turn, and went back over land. You want to talk about a sigh of relief?”
News flashed across the U.S.: American warships had been attacked. LBJ ordered the navy to mount a response.
One night Halpern was awakened with the word that the commodore wanted to see him. “Herrick looked like death warmed over,” the doctor said. “For days he’d been talking about the signs of the times. The kind of world he envisioned was the kind that brought him out of the Depression and through World War II. That’s what he knew, and things now weren’t the way he wanted them.