- Historic Sites
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
“… He was worried. One of the things worrying him was World War III. He actually believed we were heading in that direction. Frankly, he wasn’t an awful long way from being correct. He was worried about the Gulf being a precipitating event. So I gave him some aspirin.” Halpern considered prescribing codeine but decided against it. “I wanted him to be able to think, ’cause my ass was on the line, you know? I wanted him awake .
“As I’m getting ready to leave, he said, ’Doc, I want you to get out all the morphine aboard the Maddox . I want you to give a syrette to every single person aboard.’ And I said, ’Why?’ He said, ’We’re getting hit tomorrow.’”
Halpern went to the sickbay and told Aguilar. They prepared nearly 300 syrettes. Then they distributed them.
“People looked at you like, ’Oh, shit!’” wrote Halpern. “They knew what it was there for.” The attack never came. This reassured no one, since every second they were in the Gulf meant a chance that they would get hit. But at last, on August 8, the patrol ended. With the destroyers Edson and Hubbard relieving them, Task Group 72.1 left the Gulf for the last time, to rendezvous with the Ticonderoga .
Commodore Herrick, Buehler, and Evans went over to the carrier to report to Admiral Moore. Men from the Turner Joy came too. Moore was tired and short-tempered, having been hounded relentlessly for fresh reports. There was nothing new to offer, no “proof” to satisfy the White House, the Pentagon, and Congress.
Moore then flew Herrick and his men to Subie Bay in the Philippines. State and Defense department officials had come out to hear their story. The visitors wanted a smoking gun to present to the United Nations. It wasn’t a problem the destroyer men could fix; they were flown back to their ships.
The Maddox started home on September 17, making no stops. It was the end of their WestPac ’64 cruise, nearly seven months of grinding work.
The destroyer tied up at Long Beach on October 2. Lambo, like everyone else, was itching to go ashore. The pier was jammed with families and friends. “ Maddox was getting free beer all over,” he said. “So was Turner Joy . I went on leave immediately. When I started the cruise, I weighed 190 pounds. When I got back, I weighed 164. A friend of mine saw me, and his eyeballs got bigger than a son of a bitch. He said, ’Lambo, what did they do to you?’”
In 1975, the year the war he’d seen begin ended, Dr. Halpern published a book about the Maddox ’s mission. “The American people,” he wrote, “felt full of righteous rage and seeing it was an election year, the politicians got their chance to intoxicate the world with more than the usual amount of gas. … Thus, with all of the information at hand, the people solidly behind him, and a Congress that was already becoming known as the Johnson boys, the president asked for, and Congress passed, the Tonkin Resolution that vastly increased our involvement in Vietnam. The men who so viciously later attacked Mr. Johnson murmured no words of dissent at the time they should have spoken.”
In the years that followed, it became fashionable to blame the military for a war America wasn’t winning. This is a view virtually every man who wore a uniform in those days rejects. Bill Buehler’s view may be the simplest. After 20 years in the Navy, Buehler retired with the rank of commander. Today he is a minister. When asked the question, he replied, “We didn’t start the war, and I don’t have a twinge of guilt about that.”
There will always remain the question of whether the North Vietnamese actually attacked on August 4, 1964.
There will always remain the question of whether the North Vietnamese actually attacked on August 4, 1964. “That night,” wrote Halpern, “has been a night of controversy [ever since]. Investigations have followed, investigations that wrenched and twisted the country for months, ruined political careers, and made others. Millions of words have flayed us, but when it was all over there was one question that remained. … The answer … who knows?
“It seems probable that the first torpedo sightings were real. After this, maybe some were real, maybe not. I sincerely doubt that if all the combatants were brought into a room at the same time and charged by the mightiest of truth devices to tell all, that they could reconstruct the battle. … But I knew the officers who wrote the facts and they were honest men.”
The case can be made that North Vietnamese boats did attack just after eight o’clock that evening. Strength of numbers, total darkness, and poor weather certainly acted in their favor. The reports of torpedo wakes, gunfire flashes, and cockpit lights seem reasonable enough, combined with what the cornvan men were hearing on the radio.
As for the number of torpedoes reported—21 or more—the opinions of the Maddox ’s men are not unanimous. In fact two officers, both of whom worked with sonar, disagree over what was real and what was ship-generated noise.
Years afterward one wrote, “It is our business to know about built-in noise. We had run tests before as a matter of routine, and after, to reproduce that noise, or any noise, and could not.”