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
The other officer disagreed: “I know from several years’ experience as a sonarman that a destroyer’s sonar equipment [in 1964] is useless above 25 knots. … I will bet my last dollar you could not hear anything on Maddox sonar except self-noise at 30-plus knots!”
That said, Doc Halpern’s assessment holds. And if the men who were there can’t agree, it’s foolhardy for anyone else to try to settle the question.
Then there is the unpleasant suspicion that the Maddox was set up, that President Johnson needed to lose an American ship to rally the people to the cause. Some of the crew swear by this. Some flatly deny it. Many are unsure but quietly lean toward the first view. Or toward another: Phenomenal incompetence at the top levels of command put a U.S. warship in a place where the South Vietnamese had been shooting at the North Vietnamese only shortly before. “To this day,” said Noel Alien, “the one overriding sense I have about that whole experience was how well the people did their job. They just did marvelously well. Because that’s what we were supposed to do.”
Commodore Herrick died in 1999. Captain Ogier and Adm. Dempster Jackson died in the spring of 2002. The signals intercepted in the comvan, along with many details from the Maddox ’s CIC logs, remain classified. North Vietnam acknowledged the August 2 attack but denied any part of the events the night of August 4-5.
The Maddox returned to Vietnam several times, shepherding the carrier task forces and going in for shore bombardment. In 1972 she was decommissioned and sold to the Taiwanese Navy. Recommissioned RCS [Republic of China Ship] Po Yang (DD-10), she returned to the waters off Taiwan, doing essentially the same work she’d done before. She remained in service until 1985, then was decommissioned for the last time and broken up for scrap.
The Maddox Association, however, is alive and well, with hundreds of members who served on the ship at different points in her life. They have annual reunions, a newsletter, and a Web site.