- 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
From Keelung, the Maddox was heading farther south. Commodore Herrick and his staff were coming along to direct the mission. Herrick had been briefed at Patrol Force headquarters. He was to take the Maddox into the Tonkin Gulf. The previous DeSoto Patrol there had been uneventful. This one didn’t promise to be any different.
The Maddox left Keelung on July 28 and headed south along the east coast of Taiwan. She ran under complete radio and radar silence. The intention was a long and quiet approach to the Gulf.
Previous elint missions had not gone unnoticed. The first Tonkin foray had been in mid-December 1962, when the destroyer Agerholm went up to 21°N. China formally protested to the International Control Commission, proclaiming that its territory extended 12 miles from its shores. (By contrast, the United States claimed only 3 miles.)
A second mission followed in April 1963, and a third in February 1964. Each time, Chinese or North Vietnamese boats and planes shadowed the American ships.
Thursday afternoon, July 30, the Maddox rounded Hainan. Part of Red China, the island forms the eastern shore of the Tonkin Gulf. With North Vietnam to the west and north, and China to the north and east, the Maddox entered a narrow body of water with only one exit.
That same evening South Vietnamese gunboats shot up North Vietnamese facilities on the islands of Hon Me and Hon Ngu. It was part of a secret operation called OP-34A, a series of raids made by South Vietnamese commandos, trained by U.S. Navy SEALs. The raid was one of many covert operations the North and the South ran against each other. That night the South Vietnamese commandos blasted away with can: non at the islands’ bases for 30 minutes. By daybreak they were back at their base in Da Nang.
On the morning of Friday, July 31, Captain Ogier briefed the Maddox crew via the ship’s public-address system: “The ship is proceeding into the Gulf of Tonkin in order to collect hydrographic and oceanographic information. To the west is the coast of North Vietnam, and to the east is the island of Hainan, belonging to Communist China. We have a right to enter the Gulf since at all times we will be in international waters. We will leave the Gulf around 9 August. Keep alert and conserve fresh water. The ship’s daily routine will be carried out.”
The comvan and the Marines weren’t mentioned. Strange. It was an article of faith that sailors know the essence of their mission, if not necessarily the specifics. But the Cold War dictated new rules, and everyone noticed Lieutenant Moore’s frequent trips to the bridge.
To conserve fuel, only one of the Maddox ’s four boilers was lit. Her speed dropped below 10 knots. Slow cruising through tropical waters took its toll. “The steel was so hot during the day,” Buehler said, “it would raise blisters if you touched it. We’d gotten a little bit of air conditioning in for the radios, but as far as crew was concerned, forget it.”
The arrival of Commodore Herrick and his staff meant that Buehler and other officers had to give up their cabins. The ship’s XO, Cdr. Dempster Jackson, chose to sleep in the ship’s lifeboat. Jackson was an acid-tongued varsity swimmer from Mississippi. Being a World War II vet and a Naval Academy man, he slept where he pleased. But as the next ranking officer, Buehler had to take the XO’s cabin.
“I had to be next to a phone because the captain was always calling me. The cabin was a holdover from World War II, placed aft because the bridge was apt to get clobbered and the CO in his sea cabin up there would get clobbered with it. That’s what the Japanese would shoot for, the bridge. So the XO gave me his room, and it was hotter than the hubs of hell. It was right over the fire room. It was so hot it would turn the starch in my whites yellow.”
The USS Maddox had had many captains. Some were charismatic men who made life at sea a little easier. Some weren’t. Ogier was more interested in his responsibilities than in being popular.
The enemy contact separated from one to three, aiming straight for the destroyer.
“Everybody was intimidated by Herbert Ogier and Dempster Jackson,” Alien remembered. “They were old school. You’d have thought we were back in the Naval Academy doing plebe year all over again. But it’s unfair to indict these guys, because I don’t know what was on their plate.
“As I got more time on Maddox , I realized it was a struggle just to live . When a ship is 20 years old, it’s falling apart from stem to stern. You’ve got to keep this thing not only floating and habitable for 275 guys, but you’ve got to keep it operational. And there’s a lot of stress there.”
The Maddox ’s course was a 16-point track. Designated “A” through “P,” it followed the Vietnamese coast up to China, from 17°N to 21°N. The Maddox would orbit each for a few hours, then continue. In addition to what the comvan garnered, the Maddox ’s crew would chart water depth, temperature, currents, tides, buoys, navigation lights, and boat traffic. Any signs of military activity were to be recorded, plus types and locations of North Vietnamese radar. Finally, they would take photographs and radar images of the coastline, noting military installations and new construction sites.