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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
They were alone. Task Force 77, centered on the carrier USS Ticonderoga , was down at the mouth of the Gulf, nicknamed Yankee Station. Some of the Ticonderoga ’s planes made training flights. Others flew across Vietnam to take reconnaissance photos of the fighting in Laos. Tico ’s combat air patrol (CAP) covered the carrier and her escorts but could quickly come north. The Maddox ’s nickname was Sinbad. The commander of the 7th Fleet on the Ticonderoga was nicknamed Jehovah. If Sinbad needed help, Jehovah would respond.
The navigators began updating their charts with reports from radar and sonar. Men with binoculars lined the rails. The ship had passed Bravo (point B on her coastal route) and was approaching Charlie. Passing by Hon Mat, the observers noted smoke rising from the island, a legacy of the raid two nights before.
At six o’clock in the evening, the Maddox reported to Adm. Roy Johnson, commander of the 7th Fleet: “Position vicinity Point Charlie. No unusual activity noted. 110 junks/fishing craft sighted. 4 radar signals detected—all SCR-270.” In effect, business as usual.
As night fell, Herrick sent: “Have terminated orbit. Proceeding due east from Point Charlie at 10 knots until daylight. Heavy concentration of junks to the north.”
The pace changed early on August 2. Since it was a Sunday, the ship ran on a holiday routine, granting the men some free time. But North Vietnam’s Northern Fleet headquarters knew there was an American ship in the Gulf. Three torpedo boats—Division 3 of PT Squadron 135—left their base at Van Hoa and headed south to Hon Me.
Lieutenant Moore’s men monitored this and relayed it to Herrick, who told the 7th Fleet: “Contemplate serious reaction my movements vicinity Point Charlie in near future. Received info indicating possible hostile action.”
At 6:45, Herrick added: “Conditions unchanged. Under own direction am proceeding Point Delta. If info received concerning hostile intent by DRV [Democratic Republic of Vietnam] is accurate, and have no reason to believe it is not, consider continuance of patrol presents an unacceptable risk.”
The 7th Fleet replied: “When considered prudent, resume itinerary. … You are authorized to deviate from itinerary at any time you consider unacceptable risk to exist. Keep all concerned advised.”
The Maddox reached Point Delta at 10:45 A.M. , then turned southwest toward Hon Me. Through the morning, the Maddox monitored five vessels—the smaller P-4’s and the heavier Swatow -class gunboats—moving down from their base at Loc Chao into the cove west of Hon Me. The Maddox ’s men uneasily noted it was a good place to prepare an attack.
At 12:45 P.M. the Maddox turned toward Point Delta again. At about 3:00 P.M. her radar picked up a “skunk,” an unidentified vessel, moving fast northeast off Hon Me, bearing 50°, nearly parallel to the Maddox ’s course.
Ogier increased speed to 25 knots. He wanted room to fight, if he needed it. He took his ship east, then southeast on a heading of 150°. At 4:00 P.M. what appeared to be one enemy contact separated to become three, exceeding 30 knots and aiming straight for the destroyer.
They had to be P-4’s. Each carried two torpedoes and automatic cannon, both lethal to the Maddox ’s thin hull. Ogier told Boatswain’s Mate Paul Bond, “Sound general quarters.”
Bond’s gravelly voice boomed over the public-address system: “Now general quarters—general quarters—All hands man your battle stations—This is not a drill—Repeat, this is not a drill.” Next came the GQ alarm. Men flew through doorways and hatches, up or down ladders. Some went to guns forward or aft, others to torpedo or depth-charge launchers. Once there they donned helmets and flak jackets.
Buehler and Bayley raced to the bridge to take over as officer of the deck (OOD) and junior officer of the deck (JOOD).
Ogier picked up the microphone and told the crew the Maddox would fire warning shots. “If they continue to close after this, we will fire for effect. If each man does his job as well as he has in training procedures, we should not encounter any difficulties. That is all.”
The noise down in the boiler rooms made it nearly impossible to hear this. Fireman Dave Lambo was on a catwalk above the boilers when he noticed his section leader, Boiler Tender First Class Bob Waugh, waving at him. Lambo yelled, “’What the hell are you saying?’ And Waugh said, ’You gotta get down! We’re being attacked!’ I said, ’By who?’ He says, The North Vietnamese!’ And I said, ’Who the f— are the North Vietnamese? Why are they attacking us?’”
Commodore Herrick and Commander Jackson went aft to the Combat Information Center. Herrick radioed Jehovah and requested air support. Task Force 77’s commander, Adm. Robert Moore, sent four F-8E Crusader jets to fly to Sinbad’s aid. Then Moore ordered the destroyer Turner Joy , on radar picket duty southwest of Hainan, to head north to join the Maddox .
Ogier and Buehler scrutinized the boats and discussed the maximum range for a torpedo launch. Ogier then called the CIC. If the boats closed to 10,000 yards, he wanted permission to open fire. Herrick gave it.