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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
Having been aboard exactly 13 days, Ens. Noel Alien’s job in the CIC was to keep quiet and observe. “It was bedlam in there because there are too many people for the space. On these older ships CIC is rather small.”
LT. Sam Halpern, desdiv 192’s medical officer, and Chief Pharmacist’s Mate Aguilar went to the officers’ wardroom. This would be the ship’s first-aid center during combat. Setting out the equipment and medicine they might need, the country doctor tried to clear his mind. Kentucky born, Halpern had gone to the University of Oklahoma Medical School and joined the Navy in 1963. Now, at the age of 25, he was responsible for the health of four destroyer crews, more than 1,000 men. Up until that moment his biggest worries had been the strains of VD that a sailor could acquire in Asia. Now he anticipated injuries the men might suffer and how he would treat them.
“The first time I heard about military triage,” he said, “I was appalled. You worked first on those who can go back into combat. And you left last those who were dying, or might, unless they got immediate help. You just let ’em go. You get everybody you can back into combat. I didn’t understand that until we went into combat. Then I understood, because everybody ’s gonna die if you don’t get this guy back. It’s a horrible thing to do.”
He and Aguilar sat and listened to the sounds of a ship preparing to fight, the vibrations of propellers churning at full speed, the grinding of the gears that turned and elevated the guns. Everyone was busy—except the medics.
“If you’re the doc aboard, there’s not a God damn thing to do,” Halpern said. “There’s nothing to do. It’s the worst that could ever happen to you in combat. It’s like going to the electric chair. I mean, if you could fire a gun, you’re doing something, and it takes your mind off the fact that you might die.”
The Maddox was making 27 knots now, heading for the mouth of the Gulf. The boats were 11 miles away, closing at over 50 knots. “The captain and the gun boss, Lieutenant Connell, set up on the starboard side, expecting that side to be engaged,” Buehler wrote. “The boats continued to bore in, and they moved into a V formation. We locked on with our fire-control gear and continued to track them when they attempted to break the lock by crisscrossing. It did not work, but it was clearly an attack procedure.”
The boats bore no discernible insignia, flew no flags, and made no effort to radio the Americans. Their strategy was hardly ideal. It meant a protracted pursuit, within range of the Maddox ’s guns long before they could launch torpedoes.
“The captain gave us the slowest possible closing-range rate,” Buehler recalls, “by putting the target on the starboard quarter just far enough forward to permit the two forward mounts to bear.” Mounts 51 and 52 rotated far to the right.
“I’d never seen a gun fired in anger,” he continued. “I was too young for the Korean conflict, so my battle experience was limited to TV and the usual rigorous Navy training. No matter how enthusiastic the drill or how violent the occasional accident, there is nothing more sobering than actually confronting someone actively trying to exterminate you.”
In the Main Battery Director, Ens. Richard Corsette received a bearing from the CIC, trained his own radar toward the targets, and waited. Corsette had left Crawfordsville, Indiana, to enlist in 1955. After tours in submarines, he had become a chief sonarman, then gone to OCS. He had joined the Maddox in August 1963. Now he was the man who would fire the ship’s main guns.
“I don’t care whatever else you hear about Ogier,” Corsette stated. “I was glad he was there when we got into that fight. He was cool, just very matter-of-fact.”
At 4:05 P.M. Ogier gave the order to fire. Corsette sounded the alarm, then gripped the trigger. The blasts were staggering. Men on the bridge bled from their eardrums and noses. Worse, the shock knocked out the Maddox ’s air search radar, to the crew’s disgust. This had happened before, since its designers had not taken into account shock from gunfire.
The shells arced toward the boats, which showed no signs of breaking off. Ogier gave Corsette his next order. “’Rapid continuous fire. Commence fire.’ At about that time I saw the first salvo hit the water beyond them,” Corsette recalled. He recalculated the range, relayed the changes to the gun crews, then resumed firing.
At 4:16 p.m., t-339 launched two torpedoes on a course that would definitely hit the maddox .
From the CIC, Herrick radioed, “Being attacked by 3 DRV PT craft. I am opening fire with 5-inch battery. Air support from TICO ETA 15 minutes.” Commander Jackson, in charge of the CIC, wanted the boat crews to have no doubts about whom they were attacking. He ordered a signalman to replace the steaming flag with the battle ensign, the largest American flag aboard.
Gunner’s Mate Second Class Ron Stalsberg from San Antonio was in charge of Mount 51. “I’d been in 10½ years,” he said. “So I was a little more familiar with things. Everything went pretty smooth, as far as firing the guns went. We had plenty of drill time to get the younger people familiar with their equipment and their jobs, and they performed very well.”