- 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
The crews were loading fragmentation rounds, set to explode close to the target. But shooting from a racing destroyer at agile targets was a problem. Many rounds went long or fell short. Furthermore, as Stalsberg explained, “They were aluminum-hull craft. You can damage ’em, but they’re awful hard to sink. You have to explode right on ’em and rip ’em apart.”
Another problem was the pace of the firing: “The guns are capable of firing 22 rounds a minute. So it didn’t take very long to get rid of what we had in the upper handling room. So we were at a very slow rate of fire, after approximately five minutes.” Below each mount was a storage ring containing 44 five-inch rounds of various types. With the Maddox ’s reduced crew, no one was refilling the rings. The gunners were forced to reach for ammunition they wouldn’t normally use. “We shot armor piercing,” Corsette remembered. “We even fired our dummies. Just a hunk of iron. We fired star shells.” Aside from the stern-mounted three-inch guns, the Maddox had no weapons for fighting at closer range; the Navy had removed them after the Korean War. If the boats got near enough, their machine guns could tear through the destroyer’s hull.
Chief Gunner’s Mate Pete Petrovitz saw the problem and moved to fix it. A World War II vet from New York, Petrovitz supervised’ the gun crews. Since the firing was to starboard, he took men from the port three-inch gun and from a ready repair party down to the ship’s magazine, and they began bringing rounds up to the mounts. The rate of firing increased.
“We made many near misses that would seem to lift one end of the boat, much as if it were in heavy seas,” Buehler remembered. “The airbursts seemed to be well positioned, since the shrapnel threw up spray slightly ahead and around the boats. On a few of the shots, I saw pieces flying off the target. I can very well imagine that the boats must have been holed many times and that they must have suffered serious casualties.”
Boat T-336 was leading North Vietnam’s Squadron 135, with T-339 and T-333 following. T-336 veered to the south, but the other two boats continued straight in.
At 4:16 P.M. , T-339 launched two torpedoes from 3,000 yards on a course that would definitely hit the Maddox . An instant later a five-inch round exploded directly on T-339, setting it afire. T-333 began shooting back with a machine gun.
Boatswain’s Mate Bond’s voice rasped over the P.A. system: “Torpedo in the water! All hands, brace yourselves!” Bad news for any sailor, and worse for those below.
“A hit in the boiler areas,” said Lambo, “and the superheaters would snap like that. You’ve got steam at 600 pounds and something like 595 degrees. But superheated steam, up to 850 degrees, becomes a gas instead of water vapor. If you had a pinhole, steam would go 15, 20 feet before you’d even see it. So if you suspected a leak, you’d go around with a broom handle in front of you to find it, ’cause superheat will cut steel. If you ran past, it’d cut you in half.
̴They knew if they’d get the boiler room or the engine room, they didn’t have to worry. It’d take care of itself.”
Torpedoman Richard Bomgardner had left his family farm in Hershey, Pennsylvania, two years earlier. Now, at his post on the O-1 level, the ship’s highest deck, he had a clear view. “Them guns never stopped. They got the barrels hot enough, the paint just peeled off. And when the boats started shooting, the water was just dancing all alongside the ship. I thought, What the devil? Is this for real? They’re shooting at me! These guys are serious!”
It was Maddox ’s first combat in 11 years. The ship had fired 283 rounds in 20 minutes.
In the wardroom, Aguilar leaped to his feet and yelled to Halpern, “’Jump up, Doctor! Jump up and grab the overhead!’ I was looking at him like he’d lost his mind. He said, ’It’ll break your legs unless you grab the overhead!’ ‘ What’s gonna break my legs?’ ’The torpedoes gonna break your legs if you’re standing up! Jump up and grab the overhead!’”
Shock had damaged a fuze setter in one of the forward mounts, causing some of the five-inch rounds to explode just after firing. Then a severed cable started an electrical fire belowdecks toward the bow.
“Somewhat disconcerting,” Buehler noted. “It was plenty busy enough for me. We had two torpedoes on collision course, a fire not yet put out, the aircraft not yet close, fuze setter out, early five-inch bursts, machine-gun bullets splashing close in, two boats coming in, trying to get forward of our beam, and a few other distractions.”
Buehler calmly asked if Ogier was aware of the torpedoes’ proximity. Ogier sharply replied that he was. “The crew was really getting puckered over that,” Buehler added. “They were wondering why we weren’t turning away. The captain was holding on to the bitter end to keep shooting. If we turned away, it would block the guns.” A moment later Commodore Herrick came up from the CIC and asked, “Don’t you think it’s time we turned, Herb?”
Ogier ordered a port turn to 110°, paralleling the torpedoes’ course. It was a maneuver straight from the manual. “The fish whizzed by very close alongside,” Buehler wrote. “I could see the paint on the nearest torpedo and the steam bubbling up from the wake. The bridge team worked very smoothly and quietly, the two loudest members being the captain and myself. Since our eardrums were ruptured, we had a tendency to yell that lasted for weeks thereafter. I was not able to hear a watch tick until one year later.’