- 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
T-336 closed from astern, firing machine guns. One round pierced the base of the Maddox ’s Aft Battery Director. In it sat Lt. (jg) Keith Bane, monitoring the action and ready to take over from Corsette if necessary. The fragments bounced around inside, just beneath his feet.
Corsette finally walked a series of five-inch rounds onto the boat. “Pieces flew in all directions, including a torpedo,” Buehler said. T-336 withdrew northeast, joining T-333.
The Ticonderoga ’s Crusaders arrived at 1628, fired rockets, which missed, and then strafed the boats. T-339 went dead in the water. One Crusader reported it had been hit by gunfire. Escorted by its wingman, it flew to the U.S. Air Force base in Da Nang. Low on fuel, the other two returned to their carrier. Jehovah sent another combat air patrol to cover Sinbad.
The men in the comvan later intercepted messages that T-336, with its engines knocked out, had to be towed by T-333 back to Loc Chao and beached in shallow water. T-339 was believed to have sunk.
Lieutenant Copeland’s damage-control men put out the electrical fire. No one was injured, although Lieutenant Bane had plenty to think about. Herrick and Ogier prepared to go after the boats and relayed this to the 7th Fleet. Admiral Johnson replied: “Retire from area until situation clears and further advised. Do not pursue attacking craft. Fire as necessary in self defense. Report present situation.”
It was the Maddox ’s first combat in 11 years. In 20 minutes she had fired 283 rounds. “The decks were just rolling with casings,” Bomgardner remembered. “You could hardly walk with ’em all there.” Some of the older men took it in stride. The younger men were awestruck. They had kept their heads, remembered their training, and done their jobs. They had survived and won. “People were on cloud nine,” Halpern wrote. “And morale was so high any kid on the Maddox was ready to take on Sonny Liston bareknuckle.”
The Maddox continued southeast toward the Turner Joy , then rendezvoused with Task Force 77. The two destroyers met at dusk. Signalmen flashed a message from Herrick to the Turner Joy ’s captain, Cdr. Robert Barnhart: “Welcome to the club. Hope your gunnery is sharp. Those boys are hopping mad up there. Anything can happen and probably will. Require Condition 3 watch with liberal sprinkling of GQs. Full battle dress with flak jackets. More dope as we go along. Will head north after UNREP [underway replenishment].”
The Turner Joy (DD-951), a Forrest Sherman —class destroyer, was newer and sleeker than the Maddox and armed with three single 5-inch/.54-caliber mounts, with rapid-fire loading mechanisms, plus four twin 3-inch/.50-caliber guns. She was also due to head in for a refitting. The Turner Joy ’s men had been forced to cut short their leave in Subie Bay to join the Ticonderoga at Yankee Station. With her crew both irritated and concerned, the Turner Joy fell in behind the Maddox .
Half a world away President Johnson and Defense Secretary Robert McNamara gave sanitized briefings to the press about the “routine patrol.” No one mentioned OP-34A.
A religious service was held that evening on the Maddox ’s mess deck. “Standing room only,” Alien remembered. “It was amazing, to have that many people at services.”
Herrick wanted to cancel the patrol. But the commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet (CincPacFlt), Adm. Thomas Moorer, disagreed, saying, “In view Maddox incident consider it in our best interest that we assert right of freedom of the seas and resume Gulf of Tonkin patrol earliest.” It was a matter of prestige now, for both sides.
Herrick soberly replied: “It is apparent that DRV has thrown down the gauntlet and now considers itself at war with U.S. It is felt that they will attack U.S. forces on sight with no regard for cost. U.S. ships in the Gulf of Tonkin can no longer assume that they will be treated [as] neutrals exercising the right of free transit. They will be treated as belligerents from first detection and must consider themselves as such.”
The commodore added that his ships weren’t invincible. Fighting meant rapid maneuvering, which drained the Maddox ’s fuel. She lacked faster, line-of-sight guns for close-range action. And although the men in the CIC had replaced the air-search radar’s cooling pipe with a length of hose, the system remained shaky.
Worse, Sinbad’s cover was intermittent. Drinking gas at a fantastic rate, the jets couldn’t remain over the ship for very long.
The brass—President Johnson, Secretary McNamara, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Ulysses Sharp (CincPac), and Admiral Moorer (CincPacFlt)—disagreed. From their view, the attack had been ordered by a zealous local commander and wasn’t indicative of North Vietnam’s military policy. The carrier Constellation (Task Force 72) would join the Ticonderoga . The Maddox and the Turner Joy would return to the Gulf and resume the patrol, venturing no closer than 11 miles to the North Vietnamese coast.