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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
When the Maddox ’s men learned this, their enthusiasm cooled. The Navy’s fleet broadcast carried news stories as well as all nonclassified radio traffic. From them the men learned the battle’s political effects. It was an election year. “The president immediately conferred with his challenger [Mr. Goldwater],” Halpern wrote, “then with chin extended, gut pulled in and clear-eyed, announced to the American people that he had just doubled our destroyer force in the Gulf of Tonkin. This convulsed everyone on the ship. The compound absurdity of the statement (two has got to be twice one) is not difficult to recognize.”
The crew’s doubts increased when the officers strapped on holsters with .45-caliber pistols. Ogier sent gunner’s mates up to the signal bridge to cut away parts of the railing and set up a .30-caliber machine gun. “This was a small weapon against surface craft,” Buehler wrote, “but might help in the event we were boarded.”
The most drastic change was in the wardroom. Halpern and Aguilar had been busy. “It was something to see,” Buehler wrote. “IV rigs hanging about, operating lamps up, and instructions on the bulkhead prepared in anticipation of the doctor being killed. A sort of do-it-yourself guide for whoever was left. Not a very pleasant place to live, but reassuring in the completeness of the doctor’s preparation.”
“I think the scariest for me,” said Bayley, “was getting called to the commodore’s cabin as we were going back up into the Gulf. It was about two o’clock in the morning, and he tells me that I have to start destroying all my registered publications. Immediately.
“Now, it’s two o’clock and I can’t go out and light a fire on the fantail. The water is too shallow to throw weighted bags over. So, picture this: I have to go down to the boiler room, pull out the burner plates, start rolling this stuff up and shoving it in. I had to tell all these guys down there, ’You gotta get back ’cause you can’t see what I’m gonna burn.’ So you can imagine how they felt. Word of this got out all over the ship. They knew I wasn’t down there burning the morning paper.”
By dawn on August 3 the Maddox and the Turner Joy , now designated Task Group 72.1, were moving northwest along the Vietnamese coast, retracing the route of the patrol.
Herrick took his group west at 7:00 A.M. on August 4. At around 10:30 radar detected what appeared to be a North Vietnamese torpedo boat. The weather, mild and clear for the last two days, was turning bad. The men focused on their work and said little. Halpern went to the bridge. “No one smiled; no one spoke. I made the circle of the bridge and came up behind the commodore’s chair. He appeared older than he had yesterday as though someone had added twenty quick years to his life.”
Herrick pondered the updates he’d sent: “DRV considers U.S. ships present as enemies … have already indicated their readiness to treat us in that category. … Believe [Hon Me] is a PT operating base and the cove there presently contains numerous patrol and PT craft. … Defense against PT’s is very difficult. … 15-minute reaction time for obtaining air cover is unacceptable.”
The planes from the carriers dropped flares. The men on the tin cans wondered if the drifting lights were more help to the North Vietnamese.
Lieutenant Moore then brought his latest news, causing Herrick to send this message to Johnson: “Received information indicating attack … imminent. My position 19-10.7N, 107-OOE. Proceeding southeast at best speed.”
The ships went to general quarters at about 8:00 P.M. Radar reported several contacts in the area where the Maddox and the Turner Joy had been the night before. Suspecting a trap, Herrick called Jehovah for air support.
The Maddox ’s Quartermaster’s Log reads: “2013: Maneuvering to avoid three high speed craft believed to be attacking PT boats. … 2030: Contact bearing 002°, 36 miles. … 2039: New Contact 092°. … 2043: Maddox and Turner Joy concur radar contacts to be weather.”
The radar conditions permitted radar pulses to super-refract, traveling much farther than usual, but such conditions could also make objects dozens or hundreds of miles away seem much closer.
Enemy boats appeared to be moving in from different points of the compass. It was a better strategy than the Maddox had witnessed on Sunday.
“Am under attack now,” Herrick sent. “Am firing back and a/c [air cover] en route with rockets.” Soon both destroyers were tracking and firing on surface contacts and responding to torpedo reports. The ships commenced a series of evasive maneuvers that quickly put miles between them. The radarmen struggled to calculate the position of every boat—or possible boat—in relation to the destroyers; the position of the destroyers in relation to each other; and their progress along the course to the southeast. By now the CAP was overhead, the pilots dropping flares and straining to study the surface.
Entries from the CIC Log read: “2130: A/C sees lights. … 2136: Skunk bearing 081°. Commence firing. … 2139: Turner Joy commenced firing. … 2140: ’Possible’ torpedo in the water. … 2204: Commenced firing at target astern. … 2217: Turner Joy taking contact under fire. … 2226: Commence firing at contact. … 2236: Maddox under attack by PT boat.”