- 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 Maddox and the Turner Joy fired star shells. Many burst up in the overcast, illuminating the clouds more than the water. The planes dropped more flares. The men on the tin cans wondered if the drifting lights were more help to the North Vietnamese than the Americans.
Two Skyraider pilots reported seeing machine-gun flashes; another, up ahead of the Maddox , reported a wake possibly caused by a high-speed turn.
More torpedo reports. Between 11:10 and 11:30 at night, the Turner Joy acquired two more targets and fired on them. Her radar claimed hits on both. A new target appeared, close enough for lookouts to see. Their descriptions matched a P-4, particularly the boat’s elongated bow. More surface and sonar contacts, but several just vanished. Sweating over the scopes, the Maddox ’s CIC men contended with many problems: bad weather, rough seas, and sonar reflections generated by their ship’s propellers, especially when making hard turns. (Sonar works best in calm water when a ship is moving slowly.)
Messages flew between the destroyers—“Torpedo missed.” “That’s nr 7 torpedo and 2 torpedoes in water.” “Torpedoes missed. Another fired at us. 4 torpedoes in water. And 5 torpedoes in water”—and were relayed to the White House and the Pentagon. Around 10:30 P.M. Herrick sent: “Undetermined number of torpedoes attack. Maddox alone has evaded about 10 torpedoes. Two torpedo craft sunk. No casualties to us yet.”
In the Main Battery Director, Corsette and his gun trainers were having a frustrating night. “I kept getting designated targets. You know, ’Main Battery, you got a target at three-one-zero, 9,000 yards.’ And we’d slew over and, sure enough, lock on to something, and then it would just dissipate. Nothing there. I could never hold a lock long enough to get a shot. So I don’t know. After a while it tells me these aren’t real. There’s nothing out there. Maybe this is weather, somehow.”
Entries from the Maddox ’s Quartermaster’s Log read: “2145: Possible torpedo bearing 357°. … 2150: Torpedo bearing 265°. … 2151: Torpedo bearing 214°. … 2152: Torpedo missed.… 2153: Torpedo bearing 017°.… 2154: Torpedo has missed us. … 2200: Torpedo bears 198°. … 2200: Torpedo bears 142°… 2201: Possible torpedo bearing 188°… 2202: Torpedo bears 225°.”
An effective way to find a ship at night was to follow its wake, and many contacts were closing in from astern. To shake the pursuers, both ships dropped depth charges off their sterns, timed to explode shortly after hitting the water.
On the Maddox “they tried to drop ’em from the bridge, but they couldn’t,” Bomgardner remembered. “We had to push the depth charges out of the rack.” After Bomgardner and the men with him made their way to the fantail, it took them a moment to realize the problem. The depth charges had been recently painted, and the extra coats of paint had caused the jam.
Each charge weighed 250 pounds, with a TNT core and a nitroglycerin detonator triggered by a depth gauge. Using tools, the men loosened the rack enough to let the first charge drop. Set for deeper waters than the Gulf’s, it plunged to the bottom. Swearing, they fixed the next charge for 75 feet, then rolled it free. It exploded an instant after hitting the water. “It just took the whole ship and shook it,” Bomgardner said. “I thought we’d knocked the rudder off.”
It was a hammerblow for Dave Lambo, down in the inferno of engineering, where the temperature stoodat 140 degrees. He said, “I was standing there, and that whole boiler just- BOOM ! I mean, up and down, and there’s stuff falling from everywhere.”
Halpern wrote: “In the wardroom I felt the shock. We’re hit aft, I thought, hit right in the screws. If we are, it’s all over.” Then, Boatswain’s Mate Bond belatedly announced what had happened. Bomgardner’s team dropped more depth charges, set to detonate farther astern.
In the CIC, Tony Arcoraci, a radarman, third class, was doing his best and trying not to think about the consequences. Arcoraci left Dunkirk, New York, to enlist in 1960. He was a musician. Being good at it, he’d chosen radar work, finding many similarities between the two disciplines. Of some of the contacts, Arcoraci said: “I was able to mark them, plot them, and mark them again. … I knew they weren’t waves colliding. … But some marks were there. They weren’t disappearing. But there were times when I saw marks that disappeared after I sent them to the bridge.”
Eventually Captain Ogier called Arcoraci himself to the bridge, where a radar repeater was displaying the information that the CIC had. Arcoraci made his case. Some were definite radar contacts, and others were ghosts. Ogier didn’t like it but couldn’t deny it either.
The ship continued on its wild journey, making corkscrew course changes to shake off the torpedoes. By now there had been 21 torpedo reports. The CAP continued circling above, occasionally firing at where the destroyers reported targets.
Then, at five minutes to one in the morning, the zigzagging ceased. The ship slowed. The scopes were clear. Ogier gave the order to secure from general quarters.
“In the gun mounts,” Halpern wrote, “in the fire rooms … and in the wardroom, we only knew that surely God was a Maddox sailor. What followed the slowing of the ship stunned me, and has to this day.”