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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
From the combat information center (CIC) of the Destroyer USS Maddox, Commodore John Herrick radioed: “Am being approached by high speed craft with apparent intention of torpedo attack. Intend open fire if necessary.” America claimed the Tonkin Gulf was international water; the North Vietnamese thought otherwise.
The mission was Herrick’s, but the ship belonged to its captain, Herbert L. Ogier. As the boats reached the 10,000-yard mark, Ogier said to the Maddox ’s gunnery officer, Lt. Raymond Connell, “Tell Corsette, ’Slow salvo fire. Commence fire.’” Connell relayed the order via phone to Ens. Richard Corsette, stationed just above the bridge in the Main Battery Director.
Corsette called his gun crews: “Mount 51 and 52, slow salvo fire. Load.” Both acknowledged the order. Corsette replied, “Commence fire.” With a shattering blast, the five-inch rounds tore through the sky toward the enemy craft. These initial shots were meant as a warning to the boats to break off. They did not. Ogier gave the next order: “Continuous fire.”
It was August 2, 1964. This action, and another one two nights later, became the Tonkin Gulf “incident.” President Lyndon Johnson declared them unprovoked attacks against a “routine patrol in international waters.” He ordered Navy jets to bomb North Vietnamese naval bases and fuel supplies and rallied Congress to sign his Southeast Asia Resolution, authorizing him to take further military action. The result was the longest war the United States ever fought.
Over the past 40 years legions of scholars and polemicists have assessed the USS Maddox with the scrutiny worthy of a medical examiner. Thousands of pages have presented the view from Washington in the summer of 1964. Most accounts devote only a page or two to the view from the Tonkin Gulf; readers are lucky to learn much beyond the names of the Maddox ’s two senior officers. But these men, and the sailors they commanded, are the people at the sharp end of history. These men, some of them seasoned veterans of World War II, some of them new to the service, are the ones who made a momentous voyage from peace to war. This is their story.
“You find out very, very quickly how close-knit a destroyer can be, and how close quarters a destroyer can be.”
By the summer of 1964 the Maddox had had an impressive career. The keel of DD-731 had been laid in 1943 at the Bath Iron Works in Maine. Measuring 376 feet long and displacing 2,250 tons, she was a Sumner -class destroyer, designed to counter Japanese air attacks. With three twin five-inch/.38-caliber mounts and many smaller guns, the Maddox was a fast, sturdy watchdog for carrier task forces.
Commissioned in June 1944, she headed west to join Admiral Halsey’s 3rd Fleet for the autumn invasion of the Philippines. She threw withering fire against attacking planes, rescued downed American pilots, and survived a typhoon in December that sank three other destroyers. She was hit on January 21,1945, by a kamikaze that killed 7 of her crew and injured 33 more. She came through it all.
When the Korean War broke out in June 1950, the Maddox was one of the first warships to reach the Korean coast. By spring 1953 she had fought many duels with North Korean shore batteries. The U.S.S. Maddox Association vice president Ken Chestnut was there. “We were the most shot-at ship in the U.S. Navy,” he said. “Try that one on sometime.”
Now the Maddox was 20 years old, but with plenty of life left. The Cold War was approaching its third decade. Demand was high for good men to keep the Navy running: some graduated from high school and enlisted to become sailors; some went to the U.S. Naval Academy; others earned commissions through their college Naval Reserves Officers Training Corps (NROTC) programs or attended officer candidate school in Newport, Rhode Island.
Lt. Bill Buehler joined the Maddox in 1962. He was the operations officer, second only to the executive officer and the captain. The son of a Navy officer, Buehler had earned his commission in 1956 through the NROTC at the University of Michigan. “From there I went to Maddox ,” Buehler remembered. “I didn’t have a postgrad school, and I wasn’t really in track for destroyers. I had been on a DE [destroyer escort], but as an engineer officer, and on a bird farm [carrier] too, but that doesn’t count for anything, at least not with the surface people. So, even though I was hell on wheels in all those jobs, it was not really a command profile. But my boss at ASW [antisubmarine warfare] school talked to ’em, and so they sent me to a destroyer. I was not really a gung-ho CO motivated type; I had a different path to follow. But happily, Divine Providence was running the railroad, and it all worked out perfectly.”
A lot of sailors felt the way Buehler did about destroyer duty. Lt. (jg) Jim Copeland, a Colorado man who joined the Navy on his way to becoming an architect and was the Maddox ’s damage-control assistant in 1964, put it this way: “You find out very, very quickly how close-knit a destroyer can be, and how close quarters a destroyer can be. After a while you believe that it is the only Navy. You look around and you see the carriers and the cruisers and the lavish spaces, and the lack of shiphandling ability that these people have, and the abundance of experience that everyone gets on a destroyer. Everybody. At that point in my life there was no doubt that destroyers were the only ship to learn all you needed to know in the Navy.”
Ens. Noel Alien of Glendale, California, wanted a destroyer too. Graduating from the Naval Academy in 1964, Alien requested a ship that operated from Long Beach, which was close to his home. The Maddox was one. “I had spent two summer cruises on destroyer-type ships, and I loved ’em. I thought, This is it. I’m in hog heaven.”
The Maddox ’s wartime complement was 22 officers and 300 enlisted seamen, petty officers, and chiefs. By 1964, howeyer, the ship had a reduced crew: 14 officers and 260 men. Fewer men, with more work for each.
The Maddox was attached to Destroyer Division 192. The division commodore was Capt. John J. Herrick. Herrick had grown up in Warren, Minnesota, and graduated from the Naval Academy in 1943. The Maddox ’s commanding officer (CO) was Cdr. Herbert Ogier. The ship’s twelfth captain hailed from Baltimore, Maryland. He graduated from Annapolis a year after Herrick. The men were friends; and both were World War II vets.
DesDiv 192 was part of the Patrol Force, Taiwan Defense Command. It was a branch of the U.S. 7th Fleet, guarding the waters between Japan and Taiwan. The Maddox operated from Japan through the spring, then went to the Philippines, over to Hong Kong, and back to Japan that summer.
The Maddox ’s new gunnery officer, Ensign Alien, joined her in Japan on July 20. His welcome was brief: “Everybody was busy because we were getting ready to go to the Taiwan Patrol.” The ship sailed for Keelung, Taiwan, on July 23.
“We pulled into Keelung, and there was MacKenzie . She was roughly similar to Maddox and had just come down from patrolling off Vladivostok.
“In those days we tried to keep up an electronic intelligence presence off the coast of Russia. The Navy would take these ships and put electronic information-gathering comvans [communications vans]—or elint [electronic intelligence], as they called it—elements on board, and they’d run up and down North Korea and up the Russian coast.
“Well, that’s where the old comvan came from. With a crane they took this comvan—nothing more than a conex [container express] box, really—and they lifted it from MacKenzie on the O-1 level, the ship’s highest deck, between the stacks, and dropped it over on Maddox . And then we got these hairy-looking Marines. These guys looked like they were a bit more serious than we were.”
This was the DeSoto Patrol, established in 1963. The box was a Naval Security Group comvan, manned by nine communications specialists and guarded by six Marines. The unit for the July—August mission was commanded by Lt. Gerrell Moore, an easygoing reserve officer from Texas. He dealt directly with Commodore Herrick and his staff, Captain Ogier and Cdr. Dempster Jackson, the Maddox ’s executive officer (XO). “I was not open to special intelligence because the commodore was aboard with his ops officer,” Buehler noted. “They had SI clearance. I didn’t.”
The communications officer, Lt. (jg) John Bayley, recalled: “A lot of us didn’t know what the mission was, but we figured it out in a hurry. But none of us really knew just what these guys were doing.”
Bayley grew up in Lake City, Minnesota. Earning a degree in zoology from the University of Minnesota, he aimed to go to graduate school. Then he reconsidered. “I realized that sitting in the corner of a lab the rest of my life was not for me.” Bayley went for officer candidate school.
He joined the Maddox in September 1962. “I was 22 years old. Within three weeks I was the communications officer, with 45 men working for me. I had no training for this. No experience. I learned in a hurry that you listened to the chiefs.
“I had 27 collateral duties. Plus I had to read the fleet broadcast. It came across a Teletype nonstop. They included messages not only to us but to other ships too. I was expected to read that thing every day. And I was ship’s secretary, ship’s personnel officer, registered publications custodian. Talk about checking your pockets for your keys! I had these two huge safes in my stateroom, holding all our publications, many of them top secret. I’d spin the dials four times before I ever left that room. The Navy prison in Portsmouth was full of guys who’d lost money or registered pubs.”
As for the comvan, Bayley reflected: “My guess at the time was they just had some much more sophisticated gear than we had and that they were able to pick up a lot more, both communications-wise and electronic emissions. That’s what I figured.”
From Keelung, the Maddox was heading farther south. Commodore Herrick and his staff were coming along to direct the mission. Herrick had been briefed at Patrol Force headquarters. He was to take the Maddox into the Tonkin Gulf. The previous DeSoto Patrol there had been uneventful. This one didn’t promise to be any different.
The Maddox left Keelung on July 28 and headed south along the east coast of Taiwan. She ran under complete radio and radar silence. The intention was a long and quiet approach to the Gulf.
Previous elint missions had not gone unnoticed. The first Tonkin foray had been in mid-December 1962, when the destroyer Agerholm went up to 21°N. China formally protested to the International Control Commission, proclaiming that its territory extended 12 miles from its shores. (By contrast, the United States claimed only 3 miles.)
A second mission followed in April 1963, and a third in February 1964. Each time, Chinese or North Vietnamese boats and planes shadowed the American ships.
Thursday afternoon, July 30, the Maddox rounded Hainan. Part of Red China, the island forms the eastern shore of the Tonkin Gulf. With North Vietnam to the west and north, and China to the north and east, the Maddox entered a narrow body of water with only one exit.
That same evening South Vietnamese gunboats shot up North Vietnamese facilities on the islands of Hon Me and Hon Ngu. It was part of a secret operation called OP-34A, a series of raids made by South Vietnamese commandos, trained by U.S. Navy SEALs. The raid was one of many covert operations the North and the South ran against each other. That night the South Vietnamese commandos blasted away with can: non at the islands’ bases for 30 minutes. By daybreak they were back at their base in Da Nang.
On the morning of Friday, July 31, Captain Ogier briefed the Maddox crew via the ship’s public-address system: “The ship is proceeding into the Gulf of Tonkin in order to collect hydrographic and oceanographic information. To the west is the coast of North Vietnam, and to the east is the island of Hainan, belonging to Communist China. We have a right to enter the Gulf since at all times we will be in international waters. We will leave the Gulf around 9 August. Keep alert and conserve fresh water. The ship’s daily routine will be carried out.”
The comvan and the Marines weren’t mentioned. Strange. It was an article of faith that sailors know the essence of their mission, if not necessarily the specifics. But the Cold War dictated new rules, and everyone noticed Lieutenant Moore’s frequent trips to the bridge.
To conserve fuel, only one of the Maddox ’s four boilers was lit. Her speed dropped below 10 knots. Slow cruising through tropical waters took its toll. “The steel was so hot during the day,” Buehler said, “it would raise blisters if you touched it. We’d gotten a little bit of air conditioning in for the radios, but as far as crew was concerned, forget it.”
The arrival of Commodore Herrick and his staff meant that Buehler and other officers had to give up their cabins. The ship’s XO, Cdr. Dempster Jackson, chose to sleep in the ship’s lifeboat. Jackson was an acid-tongued varsity swimmer from Mississippi. Being a World War II vet and a Naval Academy man, he slept where he pleased. But as the next ranking officer, Buehler had to take the XO’s cabin.
“I had to be next to a phone because the captain was always calling me. The cabin was a holdover from World War II, placed aft because the bridge was apt to get clobbered and the CO in his sea cabin up there would get clobbered with it. That’s what the Japanese would shoot for, the bridge. So the XO gave me his room, and it was hotter than the hubs of hell. It was right over the fire room. It was so hot it would turn the starch in my whites yellow.”
The USS Maddox had had many captains. Some were charismatic men who made life at sea a little easier. Some weren’t. Ogier was more interested in his responsibilities than in being popular.
The enemy contact separated from one to three, aiming straight for the destroyer.
“Everybody was intimidated by Herbert Ogier and Dempster Jackson,” Alien remembered. “They were old school. You’d have thought we were back in the Naval Academy doing plebe year all over again. But it’s unfair to indict these guys, because I don’t know what was on their plate.
“As I got more time on Maddox , I realized it was a struggle just to live . When a ship is 20 years old, it’s falling apart from stem to stern. You’ve got to keep this thing not only floating and habitable for 275 guys, but you’ve got to keep it operational. And there’s a lot of stress there.”
The Maddox ’s course was a 16-point track. Designated “A” through “P,” it followed the Vietnamese coast up to China, from 17°N to 21°N. The Maddox would orbit each for a few hours, then continue. In addition to what the comvan garnered, the Maddox ’s crew would chart water depth, temperature, currents, tides, buoys, navigation lights, and boat traffic. Any signs of military activity were to be recorded, plus types and locations of North Vietnamese radar. Finally, they would take photographs and radar images of the coastline, noting military installations and new construction sites.
They were alone. Task Force 77, centered on the carrier USS Ticonderoga , was down at the mouth of the Gulf, nicknamed Yankee Station. Some of the Ticonderoga ’s planes made training flights. Others flew across Vietnam to take reconnaissance photos of the fighting in Laos. Tico ’s combat air patrol (CAP) covered the carrier and her escorts but could quickly come north. The Maddox ’s nickname was Sinbad. The commander of the 7th Fleet on the Ticonderoga was nicknamed Jehovah. If Sinbad needed help, Jehovah would respond.
The navigators began updating their charts with reports from radar and sonar. Men with binoculars lined the rails. The ship had passed Bravo (point B on her coastal route) and was approaching Charlie. Passing by Hon Mat, the observers noted smoke rising from the island, a legacy of the raid two nights before.
At six o’clock in the evening, the Maddox reported to Adm. Roy Johnson, commander of the 7th Fleet: “Position vicinity Point Charlie. No unusual activity noted. 110 junks/fishing craft sighted. 4 radar signals detected—all SCR-270.” In effect, business as usual.
As night fell, Herrick sent: “Have terminated orbit. Proceeding due east from Point Charlie at 10 knots until daylight. Heavy concentration of junks to the north.”
The pace changed early on August 2. Since it was a Sunday, the ship ran on a holiday routine, granting the men some free time. But North Vietnam’s Northern Fleet headquarters knew there was an American ship in the Gulf. Three torpedo boats—Division 3 of PT Squadron 135—left their base at Van Hoa and headed south to Hon Me.
Lieutenant Moore’s men monitored this and relayed it to Herrick, who told the 7th Fleet: “Contemplate serious reaction my movements vicinity Point Charlie in near future. Received info indicating possible hostile action.”
At 6:45, Herrick added: “Conditions unchanged. Under own direction am proceeding Point Delta. If info received concerning hostile intent by DRV [Democratic Republic of Vietnam] is accurate, and have no reason to believe it is not, consider continuance of patrol presents an unacceptable risk.”
The 7th Fleet replied: “When considered prudent, resume itinerary. … You are authorized to deviate from itinerary at any time you consider unacceptable risk to exist. Keep all concerned advised.”
The Maddox reached Point Delta at 10:45 A.M. , then turned southwest toward Hon Me. Through the morning, the Maddox monitored five vessels—the smaller P-4’s and the heavier Swatow -class gunboats—moving down from their base at Loc Chao into the cove west of Hon Me. The Maddox ’s men uneasily noted it was a good place to prepare an attack.
At 12:45 P.M. the Maddox turned toward Point Delta again. At about 3:00 P.M. her radar picked up a “skunk,” an unidentified vessel, moving fast northeast off Hon Me, bearing 50°, nearly parallel to the Maddox ’s course.
Ogier increased speed to 25 knots. He wanted room to fight, if he needed it. He took his ship east, then southeast on a heading of 150°. At 4:00 P.M. what appeared to be one enemy contact separated to become three, exceeding 30 knots and aiming straight for the destroyer.
They had to be P-4’s. Each carried two torpedoes and automatic cannon, both lethal to the Maddox ’s thin hull. Ogier told Boatswain’s Mate Paul Bond, “Sound general quarters.”
Bond’s gravelly voice boomed over the public-address system: “Now general quarters—general quarters—All hands man your battle stations—This is not a drill—Repeat, this is not a drill.” Next came the GQ alarm. Men flew through doorways and hatches, up or down ladders. Some went to guns forward or aft, others to torpedo or depth-charge launchers. Once there they donned helmets and flak jackets.
Buehler and Bayley raced to the bridge to take over as officer of the deck (OOD) and junior officer of the deck (JOOD).
Ogier picked up the microphone and told the crew the Maddox would fire warning shots. “If they continue to close after this, we will fire for effect. If each man does his job as well as he has in training procedures, we should not encounter any difficulties. That is all.”
The noise down in the boiler rooms made it nearly impossible to hear this. Fireman Dave Lambo was on a catwalk above the boilers when he noticed his section leader, Boiler Tender First Class Bob Waugh, waving at him. Lambo yelled, “’What the hell are you saying?’ And Waugh said, ’You gotta get down! We’re being attacked!’ I said, ’By who?’ He says, The North Vietnamese!’ And I said, ’Who the f— are the North Vietnamese? Why are they attacking us?’”
Commodore Herrick and Commander Jackson went aft to the Combat Information Center. Herrick radioed Jehovah and requested air support. Task Force 77’s commander, Adm. Robert Moore, sent four F-8E Crusader jets to fly to Sinbad’s aid. Then Moore ordered the destroyer Turner Joy , on radar picket duty southwest of Hainan, to head north to join the Maddox .
Ogier and Buehler scrutinized the boats and discussed the maximum range for a torpedo launch. Ogier then called the CIC. If the boats closed to 10,000 yards, he wanted permission to open fire. Herrick gave it.
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.”
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.’
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.
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.”
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.”
It was an announcement: “This is the captain speaking. We believe that we have confirmed the fact that many torpedo sightings were actually the sounds of our rudder and screws.’ Click. That was all.”
The Turner Joy was 10 miles away. She had done plenty of shooting that night and even attempted to ram a possible torpedo boat. She missed—or else nothing was there. Her radar acquired a hard contact to port, about 1,500 yards away. The Turner Joy fired. Radar claimed four hits, and the target vanished. Soon after, lookouts spotted a beam of light, sweeping across the sky. Some believed it was a signal for the boats to withdraw. Herrick called and ordered the Turner Joy to join the Maddox and resume their original course.
News flashed across the United States. Not once but twice , American warships had been attacked on the open sea. President Johnson told the Navy to mount a response. Orders flew from the Pentagon to Yankee Station to prepare and carry out a series of air strikes against North Vietnam.
The Maddox ’s men staggered almost drunkenly from their battle stations. Halpern was at work treating the crewmen who had been overcome by the hellish heat of the engine room. In the wardroom there was relieved laughter, followed by muttering. The consensus was that the crisis had been a mix of genuine threats and weather- or ship’s noise…generated contacts. Still, there were eyewitness reports from both ships and planes of lights in the water.
Men on the Turner Joy had sighted a torpedo wake. “One of the observers was the ASW officer, who had seen many torpedo wakes before,” Buehler wrote. “There is no mistaking [one]. … It is pencil thin, moves faster than anything sailors are used to, and is perfectly straight.”
But the commodore wanted more. Buehler and Lt. (jg) Dale Evans from CIC set to work with Herrick’s officers to prepare a report on the action and to talk with their counterparts on the Turner Joy . Herrick’s preliminary report to the 7th Fleet read: “Review of action makes many reported contacts and torpedoes appear doubtful. Freak weather effects and overeager sonarmen may have accounted for many reports. No actual visual sightings suggest complete evaluation before any further action.”
Now President Johnson and the Joint Chiefs wanted more. Down the chain of command and across the Pacific went the demand for further reports.
Herrick radioed: “Certain that original ambush was bonafide. Details of action following present a confusing picture. … Have interviewed witnesses who made positive visual sightings of cockpit lights.” Then he repeated his request to cancel the patrol.
Admiral Johnson answered: “You are again directed to resume patrol.” Admiral Moorer added that “our operations are receiving the attention of highest authority on a minute by minute basis. …”
Before dawn August 5 Herrick turned his formation north again. Its orders were to find something. Anything. Debris. An oil slick. Pieces of North Vietnamese sailors.
Operation Pierce Arrow began later that morning. Flights from the carriers attacked North Vietnamese boat bases and oil storage tanks, causing heavy damage. But the gunners on the ground were ready. Two of the Constellation ’s planes were shot down. Lt. Richard Sather was killed. Lt. Everett Alvarez endured the next eight and a half years in a North Vietnamese prison.
North Vietnamese and Chinese propaganda bulletins filled the airwaves.
“Following the first attack,” Halpern wrote, “they voiced their disapproval in the most eloquent terms. ’… the imperialist American war mongers and their South Vietnamese lackeys … Ogier and his pirates will be severely punished.’
“On and on it went, threat after threat, personal threats against not just Yankees but Herb Ogier and the Maddox . … A vendetta, a ’get the Maddox ’ vendetta. No mention was made of the Turner Joy , just the Maddox . … We went back into a Gulf that was loaded with death. They wanted a piece of us and nothing was going to stop them from getting it.”
This kind of news does not stay secret. Every man aboard quickly got the word. Reports of North Vietnamese boats or Chinese aircraft operating close by blurred the lines between the threats. One afternoon, Radarman Arcorad “picked up aircraft over China.… All you saw was this mass of green globs coming at you. And I said, ’Well, I guess I don’t get home. This is gonna be it.’ It was an unbelievable amount of planes. … But when they got over water, they slowed down all of a sudden, made a big turn, and went back over land. You want to talk about a sigh of relief?”
News flashed across the U.S.: American warships had been attacked. LBJ ordered the navy to mount a response.
One night Halpern was awakened with the word that the commodore wanted to see him. “Herrick looked like death warmed over,” the doctor said. “For days he’d been talking about the signs of the times. The kind of world he envisioned was the kind that brought him out of the Depression and through World War II. That’s what he knew, and things now weren’t the way he wanted them.
“… He was worried. One of the things worrying him was World War III. He actually believed we were heading in that direction. Frankly, he wasn’t an awful long way from being correct. He was worried about the Gulf being a precipitating event. So I gave him some aspirin.” Halpern considered prescribing codeine but decided against it. “I wanted him to be able to think, ’cause my ass was on the line, you know? I wanted him awake .
“As I’m getting ready to leave, he said, ’Doc, I want you to get out all the morphine aboard the Maddox . I want you to give a syrette to every single person aboard.’ And I said, ’Why?’ He said, ’We’re getting hit tomorrow.’”
Halpern went to the sickbay and told Aguilar. They prepared nearly 300 syrettes. Then they distributed them.
“People looked at you like, ’Oh, shit!’” wrote Halpern. “They knew what it was there for.” The attack never came. This reassured no one, since every second they were in the Gulf meant a chance that they would get hit. But at last, on August 8, the patrol ended. With the destroyers Edson and Hubbard relieving them, Task Group 72.1 left the Gulf for the last time, to rendezvous with the Ticonderoga .
Commodore Herrick, Buehler, and Evans went over to the carrier to report to Admiral Moore. Men from the Turner Joy came too. Moore was tired and short-tempered, having been hounded relentlessly for fresh reports. There was nothing new to offer, no “proof” to satisfy the White House, the Pentagon, and Congress.
Moore then flew Herrick and his men to Subie Bay in the Philippines. State and Defense department officials had come out to hear their story. The visitors wanted a smoking gun to present to the United Nations. It wasn’t a problem the destroyer men could fix; they were flown back to their ships.
The Maddox started home on September 17, making no stops. It was the end of their WestPac ’64 cruise, nearly seven months of grinding work.
The destroyer tied up at Long Beach on October 2. Lambo, like everyone else, was itching to go ashore. The pier was jammed with families and friends. “ Maddox was getting free beer all over,” he said. “So was Turner Joy . I went on leave immediately. When I started the cruise, I weighed 190 pounds. When I got back, I weighed 164. A friend of mine saw me, and his eyeballs got bigger than a son of a bitch. He said, ’Lambo, what did they do to you?’”
In 1975, the year the war he’d seen begin ended, Dr. Halpern published a book about the Maddox ’s mission. “The American people,” he wrote, “felt full of righteous rage and seeing it was an election year, the politicians got their chance to intoxicate the world with more than the usual amount of gas. … Thus, with all of the information at hand, the people solidly behind him, and a Congress that was already becoming known as the Johnson boys, the president asked for, and Congress passed, the Tonkin Resolution that vastly increased our involvement in Vietnam. The men who so viciously later attacked Mr. Johnson murmured no words of dissent at the time they should have spoken.”
In the years that followed, it became fashionable to blame the military for a war America wasn’t winning. This is a view virtually every man who wore a uniform in those days rejects. Bill Buehler’s view may be the simplest. After 20 years in the Navy, Buehler retired with the rank of commander. Today he is a minister. When asked the question, he replied, “We didn’t start the war, and I don’t have a twinge of guilt about that.”
There will always remain the question of whether the North Vietnamese actually attacked on August 4, 1964.
There will always remain the question of whether the North Vietnamese actually attacked on August 4, 1964. “That night,” wrote Halpern, “has been a night of controversy [ever since]. Investigations have followed, investigations that wrenched and twisted the country for months, ruined political careers, and made others. Millions of words have flayed us, but when it was all over there was one question that remained. … The answer … who knows?
“It seems probable that the first torpedo sightings were real. After this, maybe some were real, maybe not. I sincerely doubt that if all the combatants were brought into a room at the same time and charged by the mightiest of truth devices to tell all, that they could reconstruct the battle. … But I knew the officers who wrote the facts and they were honest men.”
The case can be made that North Vietnamese boats did attack just after eight o’clock that evening. Strength of numbers, total darkness, and poor weather certainly acted in their favor. The reports of torpedo wakes, gunfire flashes, and cockpit lights seem reasonable enough, combined with what the cornvan men were hearing on the radio.
As for the number of torpedoes reported—21 or more—the opinions of the Maddox ’s men are not unanimous. In fact two officers, both of whom worked with sonar, disagree over what was real and what was ship-generated noise.
Years afterward one wrote, “It is our business to know about built-in noise. We had run tests before as a matter of routine, and after, to reproduce that noise, or any noise, and could not.”
The other officer disagreed: “I know from several years’ experience as a sonarman that a destroyer’s sonar equipment [in 1964] is useless above 25 knots. … I will bet my last dollar you could not hear anything on Maddox sonar except self-noise at 30-plus knots!”
That said, Doc Halpern’s assessment holds. And if the men who were there can’t agree, it’s foolhardy for anyone else to try to settle the question.
Then there is the unpleasant suspicion that the Maddox was set up, that President Johnson needed to lose an American ship to rally the people to the cause. Some of the crew swear by this. Some flatly deny it. Many are unsure but quietly lean toward the first view. Or toward another: Phenomenal incompetence at the top levels of command put a U.S. warship in a place where the South Vietnamese had been shooting at the North Vietnamese only shortly before. “To this day,” said Noel Alien, “the one overriding sense I have about that whole experience was how well the people did their job. They just did marvelously well. Because that’s what we were supposed to do.”
Commodore Herrick died in 1999. Captain Ogier and Adm. Dempster Jackson died in the spring of 2002. The signals intercepted in the comvan, along with many details from the Maddox ’s CIC logs, remain classified. North Vietnam acknowledged the August 2 attack but denied any part of the events the night of August 4-5.
The Maddox returned to Vietnam several times, shepherding the carrier task forces and going in for shore bombardment. In 1972 she was decommissioned and sold to the Taiwanese Navy. Recommissioned RCS [Republic of China Ship] Po Yang (DD-10), she returned to the waters off Taiwan, doing essentially the same work she’d done before. She remained in service until 1985, then was decommissioned for the last time and broken up for scrap.
The Maddox Association, however, is alive and well, with hundreds of members who served on the ship at different points in her life. They have annual reunions, a newsletter, and a Web site.