In the early morning hours of Aug. 2, 1964, naval intelligence personnel manning communications interception equipment on board destroyer USS Maddox, then steaming on a peacetime mission in the Gulf of Tonkin, straightened in their chairs as they listened to a transmission from North Vietnam’s naval headquarters. The communication instructed naval forces to prepare for battle.
Capt. John J. Herrick, the officer in tactical command for the Maddox mission, sent a top-priority “flash” precedence message to his superiors stating: “contemplate serious reaction my movements [off North Vietnam] in near future. Received info indicating possible hostile action.”
Thus began an incident that some observers have considered the spark that ignited the long, contentious and ultimately unsuccessful Vietnam War that cost the lives of 58,000 Americans and changed the course of U.S. history.
Maddox headed out to sea until daybreak Aug. 2, but then resumed her north-south patrol of the coast in international waters. Shortly after noon, the ship’s radar and lookouts identified various fast attack craft gathering around a small nearby island.
About 1400 (H time, or Saigon time), Herrick learned from intelligence that these forces had been ordered to carry out a torpedo attack on the “enemy.” Since the United States had been working against North Vietnam with Hanoi’s arch enemy South Vietnam for the last 10 years, Herrick had no doubt whom the “enemy” might be. As the destroyer speeded up to 27 knots and steered east and then southeast to clear the area, radar locked onto several fast-moving vessels closing on her.
At 1530 Maddox sounded General Quarters, and soon afterward Herrick alerted Commander Seventh Fleet and aircraft carrier USS Ticonderoga that his ship was “being approached by high speed craft with apparent intention of torpedo attack.” He added, “intend to open fire if necessary [in] self defense.” A quartet of F-8E Crusader jets, armed with missiles, rockets and cannons, immediately headed for Maddox’s location 280 miles to the northwest and 25 miles from North Vietnam.
Meanwhile, Maddox had positively identified the contacts as three Soviet-built P-4 torpedo boats traveling at 50-knot speeds and closing the ship on an intersecting course. At 1605 the destroyer fired three rounds from one of her 5-inch/38-caliber guns as a warning; they had no effect. The three North Vietnamese boats (T-333, T-336, and T-339) of Torpedo Squadron 135 continued to close. Finally, at 1608 Maddox opened fire in earnest with her 5-inch and 3-inch guns. The attacking vessels turned to port, launched torpedoes, fired their 14.5mm deck guns and turned away astern of the destroyer. The North Vietnamese torpedoes missed their target and only one 14.5mm round hit the destroyer, where it lodged harmlessly in the superstructure.
The attackers did not fare as well.
Maddox’s gunfire heavily damaged T-339, killing its commander. Shortly afterward, Ticonderoga’s Crusaders arrived overhead and unloaded their 5-inch Zuni rockets and 20mm cannons on the three boats, leaving one dead in the water and burning. Despite damage from the U.S. fire, the North Vietnamese boats later managed to make it back to shore. In the meantime, Maddox joined Ticonderoga at the mouth of the Gulf of Tonkin.
Surprised by the North Vietnamese action, President Lyndon B. Johnson suggested that an overly aggressive local naval commander might have ordered the attack. Neither Johnson nor most of his military and civilian advisers believed North Vietnamese leaders would openly challenge America’s military might. To demonstrate that the United States would not back down in such a confrontation, Washington ordered Maddox, now accompanied by destroyer USS Turner Joy, to resume the patrol along the North Vietnamese coast on Aug. 4.
Beginning at 2041 on the dark, cloudy night, radars on the ships picked up high-speed contacts to the northeast. Herrick directed the destroyers away from what he thought were fast-approaching hostile vessels. When one contact was tracked as close as 7,000 yards to the ships, the captain ordered Turner Joy to open fire. For the next two hours, the destroyers, with aircraft overhead, maneuvered to evade their supposed attackers. At the end of the confusing episode, the two ships rejoined the fleet.
Buttressed by Herrick’s reports and by information from intelligence stations in the western Pacific, Johnson and his advisers concluded that North Vietnamese naval forces had once again attacked American warships in international waters. The wealth of information obtained from national intelligence sources and from the Navy then and for years afterward convinced many objective observers that North Vietnam had brazenly attacked U.S. ships on the open sea.
It is now clear, however, that an attack never occurred.
The National Security Agency misinterpreted intercepted North Vietnamese radio transmissions suggesting an attack; eyewitness accounts by some of the men on the destroyers and in the planes proved inconclusive; and the Navy’s operational reports revealed some of the information gathered to be imprecise or contradictory. Moreover, the Tonkin Gulf Incident happened 50 years ago and neither archival records nor personal accounts have surfaced in Vietnam or the United States to refute Hanoi’s unchanged contention that its navy did not attack on Aug. 4.
There was no doubt, however, that North Vietnamese torpedo boats had attacked Maddox on Aug. 2. Knowing this, and convinced that a similar action had occurred two days later, Johnson ordered U.S naval forces to execute retaliatory air strikes on Aug. 5. On that date, 67 combat aircraft from Ticonderoga and Constellation sank or damaged 33 North Vietnamese naval vessels and destroyed 90 percent of the fuel storage facility at Vinh. Anti-aircraft fire brought down the plane piloted by Lt. Richard C. Sather, the first American aviator to die in the conflict against North Vietnam. The Pierce Arrow strike was the first major episode of an air campaign that would continue off and on for nine more years.
Of even greater significance, the events off North Vietnam in early August 1964 prompted many Americans to call for retribution against Hanoi and to rally around the Johnson administration. On Aug. 7, Congress passed, with only two dissenting votes, the Tonkin Gulf Resolution that essentially authorized Johnson to use the U.S. Armed Forces as he saw fit to frustrate Hanoi’s ambitions in Southeast Asia. American advisers and special forces personnel had been fighting and dying in the region for years, but the Tonkin Gulf Incident proved to be a milestone in the long struggle.
The United States was now embarked on major combat operations that would last until the end of the war in January 1973.
Edward J. Marolda, who completed a 40-year career in the U.S. federal government, served as the director of U.S. Naval History (Acting) and Senior Historian of the Navy. He graduated from Pennsylvania Military College in 1967 with a Bachelor of Arts in History and served as a U.S. Army officer in Vietnam from 1969-1970. He completed a master’s degree at Georgetown University in 1971 and a Ph.D at George Washington University in 1990. He is overseeing a commemorative series on the U.S. Navy and the Vietnam War for the Naval Historical Foundation and authored the first issue, “The Approaching Storm: Conflict in Asia, 1945-1965.” He is also an Adjunct Professor at Georgetown University presenting a course on the U.S. and China in the Cold War.