I landed on the USS Midway, an aircraft carrier, in the South China Sea in August 1965. The war started a year before my arrival. Now, the Midway was launching three strikes a day on targets in North Vietnam.
Air losses were heavy at the beginning; six of our planes were shot down on my first day aboard Midway, prompting me to wonder how we got into such a massive military effort on the other side of the world.
The official reason for starting the war a year earlier was that North Vietnamese torpedo boats had fired torpedoes at two American destroyers cruising up the coast of North Vietnam in international waters on Aug. 5, 1964. Time, Newsweek and Life magazines published this official reason at the time, but they did not get the facts quite right.
In reality, the USS Maddox, a destroyer, notified the USS Ticonderoga, an aircraft carrier cruising about 300 miles south of the Maddox, that three North Vietnamese torpedo boats were shadowing her movements on Aug. 2, not Aug. 5.
The best account of what happened next was written many years later by James Stockdale in his book entitled, “In Love and War.” Stockdale was a squadron commander serving aboard the USS Ticonderoga about 100 miles east of Da Nang, South Vietnam, at the time. About 40 minutes into a routine training flight with three other A-6 Crusaders, Stockdale was ordered to fly north to the Maddox with the other Crusaders to provide air support if necessary.
When Stockdale’s Crusaders came within 100 miles of the Maddox, the destroyer’s controller claimed that the torpedo boats had fired torpedoes at the Maddox and that his ship was training its main battery at the boats. The four Crusaders, therefore, hosed down the torpedo boats with their 20 mm cannons when they arrived at the scene and left one of the boats dead in the water before the planes headed back to their carrier.
The Johnson administration subsequently issued a warning to North Vietnam but chose not to retaliate against that country for the incident.
Another destroyer, the USS Turner Joy, joined the Maddox on Monday, Aug. 3, and the Maddox called the Ticonderoga again for air support on the evening of Tuesday, Aug. 4, from the two destroyers’ new position farther out in the Gulf of Tonkin.
Stockdale led three other Crusaders back up to the destroyers and heard them communicating frantically about “torpedoes in the water” as they zigged and zagged to “avoid the torpedoes.” Stockdale could not see any gun boats in the dark and stormy sea as he circled the ships at an altitude under 1,000 feet for almost two hours, but, wanting to help out, he fired his cannons and two missiles in the general direction that the destroyers were firing their 4-inch guns.
By the time Stockdale returned to the Ticonderoga, the commodore aboard Maddox had sent a message to the Ticonderoga, stating that no boats had been sighted and no torpedoes had been heard on the destroyer’s sonar. In a later message, he said the call for air support was probably caused by false blips on radar scopes caused by stormy weather in the Gulf. He followed this message with another one that said there may not have been any torpedo boats in the area and that no further action should be taken until the night’s frantic activities had been thoroughly analyzed.
Although the commodore’s recantation message went all the way up the chain of command to Washington, the Johnson administration decided to order a reprisal raid against the oil-storage tanks in Vinh, North Vietnam, a city of about 44,000. Stockdale was incredulous because he did not see a single torpedo boat in the previous night’s flight over the destroyers, and the commodore aboard Maddox clearly urged no action until the activities had been analyzed.
No matter. Washington ordered the raid, and Stockdale was named to lead it on Aug. 5, 1964.
The air intelligence department of the Ticonderoga decided that the primary ordnance to be used on the target were old 1,000-pound bombs, and the only airplanes aboard the Ticonderoga that could deliver bombs of that weight were propeller-driven A-1 “Spads” that had been built for the Korean War.
Six jet-propelled F-8 Crusaders and six smaller jet-propelled A-4 Skyhawks were picked to provide flak suppression for the propeller-driven A-1 Spads carrying the big bombs. This presented a planning problem because the jets were much faster than the Spads, and they had to arrive over the target at precisely the same time as the Spads to provide maximum flak suppression for the Spads. The Spads therefore took off from the Ticonderoga first to get a head start on the jets.
The old Spads dived almost vertically on the oil tanks and the jets hit them simultaneously with missiles and cannons. The result was all 14 tanks exploded together, sending flames to 3,000 feet and thick black smoke to 14,000 feet.
Anti-aircraft guns on the ground opened up during the attack, but it was all over in approximately 90 seconds and all of the Navy planes returned to the Ticonderoga safely.
Meanwhile, on Washington’s orders, other planes from the Ticonderoga were still trying to find torpedo boat debris in the area where both Stockdale and the commodore aboard the Maddox said there never were any torpedo boats.
The Johnson administration obviously wanted some physical evidence to justify the bombing of the Vinh tank farm, but Congress did not require it and passed the Tonkin Gulf Resolution, which authorized further action against North Vietnam on Aug. 7, 1964.
Thus started a long and tragic war that cost the lives of more than 57,000 American soldiers and sailors.
Allan Gehring is a Vietnam veteranwho served aboard the USS Midway in the South China Sea. After the Navy, he worked as a college administrator and a business development manager for Zurn Industries.
U.S. Troop Statistics
U.S. Casualties, killed in combat
were wounded and
The deadliest day of the war was the first day of the Tet Offensive, with 245 deaths
The total of American servicemen listed as POW/MIA at the end of the war and as of April 7, 2014, 1,642 are still unaccounted for.
Total military deaths for all countries involved
Total civillian deaths
Source: Dept. of Defense