[ From PROCEEDINGS, February, 1992
Stalking the Enemy's Coast
Years before the greatest commitment of U.S. resources to the Vietnam
conflict - generally considered to be from 1966 through 1972, the CIA was
supporting paramilitary anticommunist operations throughout Southeast
Asia. Most were either run or supported by U.S. Army Special Forces or
U.S. Navy Sea. Air, Land (SEAL) teams.
He believed that North Vietnam feared material losses and the development of an effective and virulent resistance, and this belief would figure prominently in the development of clandestine maritime operations in the waters off North Vietnam.
In anticipation of these operations, SEAL Team 1 dispatched operatives Chief Robert "Sully" Sullivan and Chief Charles Raymond in January 1962 to make initial surveys and prepare to train indigenous South Vietnamese to be maritime commandos.
Included in these groups were 50 Nungs (a nomadic tribe of Chinese ancestry), being used by U.S. Special Forces and SEAL's as bodyguards. But the SEALs did not feel comfortable at first with the fierce looking Nungs. One operator reported, "My Nungs were armed to the teeth with every weapon available, but I didn't give them any ammunition."
To bolster the confidence of the trainees, the SEALs first chose a relatively easy target. On 16 May 1962, CinCPac ordered his fleet commander to commit the submarine Catfish (SS-339) for reconnaissance and surveillance operations against the Swatow (Russian-built torpedo boat) base at Quang Khe at the mouth of the Giang River in an operation code-named Wise Tiger.
During the last week in May, the Catfish set out from Manila in the Philippines for the Gulf of Tonkin, where she communicated with the South Vietnamese frogmen and their U.S. Navy SEAL trainers by special circuit. The idea was for the frogmen to enter the Gulf of Tonkin by motorized junk, then swim in and destroy one or more Swatows at their berths.
No evidence exists in U.S. or North Vietnamese records of successful missions against Swatow craft during this period.
Admiral Felt was apparently dissatisfied with this CIA-directed operation. He must have believed that CIA planners in Salon did not sufficiently comprehend the Navy's resources-in particular, submarines and SEALs to execute a mission of this type: In September, the admiral observed that "the program should have been under full head of steam a long time ago."
In reviewing the operation's failure, high-level planners decided that the root of the problem was the type of craft being used. In late August, Commander, U.S. Military Assistance Command Vietnam (ComUSMACV) proposed the use of U..S. motor torpedo boats (PTs). supported by a naval logistics unit in Da Nang, for the runs to the north. On 27 September 1962. the administration's Special Group (5412) formally suggested the use of PTs. as well as SEALs, in covert operations against North Vietnam.
In response to a directive on 6 October from Deputy Secretary of Defense Roswell Gilpatric, Chief of Naval Operations Admiral David McDonald ordered the Chief, Bureau of Ships, to prepare PT-810 and PT- 811--two aluminum- hulled motor torpedo boars built in 1950 to be reactivated by January 1963. Preparations would include engine renovation and quieting and installation of two 40-mm. and two 20-mm. guns. The operators, however, were unsure about the effectiveness of these two vessels. They had been used hard and were unserviceable, they thought.
The operators also felt that their gasoline engines were too dangerous for their intended operations. Despite the resistance, however, the boats were eventually deployed to Da Nang.
Accordingly, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara expressed in a memo to Secretary of the Navy Paul Nitze, in October 1962, his "desire that priority attention also be given to the procurement of foreign-made craft of the PT boat category. Specifically,... I desire that you take immediate action to procure two boats of the Norwegian Navy's Nasty class... ."
Accompanying this directive, however, was an initiative by the CIA to recruit former Norwegian maritime commandos--or Jaeger commandos--and mercenaries to operate the Nastys in North Vietnamese waters. U.S. underwater demolition teams (UDTs) had been operating joint exercises with the Norwegians for years, and the Norwegians were conversant and comfortable in U.S. UDT/SEAL doctrine and operational techniques.
Before deployment to the Pacific, the Commander-in-Chief, Pacific Fleet (CinCPacFlt), Admiral John H. Sides, directed that, in addition to the two single-mount, 40- mm. and two single-mount, 20-mm. guns, the boats be equipped with two 3.5-inch rocket launchers and two or more flamethrowers. Crews later deemed the flamethrowers useless.
At this time, the CIA was aware that the North Vietnamese had been creating a network of strategic land and sea supply routes to the south. Intelligence assets in North Vietnam had kept the agency well informed, but it was suffering from other problems that hampered its effectiveness. '
The disaster at the Bay of Pigs eventually resulted in the CIA's relinquishing support and control of most covert operations in the North to MACV. Established on 24 January 1964 under General Paul D. Harkins's command. the Special Operations Group (later Studies and Observation Group), or MACSOG. exercised operational control from Saigon of SOG 34 activities, including maritime operations code named 34 Alpha.
Although the SOG was established and manned by MACV, it was independent, except through one staff officer who had "cognizance" of its operations. MACV had no charter to conduct operations in North Vietnam. The actual supervisor of the group was the Special Assistant for Counterinsurgency and Special Activities (SACSA) on the Joint Staff. CinCPac also monitored special operations activities, but had authority only to veto proposed operations; approval remained with SACSA throughout the war.
The first Nastys, designated PTF-3 and PTF-4, arrived at the Pacific Fleet's amphibious base in Coronado, California, along with their Norwegian crews. The Special Operations Group would eventually operate 14 Nastys, along with the two U.S. torpedo-boat "gassers."
Special high-grade diesel fuel, lubricating oil, and coolants were essential to operate the boats. Only the base at Subic Bay in the Philippines could provide the sophisticated base support for engine overhauls, screw replacement, and the supply system for the necessary European parts. The vessels, made of marine plywood, also had to be hauled in every six months to dry out, or their hull speed would drop considerably. Vice Admiral Ephraim P.
Holmes, commander of the Pacific Fleet amphibious force, concluded that without a sophisticated forward support and training base in South Vietnam, "this operation will soon come apart, and the probability of highly detrimental effects is apparent."
In response to this, CinCPacFlt directed that a mobile-support team be established at Da Nang, consisting initially of two officers and ten enlisted men, including an engineman, electrician's mate, quartermaster, electronics technician, gunner's mate, and machinery repairman. The team would eventually grow to five officers and 40 enlisted. In addition, the subsequent CinCPacFlt, Admiral U. S. Grant Sharp, strongly recommended that the "boats be stricken at least for record purposes from U.S, Navy records.... to preclude possible future embarrassment to the U.S. Navy and the U.S. Government." The Nastys would be going up north "clean," with Norwegian operators and South Vietnamese SEALs.
The structure of the Special Operations Group 34 operation in Da Nang was supervised by the U.S. Naval Advisory Detachment (NAD) and initially commanded by Commander Albert Thomas, who had been a submarine officer. The irony of this was that despite Thomas's lack of knowledge about special operations, he would eventually be cited by the Navy as an authority on unconventional warfare. Subordinate to the advisory detachment was the mobile support team, a boat-training team--with two U.S. officers and ten men for each boat crew-- and the SEAL training team (two officers and ten men) preparing South Vietnamese Lien, Doc Nguoi Nhia (LDNN), literally "soldiers who fight under ;the sea," for their hazardous missions. The advisory detachment was rounded out by the Marine reconnaissance team (one officer and three men), and three Swift boats--designated fast patrol craft-- with the Nastys and the "gassers."
On 27 May 1964 the maritime operation scored its first significant success in capturing a North Vietnamese junk and its six passengers. The detainees were taken to a special facility on Lao Cham Island off Da Nang, the site of a top-secret CIA-run resistance training center, where they were subjected to intense interrogation. SOG 34 operations continued throughout the war, as operations became bolder, with agent insertions and kidnappings and assassinations, as the teams became more capable.
By June 1964 special operations messages indicated increased success in all facets of covert operations in North Vietnam. On 12 June a storage facility was destroyed, as was a Route 1 bridge near Hao Mon Dong two weeks later. During July, the interception of North Vietnamese Group 125 assets and attendant psychological warfare actions at Lao Cham Island caused the North Vietnamese to increase coastal radar and communications capabilities and change supply routes from the north. They also beefed up efforts to eliminate CIA agents trying to identify loaded ships.
In response, CinCPac informed the Joint Chiefs of Staff of the "continuing requirement for obtaining intelligence on Democratic Republic of Vietnam forces capable of resisting projected operations in conjunction with OPLAN 34-A. Desoto platform offers excellent means for obtaining this INTEL."
Here is where the debate on the ensuing confrontation between the U.S. destroyers Maddox (DD-73 i )and Turner Joy (DD-951) and North Vietnamese torpedo boats missed the point.
The argument always centered on SOG 34 Alpha missions supporting the Desoto Patrols. The truth was that the group was showing so much promise that the Desoto Patrols were structured to support it.
Desoto was the code name assigned to patrols by Seventh Fleet destroyers entering the near offshore waters of Asiatic communist-bloc nations--typically, China and North Korea--with large transportable communications vans welded to their decks. These vans were manned by communications technicians under the control of the National Security Agency. Crews from the ships that operated with these vans described how cloistered the van operations were, with separate messes and berthing. Prior to 1964, the Desoto Patrols had never approached closer than 20 miles to a communist coast.
On 7 January 1963 Commander, Seventh Fleet Admiral Thomas Moorer issued a directive broadening the conduct of the Desoto Patrols and relaxed the restrictions on approach distances so that Desoto could approach to four miles. Admiral Moorer scheduled a patrol by the Radford (DD-436) for the first week in February. The Radford had orders to photograph points of interest on the coast and offshore islands, to locate radar installations, and primarily to provide information on Vietcong supply routes. The Radford's patrol was postponed until after mid-February, but a special operations officer was embarked to receive intelligence information specifically suited to the DaNang Special Operations Group operation. This would mold future Desoto Patrols.
At the beginning of July, General William Westmore- land, the new ComUSMACV, requested Desoto cover- age of areas to be targets of SOG 34 Alpha sabotage missions that month. These sites were Vinh Son and the islands of Hon Me. Hon Nieu, and Hon Mat. Intelligence reported, however, that ten Swatow gunboats had been added at Dong Hoi with Quang Khe adding four more. Westmoreland observed that the "cause of these movements was not known but could be attributable as reaction to recent successful [34-Alpha] operations."
Thing were heating up in the Gulf of Tonkin. Message traffic during the June to July period did not question the value of the 31-Alpha operations but did question the value of Desoto Patrols. But the Desotos' value in providing intelligence to support 34-Alpha had justified their continuation. With the North Vietnamese becoming more aggressive toward both missions, the carrier Ticonderoga (CVA-14) was specifically directed to provide air cover for the Maddox.
The Maddox skipper, Commander Herben L. Ogier, was directed that if he found himself under attack or "harassment which clearly indicates imminent danger to the lives and/or safety of the ship" to send a flash-precedence message to CinCPacFlt, ComUSMACV, and Commander Taiwan Patrol Force, and to communicate with the Ticonderoga directly without encoding. The directive from the Joint Chiefs of Staff to execute the Desoto Patrols in the Gulf came to the Mad- dos on 22 July.
On 30 July, Nastys PTF-2, PTF-3, PTF-5, and PTF-6 put to sea for missions against Hon Me and Hon Nieu. Southeast of Hon Me, the boats parted company, with PTF-3 and PTF-6 heading for Hon Me and PTF-5 and PTF-2 for Hon Nieu.
Intelligence indicated that the missions had been compromised. When a lurking Swatow attacked PTF-6, wounding four South Vietnamese, no one was surprised. A landing was out of the question; but, with the Norwegian mercenaries steeling the boat crews' resolve, they pressed home the attack with offshore bombardment by 40-mm., 20-mm., and 57-mm. recoilless-rifle fire. Having destroyed a number of buildings and at least one gun emplacement. the Nastys turned south, unaware of the pursuing Swatow T-142, whose captain would later report that he could not catch up with the Nastys.
Nastys PTF-5 and PTF-2 shelled a communications tower on Hon Nieu on 31 July. Having accomplished their mission, they, too, headed south.
All Nastys were safely berthed in Da Nang by 1120 that morning. The Maddox had put to sea on 28 July from Keelung, Taiwan, with the electronic collection van welded to her deck and Captain John J. Herrick, Commander Destroyer Division 192 and Commander Task Group 72.1, on board.
On the morning of 31 July, the Maddox was refueling under way from the Ashtabula (AO-51) and sighted the Nastys five miles away, heading back to Da Nang after their missions. Refueling completed, the Maddox activated her radars and started her run through the Gulf of Tonkin. Although intelligence sources later reported active tracking of the Maddox, the August Desoto Patrol never approached closer than five miles.
The Maddox was operating under CinC- Pac orders that read, in part: "The Commander in Chief of the U.S. Forces in Pacific authorizes his fleet units involved in the Desoto Patrol to contact Commander, United States Military Assistance Vietnam for any additional intelligence required for prevention of mutual interference with 34-A operations and such communications arrangements as may be desired." Although Secretary of Defense McNamara entered this message into the record of the Gulf of Tonkin Incident Hearing before the Committee on Foreign Relations on 20 February 1968 as evidence that Desoto and 34-A operations were separate, the opposite conclusion seems closer to fact.
The Maddox's operational patrol plan called for her to sail to 16 points on the nautical charts of the waters off North Vietnam. She was to orbit at each point until all available visual and electronic data were exhausted, then move on to the next point.
In the early hours of 2 August, U.S. intelligence received information
that North Vietnamese naval headquarters had moved additional Swatows and
other coastal surface combatants into the Hon Me-Hen Nieu area and ordered
them to prepare for battle.
The Maddox encountered her first Swatows at 1235 on 2 August. P-4 torpedo boats had ducked into the cove on Hon Me Island where the main body of Swatows lay. At 1400 a force consisting of Swatow T-142 and T-86 and Division 3 of PT Squadron 135,comprising the P-4s T-333. T-336, and T-339, was ordered to carry out a torpedo attack on "the enemy."
Thirty miles to the west, the Maddox's surface-search radar detected the first indication of potential trouble. Identified as a patrol boat, the contact was making 30 knots and was shadowing the Maddox. More enemy patrol boats appeared, and the Maddox went from 10 to 25 knots to open the distance from the contacts.
At 1530 the Maddox went to general quarters, and ten minutes later Captain Herrick sent an uncoded flash- precedence message to Commander Seventh Fleet and the carrier task group, stating that the Maddox was "being approached by high- speed craft with apparent intention of torpedo attack. Intend to open fire if necessary self defense." Herrick then requested air support, which the Ticonderoga answered with four F-8E Crusaders armed with Sidewinder missiles, Zuni rockets, and 20-mm. cannon. The Turner Joy was also ordered to proceed at full speed to assist the Maddox.
The three North Vietnamese P-4 craft accelerated to between 4O and 50 knots, while the Maddox was making 37 knots. At 1600 the Maddox was 25 miles from the coast of North Vietnam and could visually identify the three enemy vessels closing quickly off her starboard quarter, 9,800 yards out. The Maddox made every attempt to get the North Vietnamese to declare their intentions, but when all efforts failed, she fired three shots across the bow of the lead vessel. In response, T-336 launched the first of two torpedoes. With sonar reports of incoming torpedo screw sounds, the Maddox opened up her 5-inch and j- inch guns. The second vessel, T-339, launched two torpedoes just as she was hit by 5-inch gunfire. T-339, badly damaged, turned for home. The Maddox changed course to avoid two torpedoes and in the process avoided the attack of the third craft, T-333.
The two remaining torpedo boats formed up and at tacked again, with T-336 firing one torpedo and hitting the Maddox with 14.5-mm. gunfire. As T-336 passed astern, she was heavily raked with Maddox gunfire, killing her commander, Lieutenant Tu. Commander Ogier would write later in the action report that the "attacking boats were aggressive and showed no tendency to abort their torpedo run, even though they were confronted with a heavy barrage of fire." This surface action, lasting 29 minutes, would ultimately have profound significance.
The North Vietnamese turned for shore, with the Maddox in pursuit, until it became obvious she could not catch them. Meanwhile, the Ticonderoga's F-8s arrived on the scene, with two attacking the crippled T-339, while the other two attacked T-336 and T-333 with Zuni rockets and cannons. After numerous strafing runs, T-339 was left low in the water and burning. The other two managed to damage one of the F-8s, which had to make an emergency landing in Da Nang.
Intelligence sources later confirmed that T- 339 had sunk, while T- 336 was heavily damaged, requiring a tow from T-333 to reach shore south of the Lach Chao estuary. The new Commander Seventh Fleet, Admiral Roy L. Johnson, ordered a second flight of F-8s not to pursue the enemy boats. Captain Herrick was directed to "retire from area until situation clears and further advised."
In 1966. a captured a North Vietnamese naval officer disputed the sinking of T-339. He claimed that T-339 suffered only minor damage and limped back to shore. Intelligence sources in the north, however, disputed this claim; the generally accepted fact is that T-339 was sunk.
Two hours after this first battle, then Pacific Fleet Commander Admiral Moorer ordered that the Desoto Patrols be resumed with the Maddox joined by the Turner Joy and air cover provided by the Ticonderoga.
At 0900 on 3 August 1964, the Maddox and Turner Joy headed into the Gulf on their Desoto mission from a position between Hainan Island and the Demilitarized Zone under operational control of Captain Herrick as commander. Six hours later, the four-boat group of PTF-1, PTF-5, PTF-2, and PTF-6 left Da Nang on their MAC- SOG 34-Alpha mission with South Vietnamese commandos and Norwegian mercenary boat crews. Their mission was to bombard a North Vietnamese radar installation at Vinh Son and a security post on the south bank of the Ron River. PTF-2 suffered mechanical failure, forcing her to return to Da Nang. At a point east of Vinh Son, the vessels separated and made for their respective targets.
At midnight. PTF-1 and PTF-5 opened fire on the Vinh Son radar facility. The boats then headed back to Da Nang, arriving unmolested at 0715 the next morning.
PTF-6 had attacked the security post at Ron River at 2352 and withdrew at 0020, while an enemy vessel pursued futilely at 35 knots. By 0730 all MACSOG 34-A operators were breakfasting at the compound in Da Nang.
As the Desoto Patrol resumed the morning of 4 August 1964, Captain Herrick expressed concern for the safety of the U.S. force. Indeed, a dialog among higher command elements in the Navy and the Joint Chiefs of Staff had debated the desirability of continuing the Desoto Patrol.
During the night, Admiral Johnson had suggested that the Desoto Patrols be ended after the following day's mission. Admiral Moorer did not concur. He believed that they could possibly draw the enemy away from the 34- Alpha activities.
At 0700 the next morning, the Maddox and the Tuner Joy turned toward the coast of North Vietnam. At 1700 the Desoto Patrol force turned out to sea. Captain Herrick reported that during the patrol they had been shadowed by North Vietnamese torpedo boats.
Communications intercepts indicated that the North Vietnamese Swatows T-142 and T-146 received orders from the Haiphong naval headquarters to prepare for military operations that night. Captain Herrick sent a flash- precedence message stating that he had received information "indicating attack by PGM/P4 imminent" and that the patrol force was "proceeding southeast at best speed." The ships at 2040. the time of Captain Herrick's message, were 60 nautical miles southeast of Hon Me and proceeding at 20 knots.
Weather conditions in the Gulf of Tonkin included a 10- to 30-knot wind from the southeast, intermittent thundershowers, two- to six-foot seas, and a moonless night with a 2.000-foot ceiling. The ship's radar detected no junks or fishing craft.
One minute after Captain Herrick's message, the Maddox detected a surface contact 42 miles to the northeast in the precise area where the two ships had intended to cruise that night. Both the Maddox and the Turner Joy established radar contact with three vessels, closing at 30 knots.
Captain Herrick ordered both U.S. destroyers to full speed and to make a series of course changes to the southeast in order to evade the contacts. With both destroyers making 30 knots and in evasive maneuvers, the radar contacts disappeared at 2145. A half-hour later, however, both the Maddox and the Turner Joy picked up multiple contacts, possibly as many as four, 13 miles off the stern and closing at 30 knots. These contacts closed to 23,200 yards, with the fire control radar of both ships locked on, when another contact appeared on 9,800 yards due east, closing at 35 to 40 knots. At 2239, when the contact had closed to 7,000 yards, the Turner Joy opened fire, followed by the Maddox.
Almost at that instant, the contact maneuvered away. Sonar reported torpedo noises, while Lieutenant (junior grade) Frederick M. Prick, the watch officer in the combat information center in the Maddox, had already evaluated the maneuver as a probable torpedo launch. Commander Ogier ordered evasive action and warned the Turner Joy. As the Turner Joy came hard right, her crewmen reported seeing a torpedo wake. In a statement on 7 August 1964, Lieutenant (junior grade) John J. Bary said he spotted "a distinct wake... on the port side about 500 feet from the ship... moving from aft forward on a parallel course to the ship." Within moments, the enemy PT boat had returned on an intercept course at 50 knots, but this time fire from two 5-inch mounts on board the Turner Joy had scored.
At 2210, the first three of what eventually became 16 aircraft from both the Ticonderoga and the Constellation (CVA-64) arrived overhead. The aircraft launched flares and star shells, but because of the cloud cover and dark- ness of night, none of the pilots would later testify to having seen any vessels other than the two destroyers. A number of pilots, however, reported seeing gun flashes and wakes other than those of the destroyers. But future Vice Admiral and Medal of Honor recipient, F-8 pilot James Stockdale, later said that he saw no hostile craft.
Of these contacts, a number of the crew from the Turner Joy made statements on 7 and 8 August that they had seen fires and explosions on plotted targets. Chief Radarman Robert E. Johnson reported one contact that night "saturated by shell fire on the; scope" and when "firing ceased, the contact remained for... approximately 15 seconds, then disappeared." When further questioned about the "disappearance" of the contact, he concluded that it had sunk.
Eighteen minutes passed before the commencement of more action. At 2301 the Turner Joy picked up a number of contacts to the west at 2,000 to 6,000 yards. The ship fired at the targets at 2310 and 2318. Radar indicated one contact dead in the water, but verification of damage was not possible because of further possible threats.
The Turner Joy's radar picked up another target at 2391, closing at 48 knots, 3,600 yards astern of her. She opened fire at 2,500 yards. The radarmen observed many hits on target, while the crew observed explosions, with the contact disappearing from the screen at 2328, presumed sunk.
Within minutes, another high-speed contact approached astern of the Turner Joy. The Maddox shot star shells, and aircraft dropped flares. In the resulting light, numerous crewmen on board the Turner Joy said they saw the silhouette of a North Vietnamese torpedo boat. At 2347 the Turner Joy dropped a depth charge to break up her wake pattern, since Commander Robert C. Barnhart, her commanding officer, felt the enemy was tracking on it. At midnight, the Turner Joy fired at this contact, with radarmen observing four bursts on-target. At 0003 on 5 August, this contact disappeared from the screen.
For the next 50 minutes, both the Maddox and the Turner Joy dropped depth charges and fired at contacts. The Turner Joy then returned to her position 4,000 yards astern of the Maddox and the Desoto Patrol for a rendezvous with the destroyer Samuel N. Moore (DD-747) at the mouth of the Gulf.
On 7 August 1964 the Tonkin Gulf Resolution, as proposed by the administration of President Lyndon B. Johnson, passed unanimously in the House of Representatives and by an 88 to 2 margin in the Senate. The resolution specifically stated that the United States was prepared "as the President determines, to take all necessary steps, including the use of armed force, to assist any member or protocol state of the Southeast Asia Collective Defense Treaty requesting assistance...."
Over the ensuing years, as the scope of the war expanded, many questions would be asked about the events of the first five days of August 1964. Only now, 27 years later, are answers becoming clearer. With reference to 34-A, two questions have always arisen: were the 34-A missions effective, and did U.S. Navy SEALs ever go north on these missions? The official answers to these questions have always been "no." We do now know, however, that specifically targeted high-ranking North Vietnamese naval officers were kidnapped and under interrogation-provided information about, among other things, the Gulf of Tonkin Incident. We also now know that U.S. Navy SEALs did go up north. In a June 1980 interview with the U.S. Naval Institute, Captain Phil H. Bucklew, an almost legendary figure in naval special warfare, addressed the 34-A missions specifically: "Our SEAL contingents would train Vietnamese SEALs and supervise. They were not allowed to go north of the demarcation line, though they did at times.... " Considering the foregoing, the answer to both of these nagging questions must be "yes."