USS Maddox and USS Turner_Joy


In response to her patrols near the coast of North Vietnam in August 1964, USS Maddox reported being attacked by several torpedo boats in daylight. Two days later, in a dead still summer midnight in the Gulf of Tonkin, the Turner Joy went to General Quarters to fight a fleet of torpedo boats converging on her at high speed. In their action reports, they reported spotting these torpedo boats on surface radar and firing on the boats by radar.  While they never got a visual sighting, they went to GQ several times during that night whenever radar showed torpedo boats in echelon approaching at high speed.  They fired several 5" rounds by radar, but never recovered any debris.


In 1965,  USS Reeves sailors were always on alert for torpedo boats, since we were operating about 10 to 15 miles offshore between Hon Me and Hon Mat, where there were supposed to be torpedo boats stationed.  It was supposed that they would attempt to sneak up on us using the fishing boats as cover. We never saw any of these boats, but during the following years 1965 and 1956, a destroyer was assigned on station with us because we supposedly could not protect ourselves from the fast boats.  We had proven over and over that we could kill small boats using our surface-to-air missiles under almost any conditions, but apparently it was deemed that another ship was needed to protect us.


Part of the information available for the crew of USS Reeves when we arrived in the Gulf, summer of 1965, was that phantom targets were frequently noted on radar, but they could not be sighted visually.  The  op order noted this, and repeated the official line that theorized that the radar was picking up flights of birds, but this had never been verified.


One day as we were enroute to refuel, the combat information center radar picked up a set of these phantom targets.  It showed up as several targets at ranges out to 12,000 yards, in echelon, and proceeding at a high rate of speed.  I had my gun crew lock onto one of the targets, and give me range and bearing to the target.  I was stationed on top of the bridge, and so could see clearly with binoculars that there was nothing at the location.  Then I noted that the sea was extremely flat, with only the small waves that were incoming from a ship that had passed some time before about 20 miles away, steaming northward toward Haiphong Harbor.  As these wavelets advanced, the focus point where the radar beam met the wavelet squarely would advance to a new wavelet, and the radar return would adjust accordingly.  To the computer, it appeared that the target was moving at a much higher speed than the wavelets were actually moving, and could be seen only if the observer knew what to look for.  The sea conditions had to be flat calm in order for the phenomenon to occur.  That does happen frequently in summer in the region.


  I wrote up the report and passed it up the line, but I doubt that it ever made it off the ship.  That would have been embarrassing to someone, when it was realized that the Vietnam War was triggered by the passing of a freighter 30 miles offshore of North Vietnam.  President Johnson used that action report to open up the whole action. It is widely believed that President Kennedy would not commit troops to action in Vietnam, and the whole thing would not have taken place if the incident had been reported with more light and less heat.

  In the July 23,1984 issue of U.S. News and World Report, the complete story of the “attack” on Maddox was printed.  The excuse used by LBJ for the Tonkin Gulf Resolution  was completely hollow, and that fact was known within a few days after the buildup in South Vietnam had begun, but the facts made no difference to Johnson and  McNamara.