2 August 1964: The Gulf of Tonkin Incident

On 2 August 1964, the USS Maddox was attacked by Vietnam People’s Navy Shantou-class gunboats in the Gulf of Tonkin. Top-secret documents declassified in 2005 revealed the extent of US naval operations in the Gulf at the time. From 1962, the US Navy had been conducting reconnaissance missions called Desoto patrols with the aim to “[l]ocate and identify all coastal radar transmitters, note all navigation aids along the DRV’s [Democratic Republic of Vietnam’s] coastline and monitor the Vietnamese junk fleet for a possible connection to DRV/Việt Cộng maritime supply and infiltration routes.”

South Vietnamese commandos attacked DRV-controlled Hòn Mê Island 31 July 1964. After the attack, the supporting USS Maddox returned to the area by order of ship Commander Captain John J. Herrick. In the early afternoon of 2 August, the USS Maddox detected three PAVN patrol boats approaching their position. After an exchange of fire, reports from the USS Maddox and F8 Crusaders overhead recalled the three “Swatows” retreating. They were apparently heavily damaged, leaving the USS Maddox unscathed.

Bằng Lâm Photographs Returning “Swatows”

War artist and avid photographer Bằng Lâm captured the three “Swatows” returning from the exchange in Hạ Long Bay (fig. 1). A student at the Industrial Fine Arts College at the time, Lâm witnessed their return on a student field trip. A large collection of his photographs comprise approximately 80% of the images at the Vietnam Navy Museum.1

Bang Lam Vietnamese vessels after USS Maddox, Gulf of Tonkin Incident
Figure 1: Naval Regiment 172 in Hạ Long Bay returning from the attack against USS Maddox in Shantou-class gunboats (a.k.a “Swatow” by the US). This brief conflict led to what was known as the Gulf of Tonkin Incident. Bằng Lâm took the photo while on a field trip for the Industrial Fine Arts College as a fine art student and photographer, August 1964. (Image courtesy of Bằng Lâm).

Confusion

A day later, the USS Maddox continued patrolling the Gulf of Tonkin along with the USS Turner Joy. On the morning of the 4 August, both the Maddox and Turner Joy reported an attack by DRV gun boats. Both destroyers reported automatic-weapons fire. The attacks purportedly included more than 20 torpedos, enemy cockpit lights and searchlight illumination. Despite supposed radar contact, the bad weather made physical target confirmation impossible. Threatened by apparently overwhelming odds, both US ships opened fire on the perceived enemy. In their “counterattack,” the US destroyers reportedly fired 249 five-inch shells, 123 three-inch shells, and four or five depth charges.

Squadron Commander James Stockdale’s account differed. In supporting the destroyers from the air, his report took a different view. “I had the best seat in the house,” he said. “… [A]nd our destroyers were just shooting at phantom targets—there were no PT boats there… [T]here was nothing there but black water and American firepower.”

“I had the best seat in the house to watch that event and our destroyers were just shooting at phantom targets—there were no PT boats there . . . there was nothing there but black water and American firepower.”

James Stockdale, In Love and War: The Story of a Family’s Ordeal and Sacrifice During the Vietnam Years, 1984, Harper & Row, New York

Commander Captain John J. Herrick substantiated the report from Stockdale by alluding to “overeager sonar operators” and poor equipment performance.

Fallout

The incident provoked confusion in Washington. Secretary of Defence Robert McNamara denied his knowledge of the original attacks at the end of July. His denial successfully misled Congress and the American public.

Regardless, the Gulf of Tonkin incident propelled US involvement in Vietnam. It stands as the stimulus to the beginning of the Second Indochina War in earnest.

President Lyndon Johnson’s Report on the Gulf of Tonkin Incident, 4 August 1964. (Video courtesy of the Miller Centre of Public Affairs, University of Virginia).

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