BY TERRYL ASLA
May 5 is the 58th anniversary of the launching of USS Turner Joy (DD-951 ) at the Puget Sound Bridge & Dredging Company in Seattle, the day her hull first kissed the salt waters of Puget Sound.
The Turner Joy went on to serve with distinction throughout the war. But it is most famous for the naval action that took place Aug. 4, 1964, and the still-unanswered question: did the North Vietnamese really attack the USS Turner Joy and the USS Maddox that dark, stormy night?
Or was it all a mistake?
Visitors aboard the Turner Joy have the opportunity to decide for themselves. They can visit the red-lit sonar room deep in the bowels of the ship and have a volunteer crew man explain what the crew in the gun control room saw on radar when they opened fire.
Based on the ship’s history (www.ussturnerjoy.org/) here’s what you need to know if you go visit:
On August 2, 1964, the Turner Joy, along with planes from the carrier USS Ticonderoga, came to the aid of the Turner Joy’s sister ship, the USS Maddox, when it was attacked by three North Vietnamese motor torpedo boats in the Tonkin Gulf. Two days later found the Maddox and Turner Joy steaming together on patrol off of the coast of North Vietnam. The weather was bad, seas were rough, night was falling and visibility was limited when radar and sonar men on both ships reported what appeared to be motor torpedo boats attacking from the west and south.
Turner Joy reported being under torpedo attack and began evasive maneuvers. Down below, fire control personnel began firing her five-inch guns at the unidentified radar returns. The battle in the dark lasted almost four hours. Afterwards, USN forces claimed at least two enemy ships sunk and two badly damaged.
“I … was manning the surface search radar on the night of August 4, 1964,” said Seaman Dennis Plzak. “I picked up several small contacts (three to five) on my scope approximately 12 miles away and tracked them into short range. I wasn’t sure of them being genuine contacts until they were in short range. I have spent many hours on the surface search [radar] and I evaluate them as definite contacts. It appeared to me that there was a definite plan used by the craft. At one time I held clearly three contacts, one directly astern of us and two moving in and out. [I] could not tell size of contacts due to short range scale. I saw one contact being hit by burst from our mounts approximately four times and then completely disappear from the scope. I definitely evaluate I held three contacts on my scope.”
“I saw … about 2300, a PT Boat while engaged in a night gunnery engagement against surface contacts,” wrote Boatswains Mate 3rd Class Donald Sharkey. “I saw [a] flare off [the] starboard side of ship so was watching same, looking for contact. At this time a PT boat came between the ship and the flare bearing about one hundred degrees relative. The outline of this contact was clearly seen by me and was definitely a PT boat.”
But a search the next morning found no debris or oil slicks.
In an after action report, USS Maddox Captain Herrick, the officer in tactical command, said, “Review of action makes many reported contacts and torpedoes fired appear doubtful. Freak weather effects on radar and overeager sonar men may have accounted for many reports. [There were] no actual visual sightings by Maddox. Suggest complete evaluation before any further action taken.”
Despite these cautionary words, three days later on August 7 1964, Congress authorized President Lyndon Johnson to throw the full force of the United States military against communist North Vietnam. While US advisors had been in Vietnam since 1955, the so-called “Gulf of Tonkin incident” marked the beginning of a decade of hostilities that resulted in nearly 60,000 US military casualties, along with the deaths of an estimated quarter-million South Vietnamese soldiers, about one million North Vietnamese soldiers and civilians, over 250,000 Cambodians and some 60,000 Laotians.
What really happened that night in 1964? Today, thanks to careful restoration and research, the USS Turner Joy Museum Ship can help visitors decide for themselves.