BREMERTON — The Fourth of August should be the Baby Boomers’ “Pearl Harbor Day” because it marks the 53rd anniversary of the Gulf of Tonkin Incident.
Who can forget Dec. 7, 1941, Pearl Harbor Day, also known as the “Day of Infamy?” That event led to the entry of the United States into World War II and has been indelibly branded in America’s cultural memory.
But who remembers Aug. 4, 1964 — 8/4/64 — and the naval incident that led to the Vietnam War?
One of the reasons is that, unlike Pearl Harbor, people argue to this day as to whether or not that naval battle — the “Gulf of Tonkin Incident” — really took place.
Still, Aug. 4 should be an important date, at least here in Bremerton. Because one of the survivors of that incident is anchored here: the USS Turner Joy (DD-951).
On that fateful Aug. 4, the USS Maddox (DD-731) and the USS Turner Joy were steaming together on patrol off of the coast of North Vietnam. Two days earlier, on Aug. 2, 1964, the USS Turner Joy, along with planes from the carrier USS Ticonderoga (CV-14), had come to the aid of the Maddox, when it was attacked by three North Vietnamese motor torpedo boats in the Tonkin Gulf.
In late afternoon that day, the weather was bad, the seas were rough, night was falling and visibility was limited. That’s when the radar and sonar men on both ships reported what appeared to be another motor torpedo boat attack from the west and south. The USS Turner Joy reported enemy torpedoes in the water 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.
Afterward, U.S. Navy forces claimed that at least two enemy ships were sunk and two were badly damaged.
“I … was manning the surface search radar on the night of Aug. 4, 1964,” Seaman Dennis Plzak recounted. “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.”
Boatswain’s Mate 3rd Class Donald Sharkey wrote that he saw at “about 2300, a PT boat while engaged in a night gunnery engagement against surface contacts. 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, Capt. Herrick, USS Maddox’s 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 Aug. 7, 1964 — Congress authorized President Lyndon B. Johnson to throw the full force of the U.S. military against communist North Vietnam.
While U.S. advisers 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 U.S. military casualties, along with the deaths of an estimated quarter-million South Vietnamese soldiers, about one million North Vietnamese soldiers and civilians, more than 250,000 Cambodians and some 60,000 Laotians.
What really happened that night in 1964?
Did the North Vietnamese really attack the USS Turner Joy and the USS Maddox that August night? Or was it all a tragic mistake?
Today, thanks to careful restoration and research, the USS Turner Joy Museum Ship can help visitors decide for themselves. You can visit the red-lit sonar room deep in the bowels of the ship, see what the sonar operators probably saw, and go to the gun control room and have a volunteer explain what the crew there saw on radar when they opened fire.
And take a moment to remember those who gave their lives because of what happened aboard the Turner Joy on Aug. 4, 1964.
To learn more about the Vietnam War and the USS Turner Joy, go to www.ussturnerjoy.org.