1952

Gulf of Tonkin Boo Boo

By Commander Allen L. Ries, USN (Ret.) '52

INQUIRY FROM THE HIGHEST AUTHORITY IN THE WHITE HOUSE AND PENTAGON

During 1964-65 I flew an unarmed U.S. Navy reconnaissance aircraft in Southeast Asia. From airfields in Japan, the Philippines, Okinawa, South Korea -- or from aircraft carriers of the Seventh Fleet -- I flew surveillance (spy) missions in Russian, Chinese and North Vietnamese air spaces.

In August, 1964, I was operating from the aircraft carrier USS Constellation (at Yankee Station off DaNang) when the destroyers Maddox and Turner Joy reported being attacked by enemy surface forces in the Gulf of Tonkin. President Johnson responded by ordering an immediate massive reprisal strike (“Pierce Arrow”) against these forces and their shore facilities at Ben Thuy and Vinh.

Sixty aircraft from Constellation and Ticonderoga participated in that strike. I flew in with the first wave, and out with the last. Intense anti-aircraft fire from the shore facilities damaged several aircraft, and two were shot down (Everett Alvarez captured, and Dick Sather killed), but we did not encounter any sign of the reported enemy surface forces in the Gulf of Tonkin.

Constellation began recovering her aircraft as we returned from the strike. I was holding overhead, waiting my turn to come aboard, when one of the damaged aircraft crashed. A huge fire erupted on deck, and Constellation confirmed that her deck was fouled, that there was an indefinite hold on recovery and five planes ahead of me in the emergency pattern whenever recovery resumed. Rather than hold and add to the ship’s problems, I was cleared to divert. DaNang was overloaded and unsuitable, so I refueled in-flight and again at Cubi Point, and diverted to Atsugi, Japan, my parent command.

I sent the routine, coded, post-flight report (to JCS and many others) from Cubi Point. Arriving late at Atsugi, I secured the plane and retired to quarters. About 3:00 AM the XO called to say I was wanted immediately at the compound communications center to respond to a telephone inquiry from the highest authority in the White House and Pentagon..

I was there in minutes and took the waiting call on a secure phone. The caller identified himself and said he was calling on behalf of the Secretary of Defense. He wanted my visual description of the surface forces in the Gulf whose radars I had recorded. (Apparently someone, not me or my crew, had reversed the “from” and “to” characteristics of one or more bearings, and plotted the source as being out in the Gulf of Tonkin rather than from the shore.)

I assured him there were no contacts, visual or electronic, out in the Gulf. He seemed disappointed and pressed on asking if it weren’t “possible” that the radar signals were in fact from the Gulf, or that “maybe” I had missed a visual sighting. I could only reassure him, without doubt or hesitation, that we had NOT detected any surface forces visually or electronically in the Gulf of Tonkin.

It was a long time ago but I remember the details of that call very clearly. He ended with a comment that has bugged me all these years: “Well anyway, we’re going with your original report as we received it.” (The radars on mistaken reciprocal bearings ??) Without giving me a chance to reply or object, he hung up.

Shortly after, based upon “confirmed sightings” and other misinformation handed them, Congress passed the infamous Gulf of Tonkin Resolution -- the mandate President Johnson wanted/needed to escalate the war.

War is hell, and truth is the first casualty.

 

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