The Relevance of the Tonkin Gulf Incidents:

U.S. Military Action in Vietnam, August 1964

By Kim Weitzman

At 6:00 P.M. Saigon time, 30 July 1964, the destroyer USS Maddox cruised toward the Tonkin Gulf from Keelung, Taiwan.(1) By 12:30 A.M. Saigon time, 31 July 1964, Maddox records report that the ship was near the mouth of the gulf.(2) According to eyewitness accounts the Maddox arrived in the Tonkin Gulf before 12:21 A.M. Saigon time, on 31 July 1964.(3) These sources report that the Maddox was seen entering the gulf at the time South Vietnamese forces attacked North Vietnamese coastal areas. At 4:30 A.M. Saigon time, the Maddox was sighted five miles off the North Vietnamese coastal areas of Mui Doc and Hon Gio Island.(4) Considering her position at 6:00 P.M. Saigon time, 30 July, it is impossible that the Maddox covered nearly four hundred nautical miles while maintaining an average speed of thirteen knots in less than eight hours.(5)

Incomplete research indicated that this slight discrepancy of time and location was simply a matter of incorrect log entrees or navigational inaccuracies. Further research of the Tonkin Gulf incidents introduced more discrepancies. Beginning at the point the ship left Keelung, Taiwan this study was to culminate in a detailed examination of the Tonkin Gulf incidents. Attempting to support U.S. efforts in Southeast Asia has been difficult because of the confusing accounts of the incidents. Some evidence appeared to support the conclusion that the American destroyers, Maddox and Turner Joy had repulsed unprovoked North Vietnamese attacks. This evidence also provided the foundation needed to support the retaliatory actions commenced by U.S. forces and prove that the Tonkin Gulf Resolution was based on a truthful account of the events of 2 August and 4 August 1964.

A perusal of all information available in local libraries, the National Archives, and Naval Historical Center records did little to support the conclusion that the attacks were unprovoked. After careful consideration of all the evidence uncovered from these sources, the realization that something was terribly wrong with the record of events became evident. A study of all available records, histories, documents, and reports, led to the conclusion that there was no consistent chronology of times, locations, or events of the questioned period. The most amateur detective would have immediately realized the established version of the events, as recounted by government officials like Secretary of Defense Robert Strange McNamara, was riddled with inconsistencies and inaccuracies. This paper is an attempt to show the difficulties of researching the Tonkin Gulf period. Drawing conclusions from the declassified record, the intent of this research was to provide a correct chronology of the events that led to U.S. military actions in the gulf in 1964.

On 31 July, 9:30 A.M. Saigon time, the Maddox refueled from the USS Ashtabula.(6) While linked to the Ashtabula, the Maddox sighted two vessels bearing 010.(7) One of the vessels was identified as a P-G. P-Gs were small fast patrol vessels used by China in 1964. Approaching from the Chinese island of Hai Nen, the boats "maneuvered to pass astern of Maddox," and then proceeded "to follow USS Ashtabula."(8) The official navy history describes four ships sighted by the Maddox at 8:20 A.M. Saigon time.(9) The history also identifies the ships as South Vietnamese vessels traveling south and passing to the west of the Maddox.(10) Utilizing declassified records, it can only be determine that the Maddox sighted two vessels, one of which was a Chinese vessel approaching from Hai Nen Island.(11)

Further discrepancies arise in the refueling activity when other sources are introduced. The Ashtabula deck logs report that at 8:18 A.M. Saigon time, the Maddox began receiving fuel from the Ashtabula, by 8:45 A.M. Saigon time, the refueling detail was completed.(12) The Maddox narrative report states that two vessels were sighted at 8:22 A.M. Saigon time.(13) This entry compares with the Ashtabula's record of time, but is in conflict with the Maddox's deck logs.

So how does the researcher determine when the Maddox refueled, how many ships were sighted, and what nationality the sighted ships were? Using declassified information, these questions remain unanswered.

While it is important to know the whereabouts of the Maddox, it is also important to understand the nature of her patrol in the Tonkin Gulf. Leaving Keelung with a communications van on board, the Maddox was part of the Desoto Patrol program. Sent into the Tonkin Gulf to survey and gather intelligence from North Vietnam and China, the Maddox followed a predetermined schedule. The van, maintained by the Naval Security Group, contained electronic equipment used to gather and process Electronic Intelligence (ELINT).(14) Along with the van, a contingent of trained personnel, took station aboard the Maddox. Some personnel were from the Naval Security Group (NAVSECGRU) Taipei and some arrived for duty from NAVSECGRU Philippines.(15) Those from the Philippines were able to understand the Vietnamese language and those from Taipei could translate Chinese.(16) Designed to intercept communications and electronic emissions, the Desoto Patrol surveyed the coasts of North Vietnam and China.(17)

Very limited information of the Desoto patrol program is accessible, and offers little in the way of understanding the patrol's intelligence gathering capabilities. Records of the Desoto Patrol program are limited, but the study of intelligence gathering equipment used by the Navy in 1964 does provide some information important to the patrol.(18) Along with the equipment used to gather intelligence are the names of naval units who practiced deception and provocation actions along with intelligence gathering. One such unit, the Beach Jumpers Units 1 and 2 utilized these vans during the period prior to and after the Tonkin Gulf incidents.(19)

To find out more about the van, and what if any part the Beach Jumpers played in the incidents, this research continued. By emitting certain signals, the Maddox could make the North Vietnamese believe she was a force of ships or she could mask herself, deceiving them into thinking no ship was in the area.(20) The Beach Jumpers Unit pioneered these deceptive techniques during World War II.(21) Requests for the 1964 Command History of the unit were made to the Naval Historical Center, Admiral Boorda's office in the Pentagon, Special Warfare Command, Coronado, California, personal visits to the Naval Historical Center, and finally the National Archives at Suitland, Maryland. Indicated in the Freedom of Information Act access program, one of three responses must be provided; the information is classified, the information is declassified, or the existence of the information can not be confirmed or denied. No such response was given. These agencies answered this request with responses such as "check your local library," and "the command histories for that year are not on file."

After calls to Admiral Boorda's office, Senior Naval Command at the Pentagon, the Naval Historical Center provided a supplemental command history of the Beach Masters unit. This supplement contained information about the Beach Masters, a unit derived from the original Beach Jumpers sometime during the 1970's. The type of information contained in the supplement included the units commendation for digging a foundation for a local hospital.(22) It is beyond reason that there is a command history for the Beach Master's from 1964 when the unit was not so named until sometime in the mid 1970s.

Continued research of the Tonkin Gulf incidents led to more inconsistencies. On 2 August, North Vietnamese patrol boats attacked the Maddox. Reporting that the attacks began at 5:08 P.M. Saigon time, Maddox deck logs note that three enemy vessels approached the ship. At 5:34 P.M. Saigon time, four US aircraft arrived on the scene.(23) Maneuvering to close with the Maddox, the USS Turner Joy cruised toward the north west at speeds of twenty-five knots beginning at 4:25 P.M. Saigon time.(24) By 7:28 P.M. Saigon time, the Turner Joy sighted the Maddox, she was fifteen miles away. The Turner Joy sighted US aircraft overhead at 7:44 P.M. Saigon time, two hours after the Maddox reported seeing the aircraft.(25)

Standard interpretations of the events of 2 August are much different then those reported in the deck logs and action reports. As recorded in Dr. Edward Marolda's book, The United States Navy and the Vietnam War, the ship was under attack at 3:30P.M. Saigon time. Sending a message to Commander 7th Fleet (COM7FLT), Captain John J.Herrick, Commander Task Group (CTG) 72.1, stationed aboard the Maddox, announced he was under attack and would fire if necessary.(26) While the message describes the approaching enemy vessels correctly, it was not sent when the event occurred. Herrick sent the message at 6:40 P.M. Saigon time, almost two hours after enemy ships approached.(27) Turner Joy, according to government sources was cruising on picket station and was ordered to speed toward the Maddox at this time.(28) Turner Joy records reflect that she was ordered to maneuver toward the Maddox but fail to give the time the order was given.(29) Also, Marolda's history records the attack as ending at 4:30 P.M. Saigon time, almost forty minutes before the Maddox reports the attacks beginning.(30)

Determining the correct time of the 2 August attack is impossible. While the Marolda history relies on classified documents for some of its information, the information contained in declassified reports conflicts drastically. Evidenced by the photographs recording the approaching ships and the physical damaged suffered by the Maddox, there is no doubt that an attack took place. What is questioned is the time of the attack, where the Maddox and Turner Joy were, and the location and course of other US ships.

There is less declassified information pertaining to the 4 August attack. Minimal information in declassified sources provides a solid foundation to understanding the events that led to US reprisals and the Tonkin Gulf Resolution. The Maddox, traveling south out of the gulf, met first three and then four "high speed contacts," at 9:59 P.M. Saigon time.(31) Including these contacts, the first enemy approaches to the Maddox and Turner Joy that night came from the direction of Hai Nen Island.(32) Photographic information does not exist for the 4 August attacks. The only strong radar contact made that night was at the time the Maddox fire control radar locked on the Turner Joy.(33) This is important in that enemy contacts, according to action report entrees, were reported to have passed between the Maddox and the Turner Joy.(34) It is not clear how enemy ships, closer then the Turner Joy, could not be locked onto by radar. By 12:53 P.M. Saigon time, the Maddox was clear of the attackers, according to the deck logs.(35) No enemy vessels were visually sighted that night by any crew members. The ship reported no physical damage. Within the deck logs, the only information confirming the attacks was the sighting of three and then four surface contacts.

According to Turner Joy records the attack began at 10:35P.M. Saigon time.(36) By 1:22 A.M. Saigon time, the logs report enemy contacts had ceased and the attack was over.(37) As with the Maddox crew, no one on the Turner Joy visually sighted enemy vessels. They reported no damage to the ship from the attack. Again, in comparison to Maddox records all original enemy approaches to the Turner Joy were from the direction of Hai Nen Island. Never during the attack were enemy vessels identified nor sighted.

Maintaining that the US ships were attacked by North Vietnamese patrol vessels, government sources of the attack fail to include information that supports an unprovoked attack. Most importantly, official sources, such as the Tonkin Gulf file at the Naval Historical Center, exclude information contained in the Seventh Fleet Exploitation Study and the interrogation reports of captured North Vietnamese Naval crewmen. Stated quite clearly within these documents, North Vietnamese patrol squadrons did not operate in the area that the attacks took place.(38) Fuel, radar, and navigation limits kept the North Vietnamese navy squadrons operations area within 106.30E longitude. The 4 August incident occurred near 108.E longitude, according to the official navy history.(39) No other declassified source gives a position for the attack. The exact position of the US ships is vital, considering the limits of the North Vietnamese vessels. Information gained from the interrogation of North Vietnamese prisoners also includes denials that the North Vietnamese attacked US ships on 4 August.(40) One important point concerning the attackers of 4 August is the make-up of North Vietnamese Naval Squadrons. The first contact intercepted by Maddox radar indicated three and then four approaching contacts. The North Vietnamese squadrons contained three vessels, Chinese naval squadrons contained four vessels.(41) Utilizing the declassified chronology of 4 August, most of the contacts consisted of four rather then three approaching contacts. No other information is available that determines the exact number of approaching contacts.

While the 4 August attack needs clarification, the issues surrounding the whole Desoto Patrol are important. Information detailing the Desoto Patrols is limited, declassified records do not offer enough information to fully understand the nature and activities of the patrols. During the Congressional Hearings on the Tonkin Gulf incidents, 1964 and 1968, the intercepted North Vietnamese communications were the supporting evidence for all US action.(42) These intercepts remain classified though they could shed light on the motives and plans of the North Vietnamese. During the hearings, Secretary of Defense Robert Strange McNamara repeatedly stated that these intercepts provided conclusive evidence of the attacks.

After researching the declassified documents of the Tonkin Gulf incidents, the realization that much information is missing led to a request for the intercepted communications. A FOIA request to the Naval Security Group for all intercepted communications ended in no information provided. The NSG reported that the request had been sent to the National Security Agency who has yet to respond.(43) After seven months, there has been no confirmation that the information exists, if it is classified, or if it is available. These records, so vital to the Secretary of Defense and all US retaliatory actions, at this point do not exist.

An important document that adds much to the scenario of the Tonkin Gulf incidents is the MACSOG DOCUMENTATION STUDY. This document, declassified in 1992, explains the nature and activities of both the South Vietnamese Oplan 34A program and US naval action during 1964.(44) While this document is declassified, it is not contained in the Tonkin Gulf file in the Naval Historical Center nor the National Archives. For the last thirty years the relationship between the Oplan 34A and Desoto Patrols has been a source of much confusion. The MACSOG study explains that the "Primary objectives [of the Oplan operations] were the collection of intelligence and reconnaissance of the NVN coastal area."(45) This explanation is identical to the description of the Desoto Patrol operations.(46)

Spending countless hours studying the declassified record of the August events, there is little information that supports the actions taken by the U.S. on 5 August and in regards to the passing of the Tonkin Gulf Resolution. The presented account, as detailed by declassified government records, leaves a confusing picture of what transpired in the gulf. Expecting to understand the events that impacted on subsequent actions in Vietnam, it is sad to conclude that is not possible. The limitations and confusion faced by researchers dealing with the period are reflected in the lack of serious study available today explaining the incidents. Most histories of the Vietnam War include a short explanation of the attacks, but a full account of the pre-Tonkin Gulf Resolution period does not exist. Assuming this was simply due to a lack of interest in the period, it is soon realized that the lack of academic attention is caused by the inability to understand the released information.

Are there reasons why government agencies will not provide access to information that would fill an important void? Two assumptions can be made. Firstly, if the government is holding information that does not support their rendition of the events, they are more likely to keep that information classified. Secondly, if evidence used as a basis for retaliatory actions and the Tonkin Gulf Resolution does not exist then the government would not be able to declassify that information. Rather then demand reckless declassifications that would interfere with national security issues, the agencies which hold the full account of the Tonkin Gulf incidents should release enough information to provide historians a clear understanding of actions taken.

How can the American public intelligently understand the events of the Vietnam War when government agencies refuses to provide a rational, believable account of the events that led to U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War? A more honest account of the Tonkin Gulf incidents, which served as the framework for critical decisions concerning Vietnam, is necessary to repel the criticisms of the Vietnam period.



1.USS Maddox Action Report, "Narrative". Enclosure 1, p. 3, 30 July 1964. "Weather Data Sheet", enclosure 4, p. 3, 30 July 1964. Further reference to the Action Report of the Maddox will be noted as Maddox A.R.

2. Maddox A.R., "Visual Contact Log", enclosure 3, p. 2, 31 July 1964.

3. Letter to Admiral Zumwalt from General Giap, September 12, 1994.

4. Joseph C. Goulden. Truth is the First Casualty: The Gulf of Tonkin Affair- Illusion and Reality. New York: Rand McNally & Company, p. 80.

5. USS Maddox Deck Logs, July 1964, 30 and 31 July 1964.

6. Maddox Deck Logs, July 1964, 31 July 1964.

7. Ibid.

8. Maddox "Visual Contact Log", p. 2.

9. Edward Marolda, Oscar P. Fitzgerald. The United States Navy and the Vietnam Conflict: From Military Assistance to Combat, 1959-1965. Vol. II, Washington, D.C.: Naval Historical Center, p. 410.

10. Ibid., 411.

11. The determination that the vessels were Chinese is supported by the identification P-G made in the "Visual Contact Log" of the Maddox. Page 2 entrees read: "identified as P-G." In 1964 China sailed P-Gs, North Vietnam and South Vietnam did not. This information was obtained from Jane's Fighting Ships, edited by Raymond V.B. Blackman, New York: McGraw Hill Book Comapny, pgs. 472 and 476. Also the "Visual Contact Log" states, "Approached from direction of Hai Nen Island.

12. USS Ashtabula "Deck Logs", July 1964, 31 July 1964.

13. Maddox "Narrative", enclosure 1, p. 5.

14. Maddox "Cover Page-Action Report", p. 1-7.

15. Ibid.

16. Interview by author with Sedgwick Tourison, February 15, 1996.

17. Marolda, p. 394-400.

18. Norman Polmar. The Ships and Aircraft of the US Fleet. Thirteenth edition. Maryland: Naval Institute Press, 1984. John Carroll, Secrets of Electronic Espionage, New York: E.P. Dutton & Co., Inc., 1966. CONVAIR Corporation, Principles of Electronic Warfare, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1961. D.Curits Schleher, Introduction to Electronic Warfare, MA.: Artech House, Inc., 1986. John B. Dwyer, Seaborne Deception: The History of U.S. Navy Beach Jumpers, New York: Praeger, 1992.

19. Dwyer.

20. Goulden, p. 124.

21. Ibid.

22. Beachmaster Unit ONE Command History Supplement for 1964, enclosure 4.

23. Maddox "Deck Logs

24. USS Turner Joy "Deck Logs", August 1964, 2 August 1964.

25. Ibid.

26. Marolda, p.415.

27. Ibid., footnote #49.

28. Ibid., p. 415.

29. Turner Joy "Narrative", enclosure 1, p. I-1.

30. Marolda, p. 417.

31. Maddox "Deck Logs", August 1964, 4 August 1964.

32. All approaching contacts had bearings from the northeast, east, and southeast. This information from Part II: Chronology sequence of events. Maddox/Turner Joy action on 4 August 1964. This report was located in the Tonkin Gulf Incident file at the Naval Historical Center. It is difficult to understand why it was not included in the original "Action Report" received from the Center.

33. Goulden, p. 11-12.

34. Part II: Chronology.

35. Maddox "A.R.", August 1964, 4 August 1964.

36. Turner Joy "A.R.", August 1964, 4 August 1964.

37. Turner Joy "Deck Logs", August 1964, 4 August 1964.

38. Sedgwick Tourison, Secret Army, Secret War: Washington's Tragic Spy Operation in North Vietnam. Maryland: Naval Institute Press, 1995, p. 154.

39. Marolda, p. 429.

40. Tourison, p. 154.

41. Seventh Fleet Exploitation Study, July 1966, enclosure 1, p. IV-A-9. Interview with Sedgwick Toursion, February 1996.

42. "The Gulf of Tonkin, The 1964 Incidents Part II", Committee on Foreign Relations, United States Senate, Nineteenth Congress, second session December 16, 1968.

43. Telephone conversation with LT, JAGC, USNR N.A. Sinclair, November 1995. In reference to FOIA request #95033.

44. MACSOG Documentation Study (U), Annex D to Appendix C Maritime Operations. 10 July 1970.

45. MACSOG Documentation Study, p. C-d-1.

46. As explained by Marolda, p. 394-397.

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