It’s 7 December, a day no Navy man can ever forget, a day when a thought is called for all those brave sailors who went down without firing a shot, when the sleeping giant was awakened and filled with a terrible resolve. While reflecting on that time, long before I was born, I also came to recall an event in my own life, one that I have not thought about in years, and which also affected me profoundly.
The Tonkin Gulf Incident was the naval engagement that brought the United States into the Viet Nam war. It was also before my time, before I even signed up in the Reserves. I wasn’t there and I paid little attention to it when I heard about it on the news. There has been much talk and controversy about it since, whether or not it was justified, whether it was a real attack, or just mistaken identity or crossed communications, and even whether or not it actually happened. But it got us into the war, officially. It doesn’t really matter any more, I haven’t even bothered to look it up and refresh my memory about it. I’ll just recall my own tenuous connection to it, by analogy, so to speak.
We knew about the Tonkin Gulf Incident, of course. My ship was patrolling the same waters where the action had taken place, and we all had heard what happened. A US destroyer, I don’t recall the name now, but she was well-known to us, a “spook”, a ship outfitted with special radio equipment and personell to monitor enemy communications, had been attacked by North Vietnamese torpedo boats in international waters. Shots had been fired, although it wasn’t clear who had fired first. It was not known if any hits were scored. The reports were vague, and we were never briefed about what had happened. But we were trained to respond if it happened to us.
The stories we heard were the stuff of legend, supposedly, the first ship-to-ship engagement by an American destroyer since World War Two, perhaps the last night action to be fought in this new age of missiles and aircraft. The vision was dramatic, a tin can maneuvering violently in the dark, her twin 5/38 double mounts blazing away under radar control at an invisible target miles away over the horizon.
We went to General Quarters in the late afternoon. It was overcast and dreary, as it usually was on Yankee Station. I must have gotten my crow by then, because I was on the bridge, not in Mount 51, my GQ station when I was still a bosun’s mate seaman. The bridge was confusion, people shouting orders and yelling into sound-powered telephones. The Captain kept on running back and forth between the bridge and Combat Information Center, just aft. Over our heads I could hear the growl of the Fire Control radar turret as it tracked the targets, and our single rapid-fire 5/54 mount responded to its remote commands, its safety bell ringing and its hydraulics moaning as the long barrel pointed straight ahead, rising and falling with the seas. We had only one big gun, so we fought surface targets by pointing the ship at them, minimizing our profile, closing the range, and giving the gun maximum freedom of movement. I missed the gunmount, it was where the action was going to be today, and I wanted to be in the middle of it, even if I was only a backup piece of gear to be activated in the case of an FC casualty.
I realize now it was the bridge where everything was really happening. But in the confusion, I was clueless. I kept operating the LORAN and plotting fixes as rapidly and frequently as I could. As usual, during the most interesting times, both bridge radar repeaters were bogarted by junior officers trying to look busy, I couldn’t sneak a look. I knew the battle would be fought from CIC, we just executed course and speed orders from the Captain via his telephone messenger in Combat. I struggled to keep my log up to date.
For what seemed the longest time, nothing seemed to happen. The officers kept on talking on the radio, trying to get our targets to identify themselves, the signalmen were raising and lowering flags, I could hear them snapping in the breeze, and I could hear the slap of the shutters of the signal light as the seaman on duty tried to get them to respond.
Eventually I had time to sneak out on the bridge wing and take a look for myself. I grabbed a pair of glasses and took a look where away I knew they were. And there she was, several miles away; the familiar silhouette of a patrol torpedo boat, just like the one in PT 109. It was too far away to see her colors, or even if there was a hull number painted on her bows, she was just a black shape against the horizon, and she was heading North, like a bat out of hell. I could see her bouncing along the tops of the waves, with a bone in her teeth, spray coming from her bows and a big rooster tail in her wake. She probably couldn’t see us at all, we were on the dark side of the horizon, and our hull was haze gray, to blend in with the overcast. Only our flashing light gave us away.
But it was all irrelevant. She was crossing our bows, not heading towards us, and already the distance between us was increasing. Within a few moments, another boat appeared, just like the first, same course and speed. The Captain was on the bridge now, and he watched them for a moment and then gave the order to secure from General Quarters. I continued watching them until they went hull down over the horizon.
Who were they? To this day, I don’t know. N or S Vietnamese? Chicom? I don’t know. Our brown water navy didn’t have any PT boats that I knew of. If they were hostile, maybe they were just testing us, like the jets that sometimes sortied out to us but always peeled away when they felt our FC tracking them. Maybe they were friendlies, on some secret raid into the North. We had orders not to engage unless we felt threatened, but I wonder how close we came to firing. I wondered how much the Tonkin Gulf Incident might have resembled my own. Its certainly possible no one aboard that ship knew exactly what happened, whether they were hostiles or not. We never found out who or what those boatswere, and what was there mission. But a corner was turned, and history was changed.
No, its not exactly a Day of Infamy story. But it did happen to me, as did several other scary incidents, none of which actually resulted in any danger to me. But I do remember those guys at Pearl Harbor. None of us should ever forget them.