The Tonkin Gulf Yacht Club

Account of the Tonkin Gulf Incident
President Johnson's Message to Congress
Joint Resolution of Congress H.J. RES 1145
Geneva Accords and Early Vietnam History

1. Account of the Tonkin Gulf Incident

1964 marked a turning point in the long struggle for Vietnam. For, despite the flood of American advisors, aircraft, ships and craft, vehicles, weapons, and supplies pouring into Vietnam between 1962 and 1964, the South Vietnamese military was losing the fight. The Viet Cong in South Vietnam controlled more and more of the countryside as they deciminated Saigon's forces.

In keeping with the strategy of "flexible response" then favored by the American leadership as an approach to communist aggression, stronger US military countermeasures were deemed necessary. The Johnson administration decided to act, rather than react to communist moves, and pursued a strategy of "graduated military pressure" against the North Vietnamese to convince the Ho Chi Minh regime that further support of the Viet Cong in the south was a dangerous policy to follow. This meant taking armed actions against the communist outside of South Vietnam, in Laos and North Vietnam. Several of Johnson's cabinet members, as well as the JCS felt that when the United States had tightened the thumbscrews sufficiently on the North Vietnamese, they would give up their aggressive program.

In February of 1964, when South Vietnamese commando teams-trained, armed and directed by US Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (MACV) where infiltrated into the North to conduct sabotage and disruption, the above policies were put into effect as Operation 34A.

In April, US leaders positioned aircraft carrier KITTY HAWK and her escorts at the entrance of the Gulf of Tonkin. This operating area, 100 miles off the Indochinese coast at 16 degrees north latitude, 110 degrees east longitude, soon became known as Yankee Station.

Meanwhile, the North vietnamese and the Laotian communist guerillas, the Pathet Lao, had opened an offensive against Laotian government troops. The communist objective was to clear hostile forces from the area so that the Ho Chi Minh Trail could be used more effectively to pump men and supplies into South Vietnam. Laotian Prime Minister Souvanna Phouma, who was allied with the anti-communist elements in Laos, called for US military aid.

Quickly seizing this opportunity, on may 17, 1964, Washington directed the Commander in Chief, Pacific, (CINCPAC) to begin an aerial reconnaissance and show of force operation, called Yankee team, with US Navy and US Air force units. On May 21st, Rear Admiral William F. Bringle's KITTY HAWK task group, which included the destroyer MADDOX, initiated the Navy's involvement, by stationing itself in the Gulf and launching aircraft of Light Photographic Squadron VPF-63. On June 6th they were joined by the carrier CONSTELLATION and her "photo recce" aircraft.

TICONDEROGA took over Yankee team duty on July 12 when the carrier and her escorts, under Rear Admiral Robert B. Moore, relieved CONSTELLATION at the mouth of Tonkin Gulf. CONNIE rejoined TICO on August 5th. Aircraft from these two hard working flattops, as well as from BON HOMME RICHARD, HANCOCK and RANGER completed the year's photographic missions over Laos. By the end of 1964, Navy reconnaissance aircraft had conducted 171 sorties, or more than half the joint Yankee team missions. American commanders now received timely information on the number and size of North Vietnamese fighting units moving down the Ho Chi Minh Trail towards South Vietnam. They did not, however, influence the communist to give up their unification campaign.

US leaders now turned to even stronger measures. At the end of July, General William C. Westmoreland, the Commander US Military Assistance Command, Vietnam, asked for the authority to broaden the mission of the 34A force operating in North Vietnam. He wanted to use its maritime boat unit to shell radar sites, defense posts, and other coastal targets. The South Vietnamese-manned unit, which the US Naval Advisory Detachment, Da Nang, trained and equipped with eight Nasty-class fast patrol boats, had irritated the communists that summer by seizing junks and sabotaging installations. Washington approved the request.

The first shore bombardment actions occurred on the night of July 30-31 against Hon Me and Hon Nieu, two islands in the Gulf of Tonkin. In retaliation, North Vietnamese PT boats attacked the destroyer MADDOX cruising in the Gulf of Tonkin during her participation in the Desoto Patrol program.

Heading southeast on the afternoon of August 2, after patrolling in international waters, MADDOX was attacked by three PT boats. The high speed vessels launched at least 4 torpedos and fired their 14.5 mm deck guns at the ship. The "fish" missed, but one 14.5 mm round put a hole in the destroyer's superstructure. American gunners hit and slowed one of the motor torpedo boats.

Suddently, four F-8 Crusaders screamed over MADDOX at 400 knots and made for the enemy vessels, by now heading away from the destroyer and miles north of her. The jets were led by Commander James B. Stockdale. He and his fellow F-8 pilots from TICONDEROGA were conducting practice firing runs near the ship when the radio call went out to fly to the assistance of MADDOX. They covered the 300 miles to the destroyer in one-half hour.

Once over the ship, the Crusader flight was guided by the MADDOX air controller, who relayed the order of Captain John J. Herrick, the on-scene commander in MADDOX, to attack and destroy the North Vietnamese vessels. Commander Stockdale instructed his experienced aviators, Commander Robair Mohrhardt and Lieutenant Commander Ev Southwick of VF-53 to peel off and attack the damaged trailing boat while he and his squadron's new pilot, Lieutenant (j.g.) Dick Hastings, dropped onto the two PTs in the lead. They managed to sink one of the boats, and "hose down" the other two with 20 mm cannon fire. When their fuel reserves had dwindled, they headed back to the carrier. Lt. Hastings was diverted to Da Nang with some minor damage.

For the next two days, MADDOX, now accompanied by destroyer TURNER JOY, continued to patrol along the North vietnamese coast. Then on the night of August 4th, the North Vietnamese struck again. About 70 miles off the coast, communist naval vessels launched several torpedos at TURNER JOY, again the torpedos missed. The destroyers opened fire with their 5-inch and 3-inch guns, firing 249 shells, and sinking or damaging several of the hostile craft.

Captain Herrick, alerted of the enemy's approach by ships radar, called for immediate air support. Within minutes TICONDEROGA catapulted her ready aircraft into the inky blackness. First two A-1H SkyRaiders and one F-8 Crusader, followed by two A-4D SkyHawks and another four A-1H's. A total of 16 aircraft were launched from TICONDEROGA and CONSTELLATION, the latter ship steaming at flank speed from Hong Kong.

Once the aircraft arrived at the destroyers location, they began to circle the ships, and swooping in on areas of reported enemy activity. The night was overcast and pitch-black and visibility was extremely poor. But several pilots did manage to see the snake-like wake of high speed vessels; dark objects on the surface between the destroyers, that soon moved off into the cloaking void, or gun flashes and light bursts at their altitude, which would indicate enemy antiaircrat fire.

By the early morning of the 5th, the action was over. Both destroyers were approaching the mouth of the Gulf, and dispatching reports about the North Vietnamese Navy's second attack on th US Seventh Fleet. Much to the surprise of American leaders, both civilian and military, rather than backing down in the face of US military pressure and curtailing their actions against South Vietnam, the North Vietnamese regime had resisted. Following the consultation of his National Security Council, President Johnson ordered a one-time reprisal strike, code-named Pierce Arrow, by carrier aircraft.

CONSTELLATION and TICONDEROGA received the mission-to attack the North Vietnamese naval vessels based at Ben Thuy, Quang Khe, Hon Gay, and in the estuary to the Lach Chao River; also the fuel storage facility at Vinh.

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President Johnson's Message to Congress August 5, 1964

Last night I announced to the American people that the North Vietnamese regime had conducted further deliberate attacks against U.S. naval vessels operating in international waters, and I had therefore directed air action against gunboats and supporting facilities used in these hostile operations. This air action has now been carried out with substantial damage to the boats and facilities. Two U.S. aircraft were lost in the action.

After consultation with the leaders of both parties in the Congress, I further announced a decision to ask the Congress for a resolution expressing the unity and determination of the United States in supporting freedom and in protecting peace in southeast Asia.

These latest actions of the North Vietnamese regime has given a new and grave turn to the already serious situation in southeast Asia. Our commitments in that area are well known to the Congress. They were first made in 1954 by President Eisenhower. They were further defined in the Southeast Asia Collective Defense Treaty approved by the Senate in February 1955.

This treaty with its accompanying protocol obligates the United States and other members to act in accordance with their constitutional processes to meet Communist aggression against any of the parties or protocol states.

Our policy in southeast Asia has been consistent and unchanged since 1954. I summarized it on June 2 in four simple propositions:

America keeps her word. Here as elsewhere, we must and shall honor our commitments.
The issue is the future of southeast Asia as a whole. A threat to any nation in that region is a threat to all, and a threat to us.
Our purpose is peace. We have no military, political, or territorial ambitions in the area.
This is not just a jungle war, but a struggle for freedom on every front of human activity. Our military and economic assistance to South Vietnam and Laos in particular has the purpose of helping these countries to repel aggression and strengthen their independence.
The threat to the free nations of southeast Asia has long been clear. The North Vietnamese regime has constantly sought to take over South Vietnam and Laos. This Communist regime has violated the Geneva accords for Vietnam. It has systematically conducted a campaign of subversion, which includes the direction, training, and supply of personnel and arms for the conduct of guerrilla warfare in South Vietnamese territory. In Laos, the North Vietnamese regime has maintained military forces, used Laotian territory for infiltration into South Vietnam, and most recently carried out combat operations - all in direct violation of the Geneva Agreements of 1962.

In recent months, the actions of the North Vietnamese regime have become steadily more threatening...

As President of the United States I have concluded that I should now ask the Congress, on its part, to join in affirming the national determination that all such attacks will be met, and that the United States will continue in its basic policy of assisting the free nations of the area to defend their freedom.

As I have repeatedly made clear, the United States intends no rashness, and seeks no wider war. We must make it clear to all that the United States is united in its determination to bring about the end of Communist subversion and aggression in the area. We seek the full and effective restoration of the international agreements signed in Geneva in 1954, with respect to South Vietnam, and again in Geneva in 1962, with respect to Laos...

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Joint Resolution of Congress H.J. RES 1145 August 7, 1964

(Department of State Bulletin, August 24, 1964)

Resolved by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled,

That the Congress approves and supports the determination of the President, as Commander in Chief, to take all necessary measures to repel any armed attack against the forces of the United States and to prevent further aggression.

Section 2. The United States regards as vital to its national interest and to world peace the maintenance of international peace and security in southeast Asia. Consonant with the Constitution of the United States and the Charter of the United Nations and in accordance with its obligations under the Southeast Asia Collective Defense Treaty, the United States is, therefore, prepared, as the President determines, to take all necessary steps, including the use of armed force, to assist any member or protocol state of the Southeast Asia Collective Defense Treaty requesting assistance in defense of its freedom.

Section 3. This resolution shall expire when the President shall determine that the peace and security of the area is reasonably assured by international conditions created by action of the United Nations or otherwise, except that it may be terminated earlier by concurrent resolution of the Congress.

An Electronic Publication of the Avalon Project - William C. Fray and Lisa A. Spar, Co-Directors
Copyright 1996 The Avalon Project

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