50 Years After the Gulf of Tonkin, Vietnam Vet John White Looks Back at the Incident that Sparked War
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Without much prompting, White, who still lives in Cheshire where he and Barbara, his wife of 52 years, raised four children and have five grandchildren, recalls how in August 1964 he and his shipmates aboard the USS Pine Island, a seaplane tender, were rushed from their home base in Japan to the Da Nang Naval Base in South Vietnam to respond to an alleged aggressive action by enemy patrol boats off North Vietnam. White himself had been thrust into action, having just arrived in Japan the week before to take on the duty as nuclear officer aboard the Pine Island. In Japan, he had all of one day’s training and an hour’s briefing with his predecessor at this highly sensitive post. Prior to that, he’d been based in Newport, R.I., and on maneuvers in the Atlantic and Caribbean.
“I was reasonably well informed, but I don’t remember hearing much about Vietnam before then,” he recalls.
It was in the previous week, on Aug. 2, an actual, verifiable and undisputed attack by North Vietnamese patrol boats had occurred in the Gulf of Tonkin. Torpedoes were fired at the destroyer USS Maddox, which returned fire, damaging three patrol boats and killing four enemy sailors. Another destroyer, USS Turner Joy, was quickly dispatched to the area.
“From the North Vietnamese point of view, we were well inside their territorial waters, which international limits set at 12 miles,” says White. “The North Vietnamese took action to get the ships away from the coast. They admitted it at the time.”
On the night of Aug. 4, however, while White was en route to his assignment, the alleged exchange that led to the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution took place. [At right: White during his Navy days]
Contrary to the assertions by peace activists, the destroyers were not placed there as a deliberate attempt to jumpstart a war. Rather, they were part of a wider operation known by the code name Desoto that had been ongoing since December 1962. U.S. destroyers outfitted with intelligence equipment intercepted messages from the North Vietnamese Army and relayed them to the South Vietnamese Army.
“Their motive was to capture the electronic signature of the enemy,” says White. “It was more of an intelligence-gathering mission than an overtly military one. But it was covert.”
It was during the time that the Pine Island was traveling at “due speed” to Da Nang that White examined the intelligence the destroyers had gathered, later cited in his 1967 letter to the editor. He recalls that it was “while reading a sheaf of classified radio messages, I noticed some from the commodores of the two destroyers that said ‘we are maneuvering to avoid torpedoes.’ These went on for an hour-and-a-half, and then there was a strange reversal of messages ‘looks like sonar was malfunctioning, looks like many if not all reports of torpedoes are false’. Which was a total reversal of the picture we were led to believe.”
Though he had his doubts at the time, White focused on his job.
“In wartime, there is little time to be philosophical,” says White. “I filed it away, thought it didn’t make sense, but I was a young gung-ho naval officer on the way to a war. We steamed into Da Nang waters in full battle gear, gun mounts loaded. We had the mindset to go to war. I was mindful of getting killed and never seeing my kids again but I also felt we were doing this for America, defending freedom and democracy. What is that Latin phrase that means ‘It is sweet and fitting to die for your country’? [Editor’s note: ‘Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori,’ from Horace’s Odes.] That’s how I felt.”
The situation on the night in question (Aug. 4) was even more chaotic than White suspected. According to Joseph Goulden’s book Truth is the First Casualty: The Gulf of Tonkin Affair—Illusion and Reality neither U.S. destroyer was under enemy attack. The biggest threat, in fact, came from each other. Goulden quotes the gun director on the Maddox, who had been ordered to lock his six five-inch guns on “the firmest target we’ve had all night” and to “fire before we lose contact.”
Disobeying a direct command from the bridge, the gun director held his fire, saying, “I’m not opening fire until I know where the Turner Joy is.” This was fortunate, because the “firm target” was the Turner Joy, running without lights at point-blank range. Had he followed the order, hundreds of U.S. lives would have been lost to friendly fire.
Still shaken by the episode five years later, the gun director told Goulden, “I could have been shot for not squeezing the trigger.”
It’s a feeling with which White soon became familiar.