Some — including Cdr Stockdale, who was certainly in a good position to see the action — doubted that the night engagements during the second so called Gulf of Tonkin Incident had actually happened.
Known to its pilots as the ‘last of the gunfighters’ due to its quartet of Colt-Browing Mk 12 20mm cannon (its great rival, the F-4 Phantom II, was armed exclusively with missiles), the F-8 Crusader was numerically the most common fighter in the US Navy at the start of America’s involvement in the Vietnam conflict in 1964 – some 482 F-8C/D/Es equipped 17 frontline units.
By August 1964, intelligence reports indicated that the North Vietnamese were becoming increasingly nervous about the DeSoto (DeHaven Special Operations off TsingtaO) Patrols being performed along their coast, as well as that of Communist China and North Korea. DeSoto Patrols were roving excursions begun in 1962 that were meant to probe defences and gauge the response from the target country. The DeSoto Patrols scheduled for early August promised to bring more than the usual attention from the North Vietnamese.
As USS Maddox (DD-731) steamed off the coast on the morning of Aug. 2, 1964, the American destroyer’s radar and lookouts picked out distant contacts. As told by Peter Mersky in his book F-8 Crusader Units of the Vietnam War, by mid-afternoon, three Soviet-made P-4 PT boats materialised in column. Maddox opened fire as the enemy boats closed, and the Communist PTs returned the fire. The 20-minute fire-fight ended with all the P-4s damaged, while Maddox was hit by a single 14.5 mm round.
USS Ticonderoga F-8s from VF-51 and VF-53 answered the call for air support from the US destroyer. Cdr James Bond Stockdale and his wingman, Lt(jg) Dick Hastings and VF-53 skipper Cdr Robair F Mohrhardt with his number two, Lt Cdr C Everett Southwick, attacked the retiring P-4s. The destroyer had by this time broken off its pursuit of the faster PTs.
Stockdale and Hastings each fired a Zuni, but both rockets missed. Mohrhardt and Southwick strafed the small craft with cannonfire, leaving one PT – 339 – gushing smoke and eventually dead in the water. The VF-51 CO then joined his comrades in strafing passes.
Dick Hastings had been hit on his Zuni run, and Stockdale told him to orbit above the fight after checking his young wingman’s F-8. Although there did not seem to be any leaking fluids, he could see that Hastings’ fighter had a damaged right wing tip — no sense in taking chances this early in the game.
‘I realised he had probably overstressed the aeroplane’, Stockdale commented years later. ‘He was on his first cruise, and this was the first live run made in the war. He tried to pull the wings off his Crusader. He didn’t make any big mistakes. He could have thought he was on fire and ejected but he didn’t.’
The Tico F-8s had done the job — all three PTs were damaged, and the smoking P-4 finally sank. Now 350 miles from their carrier and at ‘bingo’ fuel (the point at which they had to break off the action because of low fuel), the four Crusaders rejoined. Not wanting to take any chances with the ability of his wingman’s damaged aircraft to withstand the stresses of a recovery back aboard ship, Cdr Stockdale ordered Lt Hastings to land at Da Nang — Lt Dick Hastings was later killed when Tico’s LSO platform was struck by debris following a fatal landing accident by a VF-53 F-8E (BuNo 149176) on Nov. 30, 1965. Grievously wounded in the crash, Hastings succumbed to his injuries a short time later.
The various actions centring around the PT boats had been the first direct combat between US forces and the North Vietnamese, who had made the point that they would not ignore what they considered as intrusions along their coasts, and were prepared to defend themselves. The Americans had also taken a stand — they would not be bullied from their support of their South Vietnamese allies, and were also ready to fight.
A day passed as both sides assessed the events of Aug. 2. USS Turner Joy (DD-951) joined Maddox as she resumed the interrupted patrol 48 hours after having been fired upon. The two ships headed back into the Gulf of Tonkin early on Aug. 4 and cruised up and down the North Vietnamese coast all that day without much notice from the enemy. However, the Americans knew the North Vietnamese were preparing once again to do battle.
Before midnight, the destroyers’ radars picked up fast-approaching contacts, lookouts identifying the bogies as more P-4s — probably from the same squadron that had attacked two days earlier. The PTs seemed to be headed for the Ticonderoga task group, and Maddox and Turner Joy soon opened fire at the speeding contacts, which then seemed to disappear astern of the destroyers. Thirty minutes later, more contacts 13 miles behind suggested another attack was imminent. Crewmen on deck and at their consoles reported what looked like a torpedo wake. Whatever it was, the destroyers steamed on at full alert.
Cdr Stockdale and two A-1 pilots from VA-52 arrived over the reported positions of the enemy boats and began strafing, although no one could see a target — Stockdale had launched solo after his wingman’s Crusader went down with a generator failure. The best they could offer were sightings of ghostly wakes and bursts of light, which were perhaps gun flashes. Future four-star admiral, then-Cdr Wesley McDonald, CO of VA-56, was flying one of his A-4s above Stockdale. The VF-51 skipper had asked McDonald to radio Maddox and get the ship to flash its signal lights in order to give Stockdale a better idea of the ship’s position.
Two hours after the initial contacts, quiet returned to the gulf, the targets on the radar scopes having vanished. However, more returned and the destroyers again found themselves under attack by PT boats. The ships fought a running battle until nearly 0100 on Aug. 5 without any confirmed kills being achieved by either side.
Some — including Cdr Stockdale, who was certainly in a good position to see the action — doubted that the night engagements in the gulf had actually happened. In fact, when Robert McNamara visited Hanoi in November 1995, he asked Gen Vo Nguyen Giap (the leader of the North Vietnamese military establishment during the war) about the second so-called Gulf of Tonkin Incident. Giap laughed and shrugged, saying the attack had never occurred.
Whatever the truth regarding the two incidents in the Gulf of Tonkin, the Johnson administration in Washington decided that a retaliatory strike against the PT boat bases and fuel farms was needed. Accordingly, Operation Pierce Arrow sent a ‘one-time maximum effort attack’ against the North Vietnamese on Aug. 5, 1964. Sixty-seven aircraft from Ticonderoga and Constellation took part.
Cdr Stockdale led the first strike, which included his six VF-51 Crusaders loaded with Zunis. The F-8s’ targets were several AAA sites around the Vinh base. The A-4s and A-1s would hit other selected sites, including oil tanks and their defensive gun emplacements. Taking his flight of Crusaders down, Stockdale fired Zunis and cannon into the flak site. The other flights also hit their targets, and blasted out of the area. On the way out, Lt Tim Hubbard, flying wing on his CO, strafed an enemy Pt boat on a river.
Although the raid was a success, and the target area was left in flames, two US aircraft were shot down by AAA, both from Connie’s Air Wing 14. Lt(jg) Richard C Sather from VA-145 crashed with his A-1 H (BuNo 139760), becoming the first American naval aviator to die in Vietnam, whilst Lt(jg) Everett Alvarez of VA-144 ejected from his damaged A-4C Skyhawk (BuNo 149578 NK 411). Sather was killed, but Alvarez was captured and started his long eight-and-half-year stint as a PoW. A second strike involving VF-53’s F-8s on the base at Quang Khe also met with some success.
One confounding aspect of the raid was the alert the North Vietnamese inadvertently received from no less a US official than the president himself. Lyndon Johnson told the American public about the events of the past three days, and what measures he was taking to respond. Unfortunately, as he addressed the nation on television, no one seemed to realise that the US raid would not launch for another two hours!
F-8 Crusader Units of the Vietnam War is published by Osprey Publishing and is available to order here.
Photo credit: U.S. Navy