Remembering the Tonkin Gulf and After
By Joe Miller
(A version of this article was originally published in The
Veteran in 1989)
I share with many thousands of others the somewhat dubious
distinction of being a Vietnam veteran who never saw Vietnam.
That's not quite right--in late December 1965, our ship was once
perhaps five miles off the Vietnam coast at Cam Ranh Bay, with
the land in clear view. We had to move in close, not for any military
purpose, but to make it a little easier for the helicopters to
bring Bob Hope's Christmas Show troupe out to us---Christmas in
the tropics, 1965. Boy, it was war, and war sure was Hell!
We carrier-based sailors were recipients of the Vietnam Service
Medal, combat pay (when the ship was operating in a designated
"combat zone"), and the free mail privilege, along with
any other "goodies" the government saw fit to throw
at us to make us feel we were doing something worthwhile in that
part of the world. (Of course, some of those goodies would be
thrown back by antiwar veterans who converged on Washington, D.C.
Most of us had never been, nor would we ever be, directly involved
in any sort of real combat. We thought it was rough when we had
to stand twelve-hour watches during General Quarters. Of course,
we did lose shipmates and pilots, many unseen and many the result
of stupid accidents due to the pressures of a war-time level of
activity during an official "peace time."
All in all, Vietnam was a very "clean" war for most
of us on carrier duty during this early period (1964-66). The
ship's aircraft (A4s, F8s, A3Bs) and pilots did all the dirty
work. We did not see any explosions (except for practice gunnery
exercises), hear any screams, nor did we have to take any body
count. If we were lucky, the CO would inform us each evening (just
before the evening prayer--because we were doing God's work, after
all) of the day's "successes." I recall once when a
great cheer rang throughout the ship's crew of some three thousand
men, as the Captain announced one particularly strategic kill---a
When I enlisted in the U.S. Navy in April 1961, Vietnam, as
an issue, simply did not exist. In those days there were not many
with visions of necessarily "doing my part for the war effort."
This was peace time. Our enemies were far away, behind "iron"
or "bamboo" curtains, and all that most of us knew about
them came through media images. My generation had been raised
on TV shows such as "Navy Log," "Victory at Sea,"
"Annapolis," or "West Point," not to mention
those postwar Hollywood productions that always glorified war
and military service and starred some "reel" war heroes
like Ronald Reagan and John Wayne.
A so-called "tour" in the military in those days
simply looked like some sort of romp. Surely nothing would happen
to any of us. Of course, all of us healthy, eighteen-year-old
men had our military duty to perform in any case. All were required
to serve at least six years, according to the Selective Service
rules of the day. No one really thought to oppose such requirements
back then, so joining up was the thing to do, and I did, as an
eighteen-year-old kid just out of high school. In many ways it
was also an escape from a humdrum existence, a search for some
sort of adventure.
Upon completion of basic training (or "boot camp")
at Great Lakes, I was designated to work as a Communications Technician
(CT) in the Naval Security Group, a military intelligence organization
that reported directly to the ultra-secret National Security Agency
(NSA). As part of my training, I was sent to the Army Language
School (now the Defense Language Institute) in Monterey, California,
to study Chinese-Mandarin. While I was there (1961-63), Vietnam
began to have a little more relevance.
We, who had to struggle with one to one-and-a-half years of
language training, were appalled at the Green Berets and Rangers
who were going through the school for six-week "quickie"
courses in Vietnamese. How much could they learn in six weeks,
when we were barely able to carry on any sort of conversation
after six months? Also, why was Vietnamese so important all of
a sudden? Remember, this was now 1962, and who among us knew much
of anything about Vietnam then?
I completed language training in 1963 and was sent to the island
of Taiwan to work with the Naval Security Group Detachment at
Linkou Air Station, about fifteen miles outside Taipei. Though
I considered myself a "China specialist" and was mainly
concerned with analysis of materials about both the People's Republic
of China and the Republic of China (yes, Virginia, we also spied
on our allies!), we also received daily reports on troop and ship
movements in and around Southeast Asia---Vietnam was still a "presence."
One of the senior noncoms used to regale us with stories about
having been shot at while working in a spy plane over northern
Vietnam. That sort of possibility was new to many of us "greenies,"
since the running joke had always been that in any sort of emergency,
CTs would be evacuated even before the women and children. (Of
course, later there would be the USS Liberty in 1967 and the USS
Pueblo in 1968 to put that viewpoint to rest...)
Well, as it happened, about six months into my tour on Taiwan,
I was pegged as a "security risk" due to my close friendship
with a Taiwanese woman, Linda. I had been spied upon by one of
my best friends, and he reported this relationship to the NSGD
Operations Officer, Lt. Dickey. When I learned of this, I demanded
that the Ops Officer confront me directly if he wished to know
anything of my personal life. At that meeting, I was told that
I must break off the relationship with Linda, that I would be
sent away to another station that same night and not allowed to
ever communicate with her again. The only alternative if I persisted
in this relationship was that I would be removed from security
work and sent out to the so-called "regular" Navy to
finish out my enlistment.
I told Lt. Dickey what he could do with that job, was kicked
out of the Naval Security Group, had my Top Secret "Crypto"
clearance removed, and was finally assigned to ---horror of horrors!---sea
duty on board the World War II-vintage aircraft carrier, USS Ticonderoga.
Before leaving Taiwan, however, I did manage to fight through
all the official and unofficial obstacles in order to marry Linda
(we were together for more than twenty years).
In mid-June 1964, I reported aboard the Ticonderoga, was assigned
to work as a clerk typist for the Weapons Department, and passed
the first weeks at this new duty without any major event. We spent
most of our time sailing back and forth between Japan and the
Philippines, with a week or two off the coast of Vietnam (our
planes flying spotting missions) once in a while. Suddenly, Vietnam
was "real," though still unseen.
On August 2, 1964, the Ticonderoga received word that one of
our task group's destroyers, the USS Maddox, was under attack
by North Vietnamese torpedo boats. Planes from our ship were already
in the air, and they were sent to defend the Maddox. These pilots
had the "honor" of firing the first salvos in a new,
naval side of what was fast becoming an American war against Vietnam.
Two days later there were reports of another attack, this time
against two U.S. destroyers, the Maddox and the Turner Joy. Once
again, our planes, as well as those from other carriers, flew
off to the rescue, just as John Wayne would have done.
Much of the Ticonderoga's crew was frustrated and angry because
the United States seemed to be letting the "gooks" get
away with these so-called "unprovoked" attacks. Keep
in mind, there were no real U.S. casualties in these encounters,
only those Vietnamese who had their boats shot out from under
them. Tensions were high on the Ticonderoga, for we had been at
sea for more than sixty days straight, the longest continuous
sea period many of the younger guys had ever experienced. Mail
deliveries were extremely slow or nonexistent, ship's supplies,
like fresh milk and soda pop were low. We all wanted to see something
On the 5th of August, President Johnson ordered retaliatory
air strikes against North Vietnam. Well, you would have thought
that every man on that carrier was a fighter pilot---we wanted
to hit the "gooks" and hit them hard. Then Johnson managed
to push through the Tonkin Gulf Resolution in Congress, and that
opened the gates for further direct U.S. involvement.
It had begun, and we all felt the release, not realizing or
caring what the consequences might be for anyone. Later that year,
some of us would even vote for Barry Goldwater because he promised
to do more (or, we simply didn't trust Johnson). Suddenly, we
had a reason to be out there on that rust bucket---we were now
actively fighting "communism." We didn't really know
or care what that was; we simply gave it a label and felt much
better because now we were not wasting our time.
We puffed with pride when we pulled into Hong Kong or Yokosuka,
Japan, because we had "done something." The whole crew
of three thousand was awarded the Navy Unit Commendation for our
actions in the Gulf of Tonkin. We now had battle ribbons to prove
our worth. Most of us saw no battle, fired no rockets, felt no
fear---we just sat back on the ship, put on our ribbons, and collected
the combat pay. What a way to fight a war!
Assuredly, I shared in all the excitement. I did my part, but
some nagging questions were beginning to form in my mind. Official
statements said that our destroyers had not provoked the North
Vietnamese in the Tonkin Gulf, but I knew otherwise, and it began
to bother me.
Some days after all the action, the Ticonderoga had occasion
to refuel and resupply the Maddox. During these operations, it
was one of my duties to be above decks to time the process. As
I stood there, I could hear someone shouting out my name from
the deck of the Maddox. I looked across the expanse of perhaps
forty to sixty feet that separated our two ships, and I recognized
a few of my former intelligence work mates from the Naval Security
Group on Taiwan. Then it dawned on me what the Maddox had been
doing off the coast of northern Vietnam---it was on a Desoto patrol.
Desoto patrols in the Western Pacific had actually been going
on since sometime in 1963. A couple had been sent out while I
was assigned to the NSG Detachment in Taiwan, and, if I had not
been removed from intelligence work, I was about due to go out
on one. I have often thought that I might have been on the Maddox
during its most infamous period.
These patrols were operations carried out by regular destroyers
that were fitted with a temporary working space, an intelligence
van (or "black box"), right on top of the main deck.
Special intelligence personnel, Communications Technicians, were
picked up from shore stations around the Western Pacific and carried
on board for a couple of weeks while the ship would make certain
maneuvers in an attempt to get some sort of reaction from enemy
coastal installations. The personnel who worked in the van included
people who were trained in the languages of the country (or countries)
being investigated, in this case Vietnamese and Chinese. Recordings
were made of any reactions (voice or electronic) to the ship's
presence, and these recordings were then sent to the various shore
stations where the Naval Security Group operated, such as Taiwan,
the Philippines, Okinawa, Japan, as well as to National Security
Agency headquarters at Fort George Meade, Maryland.
At times, the only maneuver that could get some sort of communications
reaction was to drastically turn the ship landward and even enter
the territorial waters of the country in question, as if heading
up a potential invasion force. We all now know, at least since
1968, that the Maddox was engaged in such maneuvers when it was
attacked by North Vietnam. Add this to the covert operations then
being carried out against North Vietnam by the United States and
South Vietnamese governments (OPLAN 34A), and it is not too surprising
that the Maddox would be a target of North Vietnamese attack.
The questions produced by my knowledge of some of this background
remained in the back of my mind for some time. As 1964 came to
a close, these questions were pushed even further back in the
excitement of returning to the States and seeing my Taiwanese
wife Linda, who had already flown there to live with my parents
in the Chicago area.
Of course, I didn't feel I could (or should) tell anyone about
this reality behind the Tonkin Gulf "incidents," because
I still believed in, and felt bound by, the security oath I signed
when my clearance was revoked earlier that year. Later, perhaps
too late, as the carnage grew to monstrous proportions in Vietnam,
I no longer felt bound by such paper promises.
The Ticonderoga returned to the States in December, 1964, for
an overhaul period. This required a six-month stay in dry-dock
at Hunter's Point, near San Francisco. My wife flew out from Chicago,
and we lived just outside Chinatown for that whole period.
The Free Speech Movement at Berkeley was at its height, and
civil rights struggles around the country were causing more and
more people to question the truth of the basic principles of American
society. I was not immune to these things. I found myself becoming
increasingly involved in questioning, more interested in digging
below the surface reality of things.
By the time that period ended in June 1965, much had happened,
not least of which was the fact that Linda was now four months
pregnant with a very first child. The war in Vietnam was now clearly
a U.S. "problem," with the first official American combat
units sent there in March. By June, the U.S. troop levels had
reached 50,000. In February, Operation Rolling Thunder, the sustained
bombing of North Vietnam, was ordered by President Johnson, the
1964 "peace candidate."
At home in March, the first of many college "teach-ins"
on the war was held at the University of Michigan. On April 17,
the first major antiwar demonstration took place in Washington,
D.C., with some 20,000 participants.
My own thinking about the war was beginning to solidify as
a result of personal study of the history of U.S. involvement
in Indochina. The more I learned, the less I believed the official
line on the war. I made no noise, however. There was no overt
protest on my part. The questions remained and grew in intensity
as I looked into it further.
The Ticonderoga was sent back to the Vietnam region around
September of 1965, a few months earlier than planned. There were
some grumbles from the crew, but this was largely out of selfishness
at having to leave loved ones again. For example, I would now
be 12,000 miles away while my wife was giving birth to our first
child. No one among us seriously questioned our early return to
the war zone, at least not openly.
Things were much more hectic on the line than we remembered
from a year before. Carriers were now averaging 75-80% of their
time deployed at sea. Further, there were now always three carrier
groups on duty, two in the North and one in the South. Two other
carriers and their escorts were rotated on "rest and maintenance."
Generally, the schedule was two weeks on "Yankee Station,"
followed by two weeks on "Dixie Station," a visit to
Subic Bay in the Philippines, then back to the war zone.
On the carrier, part of our "recreation," besides
the "B" movies, was to go above decks and watch air
operations. We would watch planes that could hardly stay above
the water due to the weight of bombs and rockets get catapulted,
one after another, from the ship. Of course, when they returned
(if they returned), the weight problem didn't exist. My awareness
of the destination and targets of these bombs began to weigh on
me. You see, we didn't have the pressures of combat or fire fights
to keep us from quiet thought. For most of us on carriers, it
wasn't "kill or be killed," it was simply "kill,"
or act in support of the killing from great distances. Thought
intruded on those who let down their guard.
Soon I began to discuss the war with shipmates, trying to prod
them into questioning more about its origins as I had. We had
some informal debates about the bombing, its effects on the civilian
population throughout Vietnam, the real reasons behind our involvement,
and so on. This was certainly not a massive propaganda effort---I
was neither that sophisticated nor that brave. I merely tried
to cause questions in the minds of others, questions that might
lead some to search for their own answers. By the time I was transferred
from the Ticonderoga to my next duty station in February 1966,
I felt I might have had some success with a few individuals, but
I would never know.
My final duty station was with Helicopter Training Squadron
Eight at Ellyson Field, just outside Pensacola, Florida. Even
in the southeastern United States, Vietnam was still with me.
Most of the flight instructors were Marine or Navy veterans of
Vietnam combat, and most of the students would soon experience
that combat for themselves.
Once again I was jockeying a desk, but this time the desk itself
became an overt symbol of my antiwar feelings. Political cartoons,
quotes from antiwar senators like Morse, Fulbright, and McGovern,
as well as photos of Vietnamese people scarred by the bombing,
were openly displayed on my desk top. Since I worked in the Squadron's
central administrative office, many people tramped through each
day. At times stares were directed toward my desk and rather pointed
comments directed at me.
During this period, 1966-68, I also joined the American Serviceman's
Union and the American Civil Liberties Union, subscribed to every
underground newspaper I could find, and wrote letters to the local
newspaper defending Bobby Kennedy's change of heart over the Vietnam
war. In general, I was as visibly antiwar as I could afford to
be. My wife and daughter were there with me, and I didn't want
to bring them any grief. Surprisingly, there was little in the
way of overt harassment, though I did lose a part-time job with
a local department store when the FBI came around to ask questions
of my employer and other employees about my antiwar views---nothing
more than that.
I worked at that squadron for two years and gained a reputation
as a "good sailor" who was "too concerned with
world affairs." I did not blindly accept the arguments for
our actions in Vietnam, but all I would do was talk up my opposition.
That was safe. It would not do to take any real action---to actually
refuse to participate, for example.. My discharge date was coming
up, and it was convenient to tell myself I could do more against
the war outside the military.
That's as far as it went until my discharge on February 3,
1968, three days after the start of the Tet Offensive in Vietnam.
I had put in my service honorably, but the "honor" was
all theirs. They got all they wanted out of me. What did any of
us get in return?
For some, for too many, it was death or crippling. Others received
psychological wounds that might never heal. Still others went
to prison for refusing to cooperate with the war effort. Then,
there were those whose careers and fortunes were advanced by the
war, whether they actually served or not.
And yet, there are many thousands of Vietnam veterans who also
received a solid determination to see that it would all stop,
the killing, the maiming, never to begin again. We are determined
that we will not allow ourselves, our sons and daughters, or our
grandchildren, to ever be sucked in again when those who run our
government decide it is time for some further bloodletting.
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