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Remembering the Tonkin Gulf and After

By Joe Miller

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(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. in 1971.)

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 water buffalo!

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 done, anything.

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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