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Chapter 2 : The Era of Growing Conflict, 1959-1965
In 1959 North Vietnam initiated a long-term campaign aimed at destroying the government of South Vietnam through political subversion and armed action. The goal was to unify Vietnam under the leadership of Ho Chi Minh. To achieve this end, the North Vietnamese directed Communists in the South to spark unrest, infiltrated guerrilla reinforcements, and began preparing a logistical line of communication, soon labeled the Ho Chi Minh Trail, through neighboring Laos. To ease the threat to this supply system, the North Vietnamese exacerbated existing political tensions in Laos. They supported with troops and supplies the indigenous Pathet Lao Communists, who were attempting to overthrow the pro-Western Royal Laotian Government.
The Crises in Laos
The Navy was called upon to demonstrate American determination to oppose these actions. One of the means adopted was a show of force by the fleet. During September 1959, in the autumn of 1960, and again in January 1961, the Seventh Fleet deployed multiship carrier task forces into the South China Sea as a deterrent to further Communist guerrilla attacks on pro-American forces in Laos and as reassurance to friendly governments of U.S. resolve to stand by them. Although the Pathet Lao and North Vietnamese supporting forces withdrew in each crisis, in the spring of 1961 their offensive appeared on the verge of overwhelming the pro- American Royal Laotian Army. Once again the fleet sortied into Southeast Asian waters. By the end of April most of the Seventh fleet was deployed off the Indochinese Peninsula preparing to initiate operations into Laos. The force consisted of Coral Sea (CVA 43) and Midway (CVA 41) carrier battle groups, antisubmarine support carrier Kearsarge (CVS 33), one helicopter carrier, three groups of amphibious ships, two submarines, and three Marine battalion landing teams. At the same time, shorebased air patrol squadrons and another three Marine battalion landing teams stood ready in Okinawa and the Philippines to support the afloat force. Although the administration of President John F. Kennedy already had decided against American intervention to rescue the Laotian government, Communist forces halted their advance and agreed to negotiations. The contending Laotian factions concluded a cease-fire on 8 May 1961, but it lasted only a year.
Fleet training exercises also served to highlight American strength and purpose in Southeast Asia. Exercise Pony Express, conducted on the northern coast of Borneo by 60 ships and 26,000 personnel from SEATO member states between late April and early May 1961, prominently displayed U.S. naval power and allied military solidarity. Throughout this period, the Navy took other steps to reaffirm the U.S. commitment to friendly governments. Heavy cruisers Toledo (CA 133) in October 1959 and Saint Paul (CA 73), the flagship of Commander Seventh Fleet, in October 1960 visited Saigon to participate in Vietnamese Independence Day celebrations. On 27 August 1961, Commander Mine Division 93, with ocean minesweepers Leader (MSO 490) and Excel (MSO 439), made the first official visit by ships of the U.S. Navy to Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia.
In addition, less visible actions were taken to aid the anti- Communist cause in Laos. During 1959 several detachments from naval mobile construction battalions (NMCB), known as Seabees, improved strategically important roads and the country's main airfield, Wattay, at the capital of Vientiane. In June and July of the following year, men of Naval Beach Group 1 and Underwater Demolition Team (UDT) 12 pushed 430 miles up the unpredictable, rapid-strewn Mekong River to deliver ten landing craft to the Laotian armed forces. During the 1961 spring crisis, antisubmarine support carrier Bennington (CVS 20) carried 14 Sikorsky H-34 helicopters to the Gulf of Siam where they were flown off and transferred to friendly forces in Laos, then preparing to meet the next Pathet Lao assaults. However, relative calm settled over the country during the latter half of 1961 and early 1962. This lull was shattered when the Communists overran the pro-American defenders of Nam Tha on 6 May 1962, renewing fears for the survival of a non-Communist Laotian government.
Determined to preserve the status quo and at the same time reassure American allies, President Kennedy again ordered the Seventh Fleet into the South China Sea. The Hancock (CVA 19) carrier group and the Bennington submarine hunter-killer group steamed to a position off Danang, and the fleet's Amphibious Ready Group (ARG) carried the Marine Special Landing Force (SLF) into the Gulf of Siam. Then, in mid-May, U.S. ground, air, and naval forces deployed to Thailand. On the 17th, the Amphibious Ready Group landed a Marine ground-air team, which quickly moved forward to Udorn on the Thai-Laotian border. Other units, including elements of Naval Mobile Construction Battalion 10, joined this force in succeeding days to form the 3d Marine Expeditionary Brigade. With the forces in the area now more in balance, political compromise was possible. On 23 July 1962, the various Laotian parties formally agreed at the Geneva Conference to form a coalition government headed by the neutralist, Prince Souvanna Phouma.
U.S. Naval Advisors and the Vietnamese Navy
Even as the Laotian crisis subsided, Southeast Asia remained an area of concern because of developments in the Republic of Vietnam. That country was increasingly threatened by Communist insurgents who wreaked havoc on the political, economic, and military infrastructure. Bedeviled by the enemy's guerrilla attacks and political proselytizing, the South Vietnamese government looked to the United States for assistance.
After a fact-finding mission to South Vietnam in October 1961 by the President's chief military advisor, General Maxwell Taylor, the Kennedy administration, responded by: 1) increasing military aid and the number of advisors in-country, 2) adopting specialized counterinsurgency measures, and 3) deploying American support forces to Southeast Asia. The U.S. Navy played an important role in each of these three major programs. Paralleling the overall rise in MAAG strength, the Navy Section increased from 79 men in 1959 to 154 in early 1964. In addition, the naval advisors began to accompany South Vietnamese ships, river assault groups, and other units on combat operations. Another small naval contingent served on the staff of the Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (MACV), established on 8 February 1962 to coordinate the total U.S. effort in the Republic of Vietnam. The command function was centralized when the MAAG was disestablished on 15 May 1964, and its resources were absorbed by MACV. Thereafter, the Naval Advisory Group (NAG) continued the work of the old Navy Section. By the end of the year, 235 naval personnel were assigned to the 4,889-man military assistance command.
This increase in strength reflected the growth of the Republic of Vietnam Navy from 5,000 officers and men in 1959 to 8,162 in late 1964. During this same period the naval service doubled to a force of 44 seagoing ships and over 200 landing craft, patrol boats, and other vessels.
Among the ships and craft provided between 1961 and 1964 by the United States to the Vietnamese Navy's Sea Force were an additional 5 escorts (PCE), 12 motor gunboats (PGM), 3 medium landing ships (LSM), and 3 tank landing ships (LST), 1 fuel barge (YOG), and 12 minesweeping launches (MLMS). These vessels gave the oceangoing force a greater capability to carry out its responsibility for patrol and transport along the 1,200-mile coastline, gunfire support of troops ashore, amphibious landings, minesweeping, and open sea operations.
A similar burgeoning of resources enabled the River Force to create additional commands in support of its primary mission of aiding the South Vietnamese Army with river transportation, escort, patroling, minesweeping, and waterborne assaults. New infusions of specially configured American landing craft enabled the establishment of two 19-boat, 250-man, river assault groups (RAG) at Saigon. The existing river assault groups were based at My Tho, Vinh Long, Can Tho, and Long Xuyen. In addition, in October 1960, the navy formed the River Transport Escort Group as protection for the vital foodstuffs being convoyed through the Mekong Delta to Saigon. Later in the period, the navy created the River Transport Group to move army forces in the delta.
Recognizing that the sea was a likely avenue of approach for Communists infiltrating from North Vietnam or moving along the South Vietnamese littoral, in April 1960 the navy established the paramilitary Coastal Force. In line with its emphasis on counterinsurgency warfare, the Kennedy administration wholeheartedly endorsed the development of this junk fleet, providing the force with American naval advisors, boat design and construction funds, and stocks of small arms. By the end of 1964, the 3,800-man, 600-junk force patroled the offshore waters from 28 bases along the coast. To coordinate the operations of these 28 separate divisions, U.S. advisors helped set up coastal surveillance centers in Danang, Cam Ranh, Vung Tau, and An Thoi, the respective headquarters of the 1st, 2d, 3d, and 4th Coastal Districts.
The advisory team also persuaded the Vietnamese Navy to create, on 16 October 1963, four naval zone commands, from the 1st Naval Zone in the north to the 4th Naval Zone in the Gulf of Siam. Thereafter, operations of the Sea Force, River Force, and Coastal Force in a particular zone were controlled by an overall commander whose area of responsibility now corresponded with that of an army corps commander.
The Navy's advisors undertook other specialized measures to strengthen the Vietnamese Navy, such as streamlining supply management at the Naval Supply Center in Saigon and improving repair procedures at the Saigon Naval Shipyard. Training in seagoing-ship and small-boat operation, gunnery, and proper maintenance routines were important parts of the advisory mission.
Temporarily deployed American mobile training teams complemented the advisory effort. These small detachments accomplished such specialized tasks as helping to develop a full-fledged intelligence department on the Vietnamese Naval Staff, reactivating an old French boat repair yard adjacent to the Saigon Naval Shipyard, and teaching courses in radar technology. In addition, the mobile training teams instructed Vietnamese Air Force mechanics in the maintenance of 63 Douglas A-1H Skyraiders and 15 North American T-28 Trojan aircraft that were transferred to the allied air service from 1960 to 1964. Also during this period, many Vietnamese naval personnel received training at U.S. facilities in the United States, including the Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island and the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California. Other Vietnamese sailors served short tours in Seventh Fleet ships or benefited from combined antisubmarine warfare exercises with U.S. submarines Bluegill (SS 242), Queenfish (SS 393), and Capitaine (AGSS 336).
After nearly ten years of work, the naval advisory team had helped build a promising South Vietnamese naval arm. But the nature of the advisory role limited what Americans could do to effect change. The naval service was troubled with problems that continually resisted solution. The relatively few advisors were generally unable to speak the Vietnamese language or fully understand the culture. Between 1959 and 1964, poor leadership constituted the greatest hindrance to an effective Vietnamese Navy. Political intrigue, cultural differences, and seemingly petty personal disputes troubled the officer corps. Because of the navy's short existence, senior officers were relatively young and inexperienced. Its small size in comparison with the Vietnamese Army and the consequent domination by the ground force stifled the naval command's initiative. In the enlisted ranks, lack of motivation, low pay, austere living conditions, and inadequate training for navy life caused some to desert. Poor maintenance of obsolete World War II-vintage ships and craft and the inefficient repair and supply systems reflected a lack of modern technological heritage in South Vietnam. All of these factors resulted in the mediocre operational performance of the naval service. Many of the problems identified by Rear Admiral Henry S. Persons during his inspection of the Vietnamese Navy in November 1961 for the Commander in Chief, Pacific remained when Captain Phillip S. Bucklew made a similar visit in early 1964. Indeed, the disruption in the officer corps caused by the coup d'etat against President Diem in November 1963 and the Communist exploitation of the subsequent political and military chaos in South Vietnam even lessened the Vietnamese Navy's ability to carry out its mission at the end of 1964.
The Kennedy administration concluded early that in addition to providing military aid and advice to friends in their fight against Communist "wars of national liberation," specially trained American units might be necessary to combat the enemy's political-military offensive. The Taylor mission to South Vietnam in October 1961 invigorated the American effort to develop specialized counterinsurgency units in the U.S. Armed Forces.
Stimulated by the Kennedy administration's direct interest, on 1 January 1962 the Navy established in the Atlantic and Pacific Fleets 60-man naval special warfare units called SEAL teams (the name reflects a capability to fight on the sea, in the air, and on land). Their chief purpose was to carry out guerrilla and antiguerrilla operations in rivers, canals, harbors, and on adjacent land areas. The units were also charged with training American and allied forces for special operations. Throughout 1963 and 1964, detachments from SEAL Team 1 (the Pacific Fleet unit) deployed to South Vietnam and instructed American advisors, South Vietnamese "frogmen," or LDNN (Lien Doi Nguoi Nhai), and Coastal Force Biet Hai commandos in related skills.
On 19 February 1962, Admiral George W. Anderson, the Chief of Naval Operations, authorized establishment of another type of unit designed to counter Communist insurgencies through civic action programs. The 13-man Seabee Technical Assistance Teams (STAT), formed to help win the support of indigenous populations for their governments, also constructed traditional military posts for American and friendly forces.
The first of these specially configured construction units to deploy to South Vietnam arrived in-country on 25 January 1963. Fourteen teams were operating or had completed their six-month tours by the end of 1964. During the first deployments, Seabees took part in the Civilian Irregular Defense Group (CIDG) Program, building or improving fortified outposts for U.S. Army Special Forces detachments and their Vietnamese and Montagnard (hill tribesmen) allies. After October 1963, a number of STAT teams deployed to South Vietnam for "nation building" work, were assigned to the Strategic Hamlet Program, designed to separate the Viet Cong from the civilian population by grouping the latter in defended hamlets. The Seabees aided this effort by building houses, schools, hospitals, roads, and bridges. A separate Seabee contingent, dispatched to South Vietnam from March 1964 to February 1965, dug deep wells at locations where fresh water was unavailable to villagers. To control the entire Seabee program in-country, on 30 September 1963 the Pacific Fleet commander established the billet of Commander Naval Construction Battalions, U.S. Pacific Fleet Detachment, Republic of Vietnam. The detachment worked under MACV.
The Navy took other steps to prepare its forces for counterinsurgency and counterguerrilla conflict. In late 1962, two Korean War-era motor torpedo boats were reactivated and armed with 40-millimeter and 20-millimeter guns. Soon afterward, the Navy acquired two modern, Norwegian-built PT boats of the "Nasty" class and refitted them with American equipment. The diesel- powered, fiberglass-hulled, 80-foot-long craft were capable of 41-knot speeds and were considered ideal for the Southeast Asian environment. The fast patrol boat (PTF) force, at the end of 1964 numbering eight craft with the procurement of four additional Nastys, was developed to carry out hit-and-run operations along enemy coasts and to support raids ashore by SEAL units. At the same time, the Navy recommissioned transport submarines Perch (APSS 313) and Sealion (APSS 315) to land and supply SEALs, collect intelligence, and perform rescue operations in enemy waters. To centralize administrative and logistic support of the growing number of SEAL, PT boat, underwater demolition team, and other special units, the Navy created Naval Operations Support Group commands in the Pacific and Atlantic Fleets on 10 October 1963.
In addition, training was reoriented to reflect the new strategic emphasis. The Chief of Naval Operations George W. Anderson, Jr, mandated a Navy-wide effort to prepare personnel for the political-military environment existing in areas such as Southeast Asia. After he issued a formal instruction on 19 July 1962 establishing the Counterinsurgency Education and Training Program, the Navy's major schools provided orientation courses in the military, economic, political, social, and psychological aspects of Communist revolutionary warfare. SEAL and STAT units, prospective advisors, selected fleet staff officers, and mobile training team personnel received rigorous, specialized training. All officers and men were encouraged to better their awareness and understanding of the causes, characteristics, and possible solutions to insurgency movements. Thus, by the end of this period, most naval personnel were at least familiar with the situation in Southeast Asia and the American approach to the region's problems.
Although developing a limited and specialized capability for guerrilla warfare and counterinsurgency, primarily with the SEAL and STAT units, the Navy continued to stress that its forces were designed to fulfill many diverse roles. Thus, amphibious units, with their attached Marines, were believed to be as able to carry out small raiding operations along rivers in the heart of the Mekong Delta as to take part in major amphibious assaults on enemy coastlines. Many of the aircraft in the fleet were prepared to carry out reconnaissance or air strikes against the Soviet fleet, should that become necessary, and at the same time to find and attack Communist junks infiltrating munitions into guerrilla-held areas of South Vietnam.
U.S. Navy Direct Support
As a result of President Kennedy's decision in November 1961 to expand the use of American support units in South Vietnam, in "limited partnership" with the South Vietnamese Armed Forces, the U.S. Navy deployed major fleet units to the increasingly hostile region. Beginning in December 1961, Seventh Fleet and Vietnamese Navy units conducted combined surface and air patrol operations from the 17th parallel eastward to the Paracel Islands. The purpose of the patrols was to train the South Vietnamese Sea Force in open sea deployments and to determine the extent of any waterborne infiltration of munitions from North Vietnam. Aided in their surveillance mission by Martin SP-5B Marlin seaplanes based on Taiwan, five minesweepers of Minesweeping Division 73 carried out the first patrols. Faster and more seaworthy destroyer escort ships soon relieved the minesweepers on patrol.
Seeking to verify any Communist infiltration of arms and supplies from Cambodia into the Ca Mau Peninsula and adjacent areas, U.S. and South Vietnamese naval forces mounted a similar effort in the Gulf of Siam. Training the Vietnamese Navy in blue-water surveillance operations also became a goal in this area. Destroyer escorts Wiseman (DE 667) and Walton (DE 361) initiated the combined patrol when they steamed into the gulf on 27 February 1962. For the next three months, U.S. ships' radar vectored South Vietnamese ships toward suspicious contacts for boarding and search. Nonetheless, the gulf's shallow waters precluded combined operations by U.S. and Vietnamese ships, thus allowing little opportunity for training. At the same time, the forces found no appreciable infiltration. Accordingly, U.S. participation in the gulf patrol was ended on 21 May, when the ships of Escort Division 72 departed South Vietnamese waters for their scheduled return to the United States.
Training was more effective on the simultaneously conducted 17th parallel patrol. But there too, the allies did not discover significant infiltration, even after boarding and searching or seizing thousands of suspicious vessels. On 1 August 1962, Minesweeping Division 71 sailed from the area, thus ending the 7-month-long combined patrol. Other Seventh Fleet ships gathered information on the suitability of South Vietnamese beaches for amphibious landings. During January 1962, high-speed transport Cook (APD 130) conducted beach surveys along the South Vietnamese coast from Quang Tri in the north to Vung Tau in the south. In February and March of the following year, Weiss (APD 135) made a similar transit along the South Vietnamese littoral. On several occasions, the Viet Cong fired on shore parties from the ship. Fleet units also transported American support forces to South Vietnam. On 11 December 1961, aircraft ferry Core (T-AKV 13) of the Navy's Military Sea Transportation Service (MSTS) arrived in Saigon and offloaded two Army helicopter transportation companies. At the end of January 1962, Card (T-AKV 40) carried another such unit to Subic Bay. There, it was transferred to amphibious assault ship Princeton (LPH 5), LST 629, and LST 630 for the last leg of the journey to Danang. Soon afterward, on 15 April Princeton steamed with Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron (HMM) 362 to a point south of the Mekong Delta. Under cover of Hancock's air group, the squadron flew off Princeton to the unit's subsequent base at Soc Trang.
Throughout this period, other Seventh Fleet ships carried out traditional show-the-flag visits to South Vietnam. The units included fleet flagships guided missile cruisers Providence (CLG 6) and Oklahoma City (CLG 5), guided missile destroyer Mahan (DLG 11), and submarine Bluegill.
The Seventh Fleet's air units also supported the Republic of Vietnam in its struggle with the Communist foe. During the 1961 fall crisis, planes from Ticonderoga (CVA 14) conducted photographic reconnaissance over the Central Highlands. In September and October, Douglas A3D-2P Skywarriors and Vought F8U-IP Crusaders flew random missions over suspected infiltration routes. During May of the following year and then from November 1962 to February 1963, Douglas RA-3B Skywarriors of Heavy Photographic Squadron 61 photographed large segments of the country for use in a crash mapmaking program.
Responding to South Vietnamese reports of air intrusions by unidentified aircraft in August 1962, the Navy dispatched an AD-5Q (EA-IF) Skyraider detachment of Air Early Warning Squadron 13 to Tan Son Nhut Airfield near Saigon. From that location, the five-aircraft interceptor team, alternating deployments to South Vietnam with a similar Air Force unit, practiced how to discover and identify aerial intruders. During the deployments of August- September 1962, January-February 1963, and November 1963, the naval air detachment, under the operational control of COMUSMACV, protected South Vietnamese air space from Communist violation.
The growing American military presence in South Vietnam demanded expansion of the logistic and administrative support establishment. Because the Navy had been charged in 1958 with the responsibility for the unified commands in the Pacific area, on 1 July 1962 the naval service established the Headquarters Support Activity, Saigon (HSAS), under the operational control of MACV. By the end of 1964, the headquarters was staffed by 600 mostly naval personnel who provided the MACV and MAAG headquarters and the American forces in the Saigon area with a wide range of support. This included medical and dental services from the Saigon Station Hospital, commissioned on 1 October 1963; accounting and disbursing of funds; religious activities by service chaplains; morale improvement through rest and recuperation (R&R) flights to Asian cities, moving pictures, and USO shows; and management of 32 bachelor officer, enlisted, and transient quarters. In addition, HSAS was responsible for the unloading, storage, and transportation to outlying ports of supplies required by the services. The 100 incountry exchange stores also came under HSAS purview. The physical security of this burgeoning logistic establishment (a difficult task during the dangerous and chaotic months of 1964) was another responsibility of the naval command. By the end of the year, HSAS was the primary logistic command for an American military contingent in South Vietnam that totaled 23,000 men and women.
The worsening situation in South Vietnam during 1963 prompted measures to evacuate Americans in the event of a general emergency. Saigon street demonstrations by Buddhists and other Vietnamese disaffected with the Diem government occurred throughout the summer. The public self-immolation of several Buddhist monks drew world attention, as did the government's heavy-handed counteractions. When the political turmoil in the capital reached a peak at the end of August 1963, the Seventh Fleet deployed the Amphibious Ready Group and the Marine Special Landing Force to a point off Vung Tau, where they prepared to take out the 4,600 American noncombatants in the Saigon area. Although the crisis in the capital abated, the relief was only temporary. In response to the overthrow of the Diem government on 1 November, U.S. naval forces again concentrated off South Vietnam and prepared to ferry evacuees by helicopter from Saigon to transport them by boat from the nearby Vung Tau Peninsula. When the political unrest in the capital once again quickly subsided, the fleet steamed from the South Vietnamese coast and resumed normal operations.
Expanding Operations into North Vietnam and Laos
Despite material aid, advisory assistance, and direct support by American military units, by 1964 the failure of the counterinsurgency struggle in South Vietnam was apparent. The Communists exploited the crisis with attacks on South Vietnamese regular and paramilitary forces and with stepped-up infiltration of reinforcements and supplies, primarily through Laos. To curtail this external direction and armed support, the new administration of President Lyndon B. Johnson adopted a different strategy. Its intention: to signal the North Vietnamese leadership, through increasingly severe military pressure applied in Laos and North Vietnam, that the United States would not abide the Communist efforts against the South Vietnamese and Laotian governments.
The Navy was a key component of this broader counterinsurgency effort. One of the initial measures was a series of maritime harassment operations in North Vietnam begun in February 1964 under Operation Plan 34A. South Vietnamese "frogmen" and boat crews carried out the action using the American PTF motor torpedo boats reactivated or bought in 1963. A U.S. Naval Advisory Detachment established in Danang maintained the boats and trained the Vietnamese Navy personnel. Beginning in May a major part of the Seventh Fleet was deployed off the South Vietnamese coast to show U.S. determination to preserve South Vietnam and the now pro-American Laotian government of Souvanna Phouma. For the remainder of the year, up to three carrier task groups steamed at the soon-to-be famous Yankee Station, the operational staging area at 16N 110E. Aside from a naval presence, carriers supported U.S. policy with low-level aerial reconnaissance of suspected Communist infiltration routes in eastern and southern Laos. The Navy's participation in this joint Navy-Air Force operation, designated Yankee Team, was inaugurated on 21 May by two Chance-Vought RF-8A Crusader photo reconnaissance planes from Kitty Hawk (CVA 63). The aircraft discovered a Communist military presence in the Plain of Jars region, from both a photographic record and direct hit on one plane by antiaircraft fire. Between 21 May and 9 June, 130 Navy and Air Force flights over Laos confirmed the existence of a North Vietnamese infiltration system in the southern panhandle.
On the 6th, Lieutenant Charles F. Klusmann became the first American aviator taken prisoner in the long Southeast Asian conflict when his Crusader was shot down over eastern Laos. Held captive by the Pathet Lao for 86 days, Klusmann managed to escape and make his way to friendly forces. The day after Klusmann's shoot-down, escort aircraft were added to reconnaissance missions with orders to retaliate against antiaircraft guns that opened fire on American planes. In spite of this protection, on 7 June enemy gunners downed the F-8D of Commander Doyle W. Lynn, who was rescued the next day after a well-executed search and rescue effort. Although Air Force aircraft hit enemy antiaircraft installations at Xieng Khouang in retaliation on 9 June, the Yankee Team operation was temporarily called off to assess the situation.
When resumed on the 14th, reconnaissance flights were conducted from a higher altitude and away from the more lethal areas of Laos. These steps limited losses to two Air Force planes for the next six months, but also muted the intended message of U.S. resolve and lessened the quality of the intelligence. RF-8A Crusaders, RA-3B Skywarriors, and newly deployed North American RA-5C Vigilantes carried out the aerial reconnaissance of Laos from carriers in the South China Sea. The Navy's aircraft flew more than half of the 198 photographic, 171 escort, and 81 weather missions of the Yankee Team program. In addition to acquiring useful intelligence of enemy activity in the Plain of Jars and on the Ho Chi Minh Trail, the officers and men of the Seventh Fleet task force gained practical experience in the command, conduct, and support of intended operations. This experience would prove beneficial as the fleet was increasingly drawn into the Southeast Asian conflict.
Gulf of Tonkin Incidents
Even as the fleet shows of force and armed reconnaissance operations were initiated, steps were taken to improve the prospects of the 34A maritime program against North Vietnam. Lack of information on North Vietnamese coastal defenses, including the enemy's patrol vessel disposition, bases, and coastal radar sites, frustrated operations by the South Vietnamese raiders during early 1964. Accordingly, the U.S. Navy was directed to focus its longstanding patrol along the Chinese Communist, North Korean, and North Vietnamese coastlines (named the Desoto Patrol) on the collection of intelligence relevant to the 34A program. Authorized to approach no closer than four miles to islands off the North Vietnamese littoral, destroyer John R. Craig (DD 885) cruised along the coast from 25 February to 6 March 1964. Foggy conditions in the coastal waters hindered the patrol mission, so Commander in Chief, Pacific ordered subordinate naval commands to dispatch another destroyer to the patrol area. Maddox (DD 731), with Captain John J. Herrick, Commander Destroyer Division 192, embarked, was directed to obtain intelligence on coastal geography and hydrography, defensive installations, naval forces, and junk traffic, especially in the area around the Hon Me, Hon Nieu, and Hon Matt islands and off Vinh Son.
As Maddox prepared to steam into the Gulf of Tonkin at the end of July, the 34A boat force for the first time was authorized to conduct offshore bombardment of targets in North Vietnam. Shortly after midnight on the 30th, local time, four PTFs shelled the sites on the islands of Hon Me and Hon Nieu. Their mission completed, the PTFs returned to Danang the following morning, passing Maddox between 0820 and 0845, then refueling near the 17th parallel. Observers in Maddox sighted the unidentified boats. During 31 July and 1 August Maddox cruised uneventfully along a predesignated track in international waters off the North Vietnamese coast. However, in the early morning hours of 2 August, Captain Herrick learned from intelligence that North Vietnamese naval forces planned to attack his destroyer that day. Directed to continue the patrol, Maddox reached a point east of Thanh Hoa about 1045. Two hours later, lookouts and radars on Maddox picked up five North Vietnamese naval craft north of Hon Me. Even though the destroyer headed away from the area in a northeasterly direction, at about 1400 the enemy force was ordered to carry out a torpedo attack on the ship. Between 1500 and 1600, North Vietnamese boats closed on the ship as Captain Herrick increased speed, headed for the mouth of the gulf, called General Quarters, and radioed for air support. At 1608, after firing three warning shots with her 5-inch, 38-caliber guns at the fast-approaching vessels, by then identified as three P-4 motor torpedo boats in column, Maddox opened fire. For the next 20 minutes the ship maneuvered to avoid torpedoes and raked the still closing PTs with gunfire. Passing astern of the ship, all three P-4s were hit. Struck by only one 14.5-millimeter round, Maddox headed out to sea as four F-8 Crusaders from Ticonderoga arrived overhead and attacked the now retiring North Vietnamese craft. One of the P-4s, already slowed by damage, was set afire and left dead in the water; the boat later sank. This short, sharp naval action was only the first round in a new confrontation with North Vietnam. Within hours of the engagement, Maddox, accompanied by destroyer Turner Joy (DD 951), was ordered to resume the interrupted patrol in international waters around Hon Me. Washington wished to reassert traditional freedom of the seas and to avoid any appearance of backing down in the face of the Communist challenge. This decision was made despite intelligence reports from various sources that the North Vietnamese, who apparently linked the Desoto Patrol with the 34A operation, again might attack. The two destroyers headed back into the Gulf of Tonkin toward the North Vietnamese coast at first light on 3 August. Between 1600 and 1727 the ships turned north, passed by Hon Me, and retired to the east for a nighttime steaming area in the middle of the gulf. During that time, 240 miles to the south in Danang, the 34A maritime force got underway for another operation in North Vietnamese waters. Around midnight on 3 August, three South Vietnamese-crewed Nastys reached their operating area off Cape Doc, 95 miles south of Hon Me. The PTFs shelled a radar facility at Vinh Son and a security post on the south bank of the Ron River. Their mission accomplished, the boats withdrew and made for Danang, the last PTF putting in at 0715 on 4 August.
Having spent a routine night out in the gulf, Maddox and Turner Joy changed course to the west and headed for North Vietnamese coastal waters at 0700 on the 4th. All that afternoon the destroyers cruised to the north and south of Hon Me along a track that came no closer than 16 miles to the North Vietnamese coast. Meanwhile, the enemy's naval forces were ordered to prepare for military operations that night. As they had the previous night, Maddox and Turner Joy retired to an area in the middle of the gulf to await the dawn.
Beginning at 2041, the ships picked up fast approaching contacts on their radars. Captain Herrick ordered his destroyers to change course in order to avoid what he believed were hostile surface craft. At 2239, when one of the contacts closed to 7,000 yards, Captain Herrick directed Turner Joy to open fire. For the next two hours the American destroyers, covered overhead by carrier aircraft, evaded what lookouts and sonar rated as torpedoes and fired on contacts, visually identified by Turner Joy crewmen as P-4 motor torpedo boats. Thereafter, the ships headed for the Ticonderoga carrier task group steaming around the entrance to the gulf.
As they had on 2 August, American civilian and military decision makers were kept informed of developments on the 4th. Reports of a North Vietnamese attack streamed into Washington along with a message from Herrick that doubted the validity of some of that information. Since 1964, several other witnesses to the events in the Tonkin Gulf, including later Vice Admiral James B. Stockdale, have expressed their belief that no North Vietnamese attack took place on the night of 4 August.
However, once they received additional information from Herrick's command and important intelligence from other sources, U.S. leaders were convinced that North Vietnamese naval forces had attacked U.S. ships in international waters. Accordingly, President Johnson ordered U.S. naval forces to prepare for a retaliatory air strike against North Vietnam and that it be carried out at 0800 local time on 5 August. Although the short warning time and operational difficulties delayed the actual launch of aircraft from Ticonderoga and Constellation (CVA 64), both positioned in the South China Sea, 16 aircraft from the first carrier struck the petroleum storage complex near Vinh at 1320. Other Ticonderoga flights attacked the enemy Swatow gunboats and P-4 PT boats at Quang Khe and Ben Thuy. Douglas A-l Skyraiders and A-4 Skyhawks from Constellation's Carrier Air Wing 14 then bombed and strafed the North Vietnamese naval craft near their bases at Hon Gai and in the Lach Chao Estuary. The results were impressive. At Vinh, North Vietnam's chief fuel facility, 90 percent of the storage capacity went up in flames. At the nearby Ben Thuy naval base, three craft were sunk. The naval aviators sank one boat and damaged five others at Quang Khe. Under intense antiaircraft fire, the Skyraiders and Skyhawks from Constellation sank or disabled six Swatows and P-4s in Hon Gai's inner harbor. Unfortunately, the A-4 of Lieutenant (jg) Everett Alvarez, Jr., was shot down and he became the first naval aviator interned in North Vietnamese prisons, where he spent the next eight and a half years. Other Constellation attack aircraft en route the Lach Chao Estuary sank or damaged five enemy craft near Hon Me. The two-carrier, 67-plane attack destroyed 7 enemy vessels, severely damaged 10 more, and inflicted lesser damage to another 16. However, Lieutenant (jg) Richard C. Sather went down with his crippled aircraft. He was the first of many naval aviators who died in the line of duty over Southeast Asia.
Soon after these actions in the Gulf of Tonkin, the United States Congress took a step that would have long-term influence on the role of the United States in Southeast Asia. On 7 August, the Tonkin Gulf Resolution, as proposed by the Johnson administration, was passed unanimously in the House of Representatives and approved in the Senate by an 88 to 2 margin. Based upon the events in the Gulf of Tonkin, this measure authorized the President to use the U.S. Armed Forces to assist in the defense of the non-Communist nations of Southeast Asia. This resolution served as the legal basis for the armed support provided by the United States to South Vietnam throughout the war.
Soon after these incidents, concern grew in Washington that U.S. actions in the gulf might unnecessarily escalate the conflict. Thus, despite recommendations from Pacific naval leaders to maintain pressure on the North Vietnamese, the Johnson administration gradually decreased American presence in those waters. The 34A maritime operations along the North Vietnamese coast were postponed until early October 1964 and then conducted only sporadically through December. Operational problems and foul weather negated the program's effectiveness.
Not until mid-September did American leaders authorize another Desoto Patrol into the gulf. On the 17th and 18th, Morton (DD 948) and Richard E. Edwards (DD 950) cruised along a track no closer than 20 miles to the North Vietnamese mainland without incident. On the night of 18 September, however, both destroyers opened fire on what their crews believed were attacking high-speed surface vessels. While a subsequent naval investigation concluded that at least one unidentified, hostile-acting fast craft was in the area, the validity of an attack was called into question by the lack of firm evidence. Following this incident, never again were Desoto Patrols conducted in the Gulf of Tonkin. Thus, from a military standpoint, the naval actions in August initiated a temporary downturn rather than an escalation in the Southeast Asian crisis.
The Conflict in Transition
During the fall of 1964, the Johnson administration refrained from actions that might precipitate a broader confrontation. When the Viet Cong mortared the American military barracks at South Vietnam's Bien Hoa Airbase on 1 November, killing 4 men and wounding 72 others, a preplanned reprisal air strike against North Vietnam was not authorized. Similarly, the President denied permission for a retaliatory air strike when the enemy sabotaged the American Bachelor Officers' Quarters in Saigon's Brink Hotel on Christmas Eve. Over one hundred Americans, Australians, and Vietnamese were injured and two Americans were killed. In each of these instances, major Seventh Fleet units had sortied into the South China Sea prepared to launch air strikes, evacuate American dependents in danger, or take any number of contingent actions.
Despite the relative lull in active military operations, U.S. naval leaders anticipated an intensification of the conflict in Southeast Asia. They accelerated preparation of the fleet for the limited conventional war that national strategists had long studied as the logical response to localized aggression. During late 1964 and early 1965, 15 ships (1 attack carrier, 3 submarines, 10 destroyer types, and 1 LST) augmented the Seventh Fleet. Another ten ships were scheduled for deployment. Early in 1965 the Navy shifted MSTS passenger, cargo, and tanker ships to the Western Pacific, reactivated National Defense Reserve Fleet auxiliary ships, and chartered U.S. and foreign merchantmen to establish an efficient logistic pipeline to Southeast Asia. The number of aircraft in the fleet replacement pool was doubled and a patrol squadron, equipped with Lockheed P-3 Orion aircraft, was relocated to the Western Pacific. The latest material, including improved Sidewinder and Sparrow air-to-air missiles, the new antiradar Shrike air-to-ground missile, and modernized 20- millimeter cannon were rushed to the fleet. Stocks of bombs, missiles, and other ordnance were increased and the replacement process streamlined. Naval communications were upgraded. Intelligence and information on enemy forces and targets in North Vietnam were updated and provided to the fleet. Construction of additional fuel storage tanks, ammunition magazines, warehouses, hangars, and ship berthing facilities was begun at the U.S. Navy's installations on Guam, Okinawa, and especially at Subic Bay in the Philippines.
While naval forces prepared for extended combat, the Johnson administration reinvigorated its program to dissuade the North Vietnamese from supporting insurgency in Southeast Asia and chose Laos as the locus of this effort. As part of this renewed campaign, on 17 December 1964 A-1H Skyraiders escorted by McDonnell-Douglas F-4B Phantoms and followed by RF-8A photo reconnaissance aircraft from Ranger (CVA 61)) conducted the Navy's first armed reconnaissance mission over eastern Laos. In this joint Navy-Air Force program, named Barrel Roll, American aircraft flew over likely infiltration routes and attacked Communist supply vehicles or other targets of opportunity. If none was sighted, the flight was authorized to strike preselected storage buildings, antiaircraft emplacements, and related facilities of a military nature. The military objective, however, was considered secondary to the political one of sending Hanoi a message of U.S. determination to prevail in Southeast Asia. Analyzing the program at the beginning of 1965, U.S. leaders concluded that the small-scale military effort had failed to deter the enemy. As a result, the joint Barrel Roll force was redirected toward key transportation bottlenecks or "chokeplanes points." On 28 February, Skyraiders and Skyhawks from Coral Sea carried out the first such attack with a concentrated strike on Mu Gia Pass near the North Vietnamese-Laotian border. After an Air Force attack on critical Nape Pass, early in March, Hancockplanes again struck Mu Gia. In both operations the logistic routes were cut at critical points and delayed- action bombs made the areas difficult for the enemy to traverse. Still, the North Vietnamese soon managed to repair the roads, construct bypasses, and maintain the logistic flow. By 23 March 1965, Seventh Fleet aircraft had carried out half of the 43 Barrel Roll missions with 134 strike, 28 flak suppression, 56 combat air patrol, 32 aerial photographic, and 25 escort sorties. Nonetheless, American military and civilian leaders concluded that the overriding political objective of the campaign, to deter North Vietnamese subversion of South Vietnam and Laos, had not been achieved.
Now convinced that even stronger actions were required, the Johnson administration reacted vigorously to Viet Cong mortaring of an American advisors', compound at Pleiku, South Vietnam, on 7 February 1965. Johnson ordered a one-time, "tit for tat" reprisal strike on enemy barracks in North Vietnam. That same day Coral Sea's Air Wing 15 and Hancock's Air Wing 21 conducted Flaming Dart I, a multiplane attack on Dong Hoi.
On the 1Oth, carrier forces were ordered to respond to yet another Communist attack, this time the sabotage of the American quarters in Qui Nhon, which resulted in 54 casualties. The following day, as the U.S. and South Vietnamese Air Forces hit Vu Con, 95 aircraft from Ranger, Hancock, and Coral Sea, in Flaming Dart II, bombed and strafed enemy barracks at Chanh Hoa. But even as the Flaming Dart operations were underway, U.S. leaders decided that continued Communist resistance demanded resort to the last stage in the program of military persuasion, a sustained and increasingly intensive bombing effort in North Vietnam. Accordingly, on 2 March, three weeks after Flaming Dart II, the U.S. and South Vietnamese Air Forces opened the Rolling Thunder campaign with strikes on Xom Bang and Quang Khe. Because of heavy weather, international concerns, and the unstable political situation in South Vietnam, the second operation was delayed for another 12 days. Then, on the 15th, the Navy joined the fray when 64 Skyhawks and Skyraiders and 30 supporting planes from Task Force 77 carriers Hancock and Ranger hit the Phu Qui ammunition depot.
The Rolling Thunder bombing campaign and the 34A operation in North Vietnam, the Yankee Team and Barrel Roll programs in Laos, the 34A operations, and the fleet's presence in the South China Sea would continue for years. By mid-March of 1965, however, American leaders concluded that these actions would not compel the North Vietnamese and the subordinate Viet Cong and Pathet Lao to forego their drive for control of Southeast Asia. Indeed, the enemy attacks on the Desoto Patrol, stepped up Communist activity in South Vietnam and Laos, and infiltration of regular North Vietnamese Army (NVA) units southward revealed Hanoi's intention to turn up the heat. Having exhausted most of the options in the campaign of coercion initiated in early 1964 without achieving the desired result, the Johnson administration sought a new strategy in Southeast Asia.
26 October 1997