The engineer was convinced that the military had been mistaken about the attack. What they thought were torpedoes, he insisted, were in fact living things.
This story was one that only Newberry and a handful of other biologists in the world could believe. Now 82, Newberry only remembers a little of the conversation—and he has forgotten the sailor’s name. But if it the story is true—and there’s compelling evidence that it is—it may have shed new light on a major incident that escalated to one of the most notorious conflicts in U.S. history. Is it possible that obscure sea creatures helped propel America into the Vietnam War?
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Near the end of July 1964, the U.S. was stoking conflict with North Vietnam’s communist government by backing covert raids against its radar installations in the Gulf of Tonkin, part of the South China Sea. On August 2, three North Vietnamese boats responded by torpedoing the USS Maddox in broad daylight while the Americans were spying near North Vietnamese islands within the Gulf. Maddox repelled the attack and escaped. Despite the hostilities, the ship was ordered to return to its spy patrols in the Gulf of Tonkin, this time accompanied by a second destroyer, USS Turner Joy.
Two nights after the August 2 attack, a storm struck. The black sea blended with the black sky, obscuring a horizon of heavy waves. Crews aboard the two destroyers thought they detected small, fast-moving vessels that mimicked the attack patterns of the North Vietnamese torpedo boats. For several hours, the two ships defended themselves, performing high-speed evasive maneuvers, firing almost 650 cannon shells and several depth charges into salty darkness.
During the battle, the Maddox crew reported detecting more than 20 torpedoes on sonar. Sailors claimed to have seen enemy cockpit lights, and searchlights across the water. Sonarmen also thought they heard the sound of torpedo propellers over the hydrophones. Turner Joy’s crew reported spotting the wakes of two torpedoes 300 feet off their port side. But when the heat of battle finally subsided, no enemy vessels were accounted for. None were seen retreating; none had been destroyed.
Maddox’s captain, John Herrick, sent a high-priority message to Honolulu within hours, declaring his skepticism that there were any enemies in the first place. “Review of action makes many reported contacts and torpedoes fired appear doubtful,” he wrote. “Freak weather effects on radar and overeager sonarmen may have accounted for many reports. No actual visual sightings by MADDOX. Suggest complete evaluation before any further action taken.”
Nevertheless, the U.S. Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara, chose aggression over caution: He immediately advised airstrikes against North Vietnam. President Lyndon B. Johnson, who was up for reelection that year, took McNamara’s advice and made a swift public announcement of an “unprovoked attack” in international waters. Three days later, both branches of Congress passed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, which gave Johnson near-unlimited authority to deploy U.S. military forces in Southeast Asia. America fully committed to the conflict in Vietnam.