North Vietnamese torpedo boats attack the destroyer USS Maddox (DD-731).
The American ship had been cruising around the Tonkin Gulf monitoring radio and radar signals following an attack by South Vietnamese PT boats on North Vietnamese facilities on Hon Me and Hon Nhieu Islands (off the North Vietnamese coast) under Oplan 34A. U.S. crews interpreted one North Vietnamese message as indicating that they were preparing “military operations,” which the Maddox’s Captain John Herrick assumed meant some sort of retaliatory attack. His superiors ordered him to remain in the area. Early that afternoon, three North Vietnamese patrol boats began to chase the Maddox. About 3 p.m., Captain Herrick ordered his crew to commence firing as the North Vietnamese boats came within 10,000 yards of his ship; at the same time he radioed the aircraft carrier USS Ticonderoga for air support. The North Vietnamese boats each fired one torpedo at the Maddox, but two missed and the third failed to explode. U.S. gunfire hit one of the North Vietnamese boats, and then three U.S. Crusader jets proceeded to strafe them. Within 20 minutes, Maddox gunners sunk one of the boats and two were crippled; only one bullet hit the Maddox and there were no U.S. casualties. The Maddox was ordered to withdraw and await further instructions.
In Washington, President Lyndon B. Johnson, alarmed by this situation, at first rejected any reprisals against North Vietnam. In his first use of the “hot line” to Russia, Johnson informed Khrushchev that he had no desire to extend the conflict. In the first U.S. diplomatic note ever sent to Hanoi, Johnson warned that “grave consequences would inevitably result from any further unprovoked offensive military action” against U.S. ships “on the high seas.” Meanwhile, the U.S. military command took several critical actions. U.S. combat troops were placed on alert and additional fighter-bombers were sent to South Vietnam and Thailand. The carrier USS Constellation was ordered to the South China Sea to join the USS Ticonderoga. Admiral U.S. Grant Sharp, commander of the Pacific Fleet, ordered a second destroyer, the USS C. Turner Joy, to join the Maddox on station and to make daylight approaches to within eight miles of North Vietnam’s coast and four miles of its islands to “assert the right of freedom of the seas.”