The "phantom battle" that led to war; can it happen again?
"Have . . . successfully avoided at least six torpedoes."
Column of smoke. At 10:25 p.m., the Turner Joy's fire-control radar locked onto a contact, 2,500 yards off the starboard bow and closing at 48 knots. After 5-inch rounds buried the target, the Turner Joy's skipper, Cmdr. Robert C. Barnhart, Jr., observed "a column of black smoke rising from the surface of the water." By the time Barnhart maneuvered the ship to investigate the smoke, the radar contact had disappeared presumably sunk.
The pilots circling overhead were bewildered by the frenzied voices heard on their radios. "[The destroyers] were calling out where they thought the torpedo boats were," recalled Cmdr. Wesley McDonald, an A-4 squadron commander. "But I could never find the damn torpedo boats."
The Turner Joy asked the planes to strafe the general area of an "intermittent contact." The pilots watched as the destroyer's gunners tried to mark the spot with 5-inch rounds. Although he saw neither patrol boats nor their wakes, McDonald gamely slammed his pod of visually guided rockets into the blackness below. The water swallowed them up without a trace.
Lt. Cmdr. Donald Hegrat, flying his second combat photo-reconnaissance mission in two days, saw the destroyers and their wakes very clearly, but no patrol boats. The photographs later confirmed his visual impressions.
Just before midnight, the Turner Joy recorded the last radar contact of the action. For 2 hours, the destroyers had weaved, dodged and zigzagged at 30 knots. They had fired 400 rounds from their 3-inch and 5-inch guns into the black night, dropped depth charges set shallow to destroy trailing enemy craft and, at one point, tried to ram their invisible attackers. "It got pretty tiresome after a while," Herrick later admitted. "It was just getting a little ridiculous to believe."
Herrick and skipper Ogier were especially skeptical of the 26 reported torpedoes an incredible number since North Vietnam's estimated 12 PT boats could carry only two each. Equally suspicious, the Maddox had reported all of the torpedoes; the sonarman on the Turner Joy had heard none.
After the engagement, Herrick and Ogier did an experiment putting the Maddox into high-speed full turns, after which their sonarman immediately reported hearing torpedoes. "It was the echo of our outgoing sonar beam hitting the rudders, which were then full over, and reflected back into the receiver," said Herrick. "Most of the Maddox's, if not all of the Maddox's, reports were probably false."
At 12:30 a.m, August 5, Herrick radioed a flash message to CINCPAC: "Review of action makes many reported contacts and torpedoes fired appear doubtful. . . . Suggest complete evaluation before any further action taken." Twenty minutes later, he wired: "Entire action leaves many doubts except for apparent attempted ambush at the beginning. Suggest thorough reconnaissance in daylight by aircraft."
Reconnaissance, however, was far from the minds of the President and his advisers. What they were planning were retaliatory air strikes against North Vietnam; Herrick soon found himself bombarded with pleas for verification of the attack. "Certain that original ambush was bona fide," the patrol commander decided at nearly 2 a.m. "Details of action following present a confusing picture."