The "phantom battle" that led to war; can it happen again?
What did bother him was an intercepted message ordering the patrol-craft commander to attack the destroyer. Transmitted from a high-level North Vietnamese naval headquarters, the order was crystal clear. "It was not some trigger-happy" decision of a local commander, Moore said later. "He had orders from on high to go out and attack."
At 2 p.m., three high-speed radar contacts 30 miles from the Maddox pulled away from a junk fleet to intercept the destroyer. Changing course to a southeasterly heading, the Maddox increased speed in a futile effort to escape the enemy craft. As the boats closed to within 20 miles of the destroyer, the voice of the bosun's mate boomed over the Maddox's speakers: "General quarters! General quarters! This is not a drill!"
There was immediate commotion as sunbathers and those resting below deck slipped on dungarees, donned life jackets and grabbed steel helmets. Gunners stuffed pant legs into socks and rolled down sleeves to prevent flash burns during combat. At 2:40 p.m., the Maddox alerted the Seventh Fleet: "I am being approached by high-speed craft with apparent intention of torpedo attack. I intend to open fire in self-defense."
Approaching in column formation, three Soviet-built P-4 motor torpedo boats charged the Maddox at 50 knots, almost twice the top speed of the destroyer. When the 82-foot-long North Vietnamese craft, each armed with two 18-inch torpedoes, closed to 9,800 yards, the Maddox opened fire with three shots from her 5-inch guns. As the Communist warships edged closer, the destroyer opened up with a withering hail of continuous fire. In all, the Maddox fired 250 or more 3-inch and 5-inch shells.
A 5-inch round from the Maddox scored a direct hit on the second PT boat, which immediately launched both torpedoes. Swerving to port in almost a complete circle, the Communist craft limped away to the north. Meanwhile, the Maddox promptly changed course. Officers on the bridge watched parallel torpedo wakes pass harmlessly by, some 200 yards to starboard.
The lead PT boat closed to within a mile before taking a direct hit. One of its torpedoes, either launched or blown over the side, failed to run. Turning under the destroyer's stern, the enemy craft raked the ship with 12.7-mm machine-gun fire. One bullet inflicted the only damage suffered by the Maddox: A half-inch hole in the aft director platform, which electronically sighted the 3-inch guns.
At about 3:30 p.m., four F-8E Crusader aircraft from the U.S. carrier Ticonderoga roared over the Maddox and began attacking the fleeing PT boats. Armed with air-to-surface Zuni rockets and 20-mm guns, the fighters had been practicing coordinated strikes some 300 miles to the southeast. Diverted to the destroyer, the jets had climbed to 32,000 feet to conserve fuel and streaked toward the ship at just under the speed of sound.
Looking down, the pilots saw a half-mile-long cloud of gunpowder smoke hovering over the gulf. "The sea was very disturbed," recalled Lt. Cmdr. Charles E. Southwick, one of the section wingmen. "It was obvious from the tracks there had been a great deal of maneuvering going on."