BLACK SEA AND AMERICAN FIREPOWER
Even at 43,000 tons and nearly three football fields in length, the USS Ticonderoga rolled with the swells of the South China Sea. She had cruised the waters of the Pacific Ocean for more than twenty years now, surviving a 1945 kamikaze attack off Taiwan and steaming victoriously into Tokyo Bay six months later. In the summer of 1964, Ticonderoga had deployed to monitor a new conflict in Asia—one between Communist North Vietnam and the American-allied government in the South. Should the growing unrest finally draw America into war, she would respond with her force of more than fifty modern aircraft.
The carrier’s flight deck resembled the busiest of airports, as if the substantial traffic and activity at O’Hare or LaGuardia were compressed onto a 2-acre expanse of concrete surrounded by a 52-foot cliff. Idle planes sat chained mere feet away from the ship’s narrow landing strip. In between aircraft recoveries, taxiing jets laden with fuel and bombs jockeyed toward the two forward catapults that sent aircraft screaming off the bow, bathing everything behind them with heat, noise, and thick exhaust. Among the jet blasts and spinning propellers scurried men in grease-smudged pants and shirts of every color. Some lugged heavy chains, others pushed carts of ordnance, all shared a common mission.
Commander Jim Stockdale landed amid this chaos on August 4, 1964. He taxied to a stop, shut down the engine of his Vought F-8 Crusader, and climbed out of its single-seat cockpit. He stepped down the ladder to the deck and gazed west into the sunset. Then he watched distant lightning flicker to the north, over the Gulf of Tonkin. Hungry after a long day of patrols, he headed below deck for dinner, away from the noise and commotion.
The ship’s wardroom was testament to the adage that if a navy man gave his life for his country, he’d die clean and well fed. Stewards served dishes of hot food to officers seated at linen-covered tables. A mess officer made sure everyone maintained decorum. If an aviator had already flown his missions for the day, as Jim had, a hot shower might follow the evening meal. Later, each would fall asleep in shared staterooms. Squadron commanders—known as skippers—like Stockdale often rated a room to themselves. Regardless of their rank or roots, these naval aviators—most of whom had yet to see age thirty-five, and many younger than thirty—shared a certain confidence.
That armor was forged by surviving flight after flight and beating the grim statistics of midcentury military aviation. At the outset of flight training, many instructors warned students that their aircraft would try to kill them. Many planes succeeded. In 1956 alone, naval aviation lost 776 aircraft and 535 lives. One study gave career aviators a 23 percent chance of dying in a crash. Another offered even odds that they’d eject before they retired, an unpleasant prospect given the severe injuries pilots often sustained when blasted out of their cockpits and into an unforgiving airstream. Then the pilot could only hope his parachute would open correctly and prevent a tragic freefall.
Yet despite these risks, a certain breed of man still volunteered, men who believed they could meet any challenge and hungered for the chance to prove it. Jim Stockdale knew too many who’d died amid smashed metal and hot-burning wreckage, but he believed that he would avoid that fate; he would return. Through a combination of heavenly grace, raw talent, and navy training, he controlled his airplane and his destiny. Those that perished had made some mistake, had committed some error, had not lived up to the standard. Stepping into a jet cockpit on the pitching deck of an aircraft carrier required trust in self and machine as well as a belief in the former’s dominance over the latter. He, just like everyone else in the wardroom, thought he could control the uncontrollable.
After dinner, Jim retired to Fighter Squadron 51’s briefing room, where fewer rules of etiquette applied. These rooms were the domain of the ship’s aviators and seemed like both an office and a fraternity house. In the room’s red lighting, Jim relaxed as pilots often do—by talking about flying. Suddenly, he heard propellers turning on the flight deck: A-1 Skyraiders. Just as he began wondering why Ticonderoga had decided to launch aircraft at this late hour, an officer from the ship’s Combat Information Center opened the ready room door and asked Jim, “Are they ready to go?”
He explained that two U.S. destroyers in the Gulf of Tonkin expected an imminent attack from North Vietnamese torpedo boats; the American ships were presenting a show of force as they gathered intelligence. Two days earlier, Jim had defended one of these destroyers, the Maddox, from three such boats, firing the navy’s first shots in the escalating conflict with North Vietnam. This evening, Ticonderoga again received orders to scramble her Combat Air Patrol—the two Crusaders from Jim’s squadron that remained armed, manned, and ready on catapults 1 and 2. Jim knew both CAP pilots were relatively inexperienced, and this mission’s sensitive nature called for a veteran. Jim had the cooler head of a senior officer and the fresh experience of his recent attack on the torpedo boats. Besides, he didn’t want to miss a fight. So he buckled his survival gear over his flight suit, grabbed his helmet, and climbed the ladder to the flight deck. He opened the metal hatch and stepped out into the din and darkness of nighttime flight operations. Toward the bow, Jim saw swarms of men wearing reflective coats and holding lighted wands to direct the launch of his squadron’s two aircraft. He dashed across the darkened flight deck to the closest Crusader, climbed to the cockpit, and relieved its startled pilot. “Unstrap and get out,” Jim ordered. “I’m getting in!”
As deckhands finished harnessing the Crusader to the catapult, Jim looked to his rearview mirror and admired the lean body of his aircraft. Behind the cockpit lay a monstrous turbojet engine that would send him racing through the sky faster than the speed of sound. Missiles hung beneath the plane’s swept-back wings. Quite literally, he sat perched on a rocket’s nose, about to join the fray. James Bond Stockdale—call sign 007—had never wanted to be anyplace else.
The square-faced forty-one-year-old had wanted this job since his boyhood, when his father, a retired navy chief petty officer, had taken his seven-year-old son east from Abington, Illinois, to Annapolis, Maryland, to witness midshipmen on parade at the U.S. Naval Academy. He heard the drums. He felt the spirit of the storied institution in its eighty-five-year history, its revered graduates, its regimented students, its unmistakable purpose. Four years later, Jim’s father took him to see the celebrated polar explorer Rear Admiral Richard E. Byrd deliver the 1935 graduation address at Iowa Wesleyan College. Fresh from an Antarctic expedition, Byrd had worn his service dress whites that day. The high-collared uniform, appointed with gold naval aviator’s wings and rows of ribbons across the left side of the chest, captivated young Jim. He promised himself that one day he, like this admiral and adventurer, would accomplish something great.
Occasionally, a father’s dreams for his son coincide with his son’s own aspirations; this became the case for Vernon and Jim Stockdale. Father and son hoped that the academy would accept Jim into the brigade after he graduated high school. Jim’s father provided the encouragement, Jim did the work, and in June 1943 he joined the Class of 1947.
Regular performance reports ushered him quickly up the ranks after graduation. The reports graded him on an extensive list of qualities related to running an organization and carrying out his duties as an officer. The navy had developed Jim into an exceptional aviator, but it had first taught him to lead men. Those lessons in leadership had in no way diminished his love of flight and of the open sky. By the time he had begun his present tour as squadron commander with Fighter Squadron 51—the Screaming Eagles—he had already excelled as an aviator and officer in the eighteen years since he entered the fleet. He’d even served as an instructor at the elite navy test pilot school at Naval Air Station (NAS) Patuxent River, Maryland.
From the dark cockpit, his blue eyes watched for the catapult officer’s signals. Jim saw him spin his hand rapidly and pressed the throttle forward, feeling the Crusader’s engine strain against the catapult, which would soon accelerate his plane from a standstill to 150 knots. Those jarring three seconds of his flight would be the only ones when he’d relinquish control. Jim signaled the officer with his external lights, and moments later catapult and engine launched pilot and jet into the black void at deck’s end. Aloft, Jim climbed northwest toward the fight.
Shortly after 9:00 P.M., he neared the sector the two destroyers were patrolling and descended through clouds and rain, firing several bursts from his four 20 mm cannons to ensure each barrel worked smoothly. According to reports coming through his radio, the two ships had identified contacts on their radar that the crew suspected were hostile torpedo boats.
Once below cloud level, Jim spied two wakes glowing with phosphoresce on the dark sea; he traced them to Maddox and Turner Joy. He dropped lower, to 1,000 feet, darting over the waters around the ships, searching for the reported boats. He canvassed the entire area but saw nothing. Around 9:30 P.M., Maddox fired illuminating star shells to the east, where her radar had detected inbound contacts. Turner Joy began shelling with no results. Then a new cry went up: “Torpedo in the water!” During the next hour, the Maddox reported twenty-two enemy torpedoes, yet Turner Joy reported none. The ships maneuvered across the sea, zigzagging to avoid the feared torpedoes, firing at suspected targets that seemed to appear and disappear on their radars, and directing the aircraft overhead toward the same. The executive officer aboard Maddox observed Jim’s daring maneuvers and thought the aviator either insane or the finest pilot he’d ever seen.
By the time Turner Joy and Maddox ceased firing, the destroyers had sent more than three hundred rounds into the night. Inside his cockpit, Jim wondered what kind of circus he’d joined. While frenzied men aboard the ships had reported wakes, searchlights, muzzle flashes, torpedoes, and enemy boats, Jim had seen absolutely nothing. Perhaps unbeknown to the crew, the peculiar atmospheric conditions over the gulf were capable of causing false radar contacts, and the stormy murkiness of that August night—a radarman aboard USS Maddox called the night “darker than the hubs of hell”—had added to the confusion.
Exhausted, irritated, and low on fuel, Jim winged home to Ticonderoga. He found the ship’s wake on the vast sea and lined up behind its distant runway of lights, which steadily grew larger in his view. He finessed his throttle and controls until he thundered over the carrier’s stern. His wheels squeaked onto the deck, and he felt his tailhook snag an arresting cable. When the jet had decelerated and stopped safely, he climbed out of the cockpit, still mulling the night’s strange turns.
He walked into the ready room, and his squadron mates asked, “What the hell has been going on out there?”
“Damned if I know,” Jim said. “It’s really a flap. The guy on the Maddox air control radio was giving blow-by-blow accounts … turning left, turning right, torpedoes to the right of us, torpedoes to the left of us—boom, boom, boom! I got right down there and shot at whatever they were shooting at.”
“Did you see any boats?”
“Not a one,” he answered. “No boats, no boat wakes, no ricochets off boats, no boat gunfire, no torpedo wakes.”
After he filed his debrief, baffling reports from Maddox and Turner Joy began filtering into the ready room. The destroyer captains first claimed their guns had sunk or damaged several boats. Then they began to question their equipment and their men; they second-guessed the entire incident. No witness aboard either ship had definitively seen anything. Shortly after midnight, the commander of the two destroyers, Captain John Herrick, cabled a telling flash message that advised, “Review of action makes many recorded contacts and torpedoes fired appear doubtful. Freak weather effects and overeager sonarmen may have accounted for many reports. No actual visual sightings by Maddox. Suggest complete evaluation before any further actions.” When Jim learned of Herrick’s last communiqué, he tossed his helmet at the ceiling and stormed off to bed, annoyed that he’d just risked his life for absolutely nothing.
Ever since Jim and his wingmen first dueled with and damaged three torpedo boats on August 2, President Lyndon Johnson saw conflict in the Gulf of Tonkin as an excuse to escalate U.S. involvement in Vietnam. Even as uncertain and conflicting accounts of what had transpired two nights later arrived in Washington, President Johnson and Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara decided to retaliate for what they considered two North Vietnamese provocations: one on August 2 and one on August 4. In their living rooms, thirteen hours after the second incident, Americans watched their president condemn the attacks and announce the nation’s response. “[America’s] reply,” he said, “is being given as I speak to you tonight. Air action is now in execution against gunboats and certain supporting facilities in North Vietnam which have been used in these hostile operations.”
As Johnson spoke, viewers could envision a deluge of bombs avenging the two reported attacks, when in fact the bombs had yet to fall. Jim Stockdale had been rousted out of his bunk only several hours earlier, as August 5 dawned on the waters off Vietnam, to lead the first wave of aircraft off Ticonderoga; the planes had launched less than an hour before Johnson’s speech. In a move that foreshadowed the disconnect that would persist between battlefield pilots and Washington strategists throughout the coming war, President Johnson announced the attacks before bombs had been dropped. His words helped alert the North Vietnamese to the American warplanes that were at that moment approaching their coastline, led by the skeptical yet duty-bound aviator who’d been involved in both Gulf of Tonkin incidents.
In the years following, the government never ascertained exactly what transpired on the Gulf of Tonkin that night of August 4, when the supposed second attack took place. For his part, Jim Stockdale maintained that he’d seen nothing but “black sea and American firepower.” Given the twenty-year collision course charted by Washington and Hanoi, however, if the August incident had not escalated the conflict, another incident almost certainly would have. Regardless, President Johnson used the episode to pass the Joint Resolution on Southeast Asia—widely known as the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution—on August 7. The resolution, which passed unanimously in the U.S. House and almost so in the Senate, authorized the president to send combat forces into Vietnam without a declaration of war.
The Gulf of Tonkin Resolution and the military escalation that followed led the United States into a long war—one never officially declared—that would drastically affect millions of Vietnamese and American lives. It was a war that would leave Jim Stockdale and hundreds of other U.S. servicemen languishing in North Vietnamese prisons, some without their families’ knowledge, while their country became ensnared in a long, costly conflict originally meant to end in quick victory.
Copyright © 2014 by Alvin Townley