Author’s Note: The below story happened during the “Gulf of Tonkin Incident” and has been considered by many the start of the Vietnam War.
Mid-July found the USS Ticonderoga steaming in the Tonkin Gulf off the coast of Vietnam. On Aug. 2, 1964, we were standing on the brink of history. Sailors in W Division were enjoying the relaxed routine we usually had on Sundays.
Each Sunday at sea, unless the ship was involved in inspections or battle training, reveille would not be held, and sailors could sleep in. This was a day of relaxation, catching up on lost sleep, and attending church services. The church services were poorly attended. Sixty men out of 3,500 men attended protestant services, and about the same number for catholic services. After this day, however, church attendance increased dramatically.
Normally the chiefs and officers would not come down into W Division spaces on Sundays, so we enlisted men would relax in the coffee locker/break room. The daily requirements, such as taking magazine temperatures and routine magazine security checks, would be accomplished by whoever was on watch.
There were always two W Division sailors on watch within the division, standing a 4-hour watch. The launching and landing of aircraft were a sound you soon got used to. Thuds, thumps and the squeal of catapults became everyday sounds of life on the ship.
On the evening of Aug. 2, the captain announced over the ship’s loudspeaker that our aircraft were involved in protecting one of our destroyers from a PT boat attack. This was exciting news to us. Everyone was excited about the prospect of being in combat.
Rumors flew about the ship. We wondered if it was North Vietnamese or Red Chinese attacking our ships. We all thought about what we would do in the event the Ticonderoga was torpedoed. W Division compartments were under the water line of the ship. Our battle stations were on the fifth and sixth deck below the hangar deck. We very seldom talked about it, but we all wondered what it would be like being deep within the bowels of the ship after an attack, sinking down to the bottom of the sea, knowing that when you used up all the oxygen within the compartment, your life was ended. I think we all hoped we would be courageous and die like men.
Our weapons department divisions supplied the Zuni air-to-surface rockets that Ticonderoga’s planes launched at the fleeing PT boats that day. The F-8 Crusaders hit two of the PT Boats with rockets, but they zipped through the boat’s wooden hulls without exploding. The rockets were set to explode against steel hulls, not wooden ones.
After Aug. 2, our ordnancemen made fusing adjustments so the Zuni rockets would explode when striking the wooden communist boats. The evening of Aug. 2, someone brought a box down to W Division that contained 20mm shell casings of the bullets that had been fired at the PT boats. I got two of them for souvenirs.
That night we all slept restlessly, wondering what the future held. The squadrons were flying many more sorties than the previous day. That day we went to general quarters for a couple of hours. We all ran to our battle stations a little faster, and took extra pains to get into battle dress with our pants legs tucked into our socks, our shirts fully buttoned, and our gas masks ready for use. We tightened the dogs (levers) on the hatches a little more tightly, and took general quarters much more seriously than we had in the past few months.
On Tuesday, Aug. 4, we went to general quarters at about 22:00 hours (10 p.m.). The weather was not good, and the ship was rolling a little more than usual. Our hearts beat faster when we heard the “general quarters” announcement over the loudspeaker. Normally the announcement from the bridge would be, “This is a drill. This is a drill. General quarters. General quarters. All hands man your battle stations.” But the announcement this night was, “This is — not— a drill. This is — not — a drill. General quarters. General quarters. All hands man your battle stations.”
We raced to our battle stations. Down in W Division magazines, we could hear aircraft being launched off the flight deck. Each night at 22:00, one of the ship’s chaplains would say an evening prayer over the loudspeaker just before “taps.” That evening we listened closely as the chaplain said a prayer for our comrades who were in combat that very instant. After midnight the captain came over the loudspeaker and informed us that another attack against our destroyers had been beaten off.
We remained at general quarters at our battle stations all night. Prior to this, when we underwent readiness training or practiced general quarters, we would not remain at battle stations for more than four hours. We wouldn’t have believed it at the time, but we were to remain at our battle stations for two weeks.
The next day, Aug. 5, the ship was buzzing with activity. The ordnance divisions in Weapons Department were busy breaking out conventional bombs, rockets and ammunition from magazines. Squadron loading crews were busy loading and arming aircraft. We didn’t know about the air strikes that were carried out that day until later when the captain came over the loudspeaker and told us of the success of the attack against the Quang Khe oil storage depot.
Being at general quarters kept the ship battle ready, and at the highest defensive level possible, but it drastically changed our normal shipboard lifestyle and restricted our freedom of movement. All hands had to remain at battle stations 24 hours per day, which in my case was the W Division aft magazine.
Being in the magazine 24 hours per day meant sleeping there, and living on a diet of sandwiches and coffee. Food was brought to us from the mess decks, and we assigned a man to pick it up at designated times. There was “no smoking” on the ship, but we cheated by smoking in our coffee locker without fear of being caught by the master at arms, who could not get into our Marine-guarded spaces.
As is generally the case, we knew very little about what was happening in Vietnam, or the world. We speculated a lot. I was looked upon somewhat as a veteran, as I had gone through something like this on the USS Independence during the Cuban Missile Crisis.
I couldn’t offer much insight; the Cuban situation had been tense and exciting, yet Independence had not gone to general quarters for days on end. This was somewhat alarming to us, because none of us had ever heard of an aircraft carrier being in such an advanced state of readiness.
We were proud of the successful attacks made by our planes on the Aug. 5. We were sad about the news that the USS Constellation, an aircraft carrier with us in the South China Sea, had lost a couple of planes during air raids in the north. One concern that was bantered about the ship was the possibility of attack from the Red Chinese Air Force.
There was a Red Chinese squadron based on the island of Hainan, which we were steaming in the vicinity of. It was thought that the jets based there were not very sophisticated. The bodies of the jets were made of wood, not very reliable, and after a few flights were scrapped. There was always the threat, and remembrance of the Japanese kamikaze attack that our ship had experienced in World War II.
During the day, there were few periods of relaxation, lasting only a few minutes, which permitted those sailors who did not have access to heads, to make head calls. We in the aft magazine did not have a head, so we greatly appreciated these periods when we could relieve ourselves. The days dragged on; we had few opportunities to shower or shave, and it was difficult sleeping on the steel decks. We had a few mail calls, and we got a few Stars and Stripes, a daily armed forces newspaper that was published overseas. This paper was hungrily read when we could get it flown aboard. We wondered what our families were being told, and what the citizens of America thought about what was happening.
Many sailors wrote anxious letters, wondering if each letter might be the last they would write to their family. The days ground on. Finally after two weeks, we went into a modified readiness status. Passageways throughout the ship were reopened, and life returned to a somewhat normal routine.
We had been scared, but also determined to do our job. We felt we were in the right. Our ships had been attacked on the high sea in violation of international law, and we were defending our flag, and our country’s honor.