The Corner

Tonkin: He Was There

My piece about the Vietnam playbook drew a comment from Philip Colter, one of the Navy pilots flying the defense/strike mission in support of USS Maddox and USS Turner Joy on night two of the Tonkin Gulf incident. His first-hand account shows that there was a second attack mounted by the North Vietnamese, despite what the McGoverniks have said ever since. Here’s part of Colter’s e-mail:

I was one of the pilots launched on the night of August 3, 1964 from the

USS Ticonderoga (CVA-14) for air support to the USS Maddox and USS Turner

Joy… We reported upon debriefing that we saw no torpedo boats, but there was a very good reason for that. We had been launched without flares and had no way to provide light on the water.

The night was black with an overcast. We descended to approximately

500′, but at night under an overcast and without flares, visibility is

zero. A pilot without light can’t see one inch beyond his canopy.

We were being vectored by a radar operator. He could see our aircraft,

and he could see targets on the water. We were vectored to a surface

target, but without flares we could not see it. I know for certain there

were targets on the water, but like the WMD in Iraq, we could not

visually find them.

Who would send small surface boats with limited range into a US Navy

destroyer formation? Only North Vietnam could do that. No one else was

within the range of small surface boats. North Vietnam, unless their

military commanders were insane, would not send unarmed small boats into

a US Navy destroyer formation the night after they had been attacked by

torpedo boats.

I don’t care what any inquiry reports. I will always know there were

small boats on the surface that night, and I will always be convinced

they were armed and intended an attack.

What Colter says is both reasonable and logical. This points out the flaw in the McGoverniks arguments about both Tonkin Gulf and “Uraniumgate”. What the pilots reported in August 1964, and what the President said in the State of the Union were both perfectly accurate. What political conclusions Congress draws from them — in 1964 or in 2002 — will always be subject to debate. For almost thirty years, the debate about Tonkin Gulf has been a dishonest one, as dishonest as today’s criticism of the President’s statement.

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