In the early morning hours of July 31, 1964, the US Navy Destroyer, called Maddox (DD-731) began a patrol, called a DESOTO patrol, along the coast of North Vietnam in the Gulf of Tonkin. The main goal of the mission was to gather information about the coastal defense forces. It was thought that the North Vietnamese coastal defenses would be active, so it would be a perfect opportunity to observe because a number of covert operations were being carried out against the North Vietnamese coast around this time. These operations were carried out by moderate-sized vessels based at Danang. Around midnight on the night of July 30-31, raiders from Danang bombed two of North Vietnam’s islands offshore, Hon Me and Hon Ngu.
On the afternoon of August 2, when the Maddox was not far from Hon Me, the North Vietnamese retaliated by attacking the Maddox with three torpedo boats on August 2, 1964. The attack was unsuccessful, though one bullet from a heavy machinegun on one of the torpedo boats did hit the destroyer. This is sometimes referred to as the “first attack.” On August 4th, the Maddox and another destroyer, the U.S.S. Turner Joy believed they were under attack and radioed two nearby U.S. Aircraft Carriers, the Ticonderoga and the Constellation, for retaliatory strikes that were to be carried out. There were more raids on the night of August 3-4, this time shelling two points on the North Vietnamese mainland. The destroyers did not participate; the raids were carried out by the boats from Danang.
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Late on the afternoon of August 4, the two destroyers headed away from the North Vietnamese coast toward the middle of the Gulf of Tonkin. That night, they began picking up what appeared to be high-speed vessels on their radar. They believed they were being attacked, and opened fire. Most of the supposed attacking vessels, however, appeared only on the radar of the TURNER JOY, not the radar of the MADDOX. Some men on the destroyers decided later that what had appeared on the radar had just been ghost images; others think the radar images were genuine torpedo boats attacking them. This is referred to as the “second attack.” The following afternoon, aircraft from two US aircraft carriers, the Ticonderoga and the Constellation, carried out retaliation airstrikes.
The targets for the most part were vessels patrolling the cost of the North Vietnamese Navy, but a major petroleum storage facility at the town of Vinh was also hit and in fact, the destruction of this facility was the most important accomplishment of the airstrikes. The Tonkin Gulf Resolution was overwhelmingly passed on August 7th, which basically gave President Johnson to use of all the necessary measures possible to deal with the ongoing problems in Vietnam. The Johnson administration had been wanting to get such a resolution from the Congress, and the Tonkin Gulf incidents made a good excuse to do just that; the Tonkin Gulf incidents made a good excuse. It does not appear, however, that the incidents had been deliberately concocted in order to provide the excuse.