“Through the darkness, from the West and South … intruders boldly sped … at least six of them … they opened fire on the destroyers with automatic weapons, this time from as close as 2,000 yards.”
This was how Time magazine described the events of August 4, 1964 in the Gulf of Tonkin – an area in the Northwestern part of the South China Sea. It was a follow-up to an earlier incident which had taken place just two days before.
No idea where the Gulf of Tonkin is, despite that description? No idea why this particular incident matters in world affairs? It all suddenly crystalises when I add just one thing. The Gulf of Tonkin is off the coast of Vietnam.
The events of August 2 saw the USS Maddox, a navy destroyer, apparently approached by a trio of North Vietnamese Navy torpedo boats while performing a signals intelligence patrol as part of DESOTO (DeHaven Special Operations off TsingtaO) operations. The result was four dead Vietnamese sailors, six wounded, three torpedo boats and one US aircraft damaged.
By comparison on August 4, “during an evening and early morning of rough weather and heavy seas, the destroyers Maddox and Turner Joy received radar, sonar, and radio signals that they believed signaled another attack by the North Vietnamese navy. For some four hours the ships fired on radar targets and maneuvered vigorously amid electronic and visual reports of enemies.” – except this all turned out to be electronic ghost images and the ships fired on nothing more than radar echoes.
From this point things get “vague and creative” in that naval reports back to Washington are controlled by Defense Secretary Robert McNamara and then US-President Lyndon B Johnson goes live on national television speaking on the incident. The following morning, August 5, Operation Pearce Arrow is launched and at 10:40 the first bombs are dropped. The Vietnam War is underway – at least as we recognise it.
The war actually started in November 1955 and lasted until 1975. The Tonkin event is what spurred the deployment of US troops into the conflict between Vietnam (North and South), Laos and Cambodia.
The result is a chapter in music history which has echoed strongly through the decades. Dylan, Hendrix, the Stones, Creedence, all are immediately identifiable even without the use of their full names.
For those far too young, Francis Ford Coppola’s movie Apocalypse Now will have to do as a popular culture reference to the Vietnam conflict – along with the associated soundtrack. This features, amongst the rest of the score, the complex The End by The Doors.
Morrison and The Doors, like The Animals, Otis Redding, Buffalo Springfield, Marvin Gaye and Edwin Starr were all the counter-culture voice of the resistance. Songs like House of the Rising Sun, All Along the Watchtower, Gimme Shelter, Fortunate Son, For What It’s Worth, Sittin’ on the Dock of the Bay, We’ve Gotta Get Out of this Place, What’s Going On and War feature heavily in popular music of the time – and remain timeless in their appeal. Here’s a link to more than 24 hours worth of Vietnam-era music in a single playlist.
There is some incredible music dating from a chaotic and tumultuous period in history from that era. Young American men dodging The Draft, social protest and folk songs which marked public opinion about an armed conflict on the other side of the world.
This past weekend marked a half-century since the passing of Jim Morrison who died on July 3, 1971. It has been 46 years since the end of the Vietnam War and 50 since Morrison died.
Morrison would have celebrated his 77th birthday this year, and I wonder if there ever could have been a reconciliation with his father, Rear Admiral George Stephen Morrison, Commander of the USS Bonhomme Richard – and Commander of the US Naval Forces in the Gulf of Tonkin in August of 1964.
You can hear the story of the Gulf of Tonkin in Mike Rowe’s “The Way I Heard It” on Spotify – and if you recognise that voice, he’s the guy from the Dirty Jobs television show.