The Secret Side of Tonkin Gulf Incident
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As the sun rose over the Tonkin Gulf, fishing boats ventured out onto the sparkling sea. Behind them lay the verdant coast, sharply outlined in the clear morning light. Fishermen came here regularly to cast their nets, taking advantage of the rich waters near the mouth of the Gianh River, about 40 kilometers miles north of Dong Hoi, North Vietnam's southernmost town of any note. But this was wartime, and the peaceful appearance was merely a facade. A kilometer upriver, on the south bank. lay Quang Khe naval base, home to part of Hanoi's fledgling coastal defense fleet.
On 16 May 1962. the scene looked much the same as on any other day. No one suspected that just below the surface lurked an American submarine, the U.S.S.Catfish, carefully watching the naval base. A few days earlier, the submarine had sailed from the Philippines toward the mouth of the Gianh River on a mission codenamed WISE TIGER. Remaining in international waters, the Catfish was collecting data on Hanoi's fleet. The submarine was interested in Swatow gunboats, a Chinese-made vessel that formed the backbone of the North Vietnamese navy. Measuring 83-feet long, the boat packed up to three 37mm automatic cannons, two twin 14.5mm heavy machine guns, and eight depth charges. With a crew of 30, a Swatow could travel at 28 knots and use its surface-search radar to detect incoming boats. A trio of Swatows was thought to be harbored at Quang Khe. After patient monitoring, the Catfish confirmed the presence of all three and sent word back to Manila. This was then relayed to Saigon. where the CIA was finalizing plans for a bold maritime strike against the gunboats.
This mission was long in coming. Back in March 1961, the CIA had first proposed sabotaging North Vietnamese ports as part of a diverse covert warfare menu forwarded to president John F. Kennedy. The scheme lay dormant until the early spring of 1962, when Hanoi's increasing aggressiveness in both South Vietnam and neighboring Laos prompted Washington to re-examine its options. Frustrated by North Vietnamese involvement in the burgeoning southern insurgency, especially its expansion of the Ho Chi Minh Trail, the Kennedy administration groped for some way to react. Using covert action to send signals would become an increasingly common tool as the war escalated.
Maritime operations were nothing new to the CIA. Beginning in 1951, the Agency had frequently used motorized junks and Taiwanese commandos to strike at the Chinese mainland, and during the Korean War, had deployed sabotage teams along the northern half of the peninsula. Adapting this experience to a North Vietnamese setting, the CIA case officers in Saigon envisioned a motorized junk making its way up the coast, and from there deploying a team of commandos to steal up the Gianh River and set charges against the Swatows.
In April 1962, the CIA secured loan of Four Taiwan trained commandos. Code named Team VULCAN, they were brought to Danang and trained in planting limpet mines on the hulls of boats. The following month, after receiving confirmation of the gunboats' presence from the Catfish, the CIA decided to make a trial run. VULCAN and 10 crewmen loaded into the Agency's specially outfitted junk, Nautilus 2, and headed up the coast. Anchoring off the mouth of the Gianh River, the commandos sneaked to shore in a raft for a beach reconnaissance. After looking around for signs of activity, they returned to the junk. No one had seen them.
Captain Ha Ngoc Oanh, known by his call sign, Antoine, looked around the table at the four VULCAN commandos. A two-year veteran of the covert war, this was the first team under his direct supervision. When the final order to attack the Swatows came on 28 June, he scheduled this final briefing. Joined by a pair of CIA officers, Antoine translated instructions into Vietnamese, aided by aerial photos of Quang Khe taken just a few days earlier. On the wall behind him was a map of the naval base marked with avenues of approach and retreat. The commandos listened closely. From the junk, they would switch to a smaller wooden boat and head to the river mouth. Since there were three Swatows at Quang Khe, only three frogmen would enter the water and swim the rest of the way using scuba gear. The fourth combat swimmer, Nguyen Chuyen, would remain on the boat as backup. They would target one boat apiece, planting a limpet mine below the water line near the engine, then swim back to the boat.
On the night of 29 June, Team VULCAN boarded the junk along with a dozen crewmen and cast off. Sailing through the night and all the next day, Nautilus 2 blended with other junks at sea. The following night they closed on their objective. Darkness cloaked the coastline. Just before midnight on 30 June, they cut both engines. Two crewmen lowered a small motorized launch into the gentle swells, then climbed in. The VULCAN commandos, dressed in scuba gear and each clutching a limpet mine, joined them. As its small outboard coughed to life, the skiff slowly parted from the junk.
Fifteen minutes later, Le Van Kinh, one of commandos, could clearly see the shores the Gianh River. In the darkness, the VULCAN members set their mines to detonate in two hours -- sufficient time for them swim in, plant the charges, and get back to the skiff. Kinh put on his mask, cleared his mouthpiece, and slipped into the water. He was soon joined by two other commandos, Nguyen Van Tam and Nguyen Huu Thao. They quietly adjusted their masks and mouthpieces and entered the sea.
The swimmers reached the North Vietnamese base about 45 minutes later and set about their work. In the oily water, Nguyen Huu Thao was in the process of fixing his limpet mine to a Swatow's hull. Hearing a commotion on the deck above, he apparently panicked - and the mine exploded in Thao's hands. What had been a stealthy raid was now a race for survival.
Kinh, the first commando in the water, had managed to place his mine without incident. Twenty meters from the Swatow, he surfaced to get his bearings. It was at that same moment that Thao's limpet detonated in a blinding flash. The shock wave hit Kinh on the back of the skull, then slammed into the rest of his body. As his limbs went numb, he floated helplessly on the surface. Kinh saw that the Swatow was badly damaged, but he also knew that the North Vietnamese would soon be swarming about the base.
In the skiff, Nguyen Chuyen and the two crewmen watched as the explosion lit up the night. It took only moments for the North Vietnamese to spot the bobbing boat silhouetted in the smoke and flames. Frightened by the sound of revving Swatow engines and fearing the worst, the men did not wait around to see what would happen next. Their own engine coughed to life and the little boat turned tail for the open sea. In the stern, Chuyen raised a machine gun and fired long bursts toward his pursuers. The North Vietnamese fired back, and by the time the little boat reached the junk, Chuyen was hit and bleeding
Alone in the water, Kinh had little time to think. In pain, he kicked toward shore and rolled out of the water into a bush. Peeling off his tanks and wetsuit, he planned to hide until the commotion subsided, then try to swim south. It was not to be. Within an hour, North Vietnamese patrols found him. Beating Kinh almost senseless, they marched him off for interrogation. Blindfolded, he managed a smile as the sound of a second limper detonation rumbled in the distance.
Nguyen Van Tam, the third swimmer, had only slightly better luck. After placing his limpet. he headed back toward the skiff. Then the first mine detonated prematurely and he suddenly found himself abandoned in the middle of the river. Tam spied a boat lying at anchor nearby and silently swam alongside. Hoping to creep out to sea unnoticed, he climbed over the gunwale-and into the arms of some North Vietnamese militiamen.
Quang Khe erupted into action. Holed by the first limpet, Swatow 185 was taking on water fast. In the confusion, one gun- boat, Swatow 161, took to sea after the escaping skiff.. Throttling up its engines, the gunboat surged into the bay looking for the culprits and soon spotted the little wooden boat. Tailing it back to the junk, the Swatow bore down on its quarry with guns blazing. Far from helpless, the crew of the Nautilus2 aimed machinegun fire at the gunboat in their wake. For the next three hours they kept the Swatow at bay as they ran south along the coast. At 0600 hours, however, gunfire from the North Vietnamese vessel struck the junk's engine compartment. With Nautilus 2 dead in the water, the circling Swatow pummeled it to matchwood. Nguyen Chuyen, the frogman who had earlier escaped in the skiff, and one other crewman died in the exchange.
As the Swatow picked its way among the floatsom, 10 surviving South Vietnamese were plucked from the water and blindfold ed. Unknown to the gunboat crew, an 1lth crew member, Nguyen Van Ngoc, was hiding in the junks partially submerged cabin. Clinging to the wreckage, he floated south toward the 17th Parallel, where he was spotted by a patrolling aircraft and rescued.
On 21 July. Hanoi placed the captured commandos and crew before a jury. Receiving sentences of up to life in prison, the somber commandos headed for their cells. Photos of their captured equipment were splashed across English-language publications coming out of Hanoi, and one of the commandos was even coerced into making a public condemnation of the program.
Try, Try Again
Despite the failure, there would be other operations. CIA headquarters sent a new man. Tucker Gougleman, to shape up the the maritime program. A seasoned paramilitary operative, Gougleman was a U.S. Marine Corps veteran of the Pacific campaign who walked with a permanent limp courtesy of a Japanese bullet. This handicap had not pre vented him from transferring to the CIA, where he spent the Korean War conducting strikes along the embattled peninsula.
Gougleman could not have been pleased with the operation he took over. The CIA had half a dozen junks in Danang - and no qualified commandos. That fall the Agency put out a call for combat swimmers, and by November 1962 more than four dozen volunteers had been assembled at makeshift camps strung along the Danang waterfront. But without qualified teachers and training facilities, instruction proceeded at glacial speed.
Gougleman's arrival quickly improved things. Shortly after he took over, a team of U.S. Navy Sea, Air, Land (SEAL) commandos were detailed to Danang for support, making Gougleman's job much easier. Two SEAL officers and 10 enlisted men spent six months training the South Vietnamese, and by late summer 1963, four action teams were ready, each made up of civilian agents combined with a handful of former South Vietnamese army sergeants. One of them, NEPTUNE, was qualified in scuba. Another, CANCER, consisted almost entirely of ethnic Chinese Nungs.
Gougleman now had plenty of commandos, but he still had a problem with his boats. Although the North Vietnamese navy paled in comparison to the South Vietnamese, Hanoi's gunboats both outgunned and outpaced the CIA's motorized junks. Clearly, Gougleman needed a better vessel to get his men to and from their target.
The search for such a boat dated back to 1959 when the U.S. Navy began looking for something to replace its aging WWII torpedo boats. One of the top choices was the Norwegian Nasty-class patrol boat. Built by Westermoen in Mandel, Norway, the Nasty was one of the fastest and most reliable patrol boats of its day. Its superior performance came from two diesel Napier engines which could propel the 24-meter, 80-ton mahogany and fiberglass hull at speeds of more than 40 knots. Packing a wide range of light weapons, it could cover 1,600 kilometers without refueling. Best of all, its foreign manufacture afforded plausible deniability for covert operations.
The VULCAN failure brought the CIA into the picture. In Washington, the Joint Chiefs of Staff pushed for a new boat, a call echoed by American military commanders in Saigon (represented by the newly formed Military Advisory Command, Vietnam - MACV). In August 1962, General Paul D. Harkins, the MACV commander, had suggested that U.S. motor torpedo patrol (PT) boats be used for missions north. His proposal had already been sent for review by President John F. Kennedy's top national security advisors.
President Kennedy, himself a PT boat commander during WWII, liked the idea. On 27 September, Washington cabled approval for the scheme. Acting on this mandate, the U.S. Navy took two of its 1950-vintage, aluminum hulled torpedo boats, PT-810 and PT-811, out of mothballs at the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard to fill the bill until new boats could be sent to South Vietnam. The two aluminum boats, nicknamed "gassers" because their antiquated engines, burned gasoline rather than more efficient diesel, took a couple of months to refurbish. Each was given a 40mm automatic grenade launcher on the bow, a .50-caliber machine gun amidships, and engine muffling to run more quietly. They were also renamed: PTF- 1 and PTF-2 (Patrol Torpedo Boat, Fast, in Navy nomenclature).
While the gassers were being readied, the CIA bypassed the Pentagon's bureaucracy and ordered two Nastys. In early 1963, at the same time that Gougleman arrived in Danang, the Agency passed both ships to the U.S. Navy for comprehensive testing. Designated PTF-3 and PTF-4, they were refitted that spring with U.S. equipment for familiarization drills at Little Creek, Virginia.
On 28 June, Admiral George W. Anderson, the Chief of Naval Operations, assigned the boats to the Pacific Fleet's Amphibious Group I, to occur immediately following modifications to their armament. Technicians added two 40mm automatic grenade launchers and two 20mm automatic cannons, plus two 3.5-inch rocket launchers and provisions for up to three flamethrowers. Work was completed by the end of August, and the boats were loaded aboard the transport ship Vancouver- for the journey to San Diego via the Panama Canal.
All this took time, however and the CIA needed to gets its maritime operations back up to speed. Gougleman needed an interim boat to put into immediate operation before the arrival of the Nastys. The answer came from another covert operation, this one in Cuba. Since the 1961 Bay of Pigs disaster the Agency had been authorized to conduct a maritime harassment campaign against Cuban ruler Fidel Castro, and they picked a boat that already was a common sight on the Gulf of Mexico -- a vessel made by Seward Seacraft in Burwick, Louisiana, known as the Swift. Originally designed for oil companies operating in the Gulf's far flung drilling platforms, it was 15 meters long, displaced 20 tons, and had two diesel engines.
The Swifts were still in California undergoing modifications when the call came for boats to handle North Vietnam missions. Three were immediately crated and sent to the Philippines. From there, they were ferried to Saigon. Sailing up the coast to Danang, they were ready for action by October 1963. While the Swifts were a welcome addition to Gougleman's clandestine maritime force, they had one drawback. Though easier to maintain than the temperamental Nastys, they represented an insurmountable leap in technology for the CIA's existing roster of junk crewmen. This put the Agency in a fix. Forbidden from recruiting experienced sailors from the South Vietnamese navy, and also unable to use Americans in order to uphold plausible deniability, there was nobody on hand to operate the boats.
So the CIA turned to foreign experts. As they already had developed good contacts in Oslo during the Nasty purchase, they arranged for three Norwegian civilians to be hired on six-month contracts. Arriving in Danang, they were given the barely disguised codename "Viking" and assigned as skippers, one per Swift. Young and aggressive, the Norwegians got along well with the South Vietnamese. "They were real Vikings," remembers Captain Truong Duy Tai, a maritime case officer. "They knew about navigation so well."
Now with boats as well as crews, the CIA planned its first maritime hit-and-run since the VULCAN debacle. But planners showed little imagination --their plans called for essentially a repeat of the failed strike against the Swatows at Quang Khe. The only difference was the team would ride a Swift instead of a junk.
On 15 December, one of the new powerboats headed north. Aboard was Team NEPTUNE -- the lone scuba-qualified team - with a supply of limpet mines. Short of their target, however, the skipper became lost, forcing an abort.
Returning to Danang, the CIA waited out the New Year. Finally, on 14 January 1964, they launched an ambitious doubleheader. Plans called for two Swifts to leave their berths shortly before midnight. They would stay together until they crossed the Seventeenth Parallel, then continue to their objectives alone. One would head for a coastal desalinization plant near the town of Dong Hoi. The other would go to the Ron River, 18 kilometers farther up the Quang Binh coast from the Swatows on the Gianh. One kilometer inland along the Ron was a ferry which connected North Vietnam's major north-south logistical artery, Route 1.
The Dong Hoi team, codenamed ZEUS, had no problems. The Norwegian skipper approached his designated target just before dawn, throttling back on the engines as he neared shore. Unlike the earlier scuba attacks, the ZEUS commandos took a rubber boat to shore. There they off-loaded a makeshift weapons package devised by CIA technicians. Consisting of six 3.5-inch "flat-firing" rockets, the cluster was affixed to a central battery pack. Pointing it in the general direction of the desalinization plant, they set a timer, slipping back into their rafts, and reached the Swift without incident.
The second team, codenamed CHARON, was not as lucky. When the Swift was less than 19 kilometers from its target, the Norwegian skipper spotted a boat heading toward them from the north. Though not moving fast enough to pose a threat, the Viking reversed course, taking evasive turns until he lost his pursuer. Hugging the coast, he then doubled back north. They were now more than an hour behind schedule.
Electing to proceed with the mission, the team leader ordered CHARON into a rubber raft. As they neared the mouth of the Ron, the team donned flippers and entered the water. Dividing in two, a pair of swimmers headed along the north bank, while the other two pushed along the south. Quickly, things began to fall apart. One pair soon encountered a junk coming downriver. With heavy silt clogging the entrance of the Ron, they feared that the water was not deep enough to clear the passing hull without being seen. Panicking, they turned swam back to the rubber raft.
The second pair was nowhere found. After exceeding their proscribed wait, the first two swimmers headed the Swift alone. With dawn fast approaching, the Norwegian captain reluctantly decided it was time to leave. But as the engines throttled up, he spotted a flashlight blinking near shore. Taking an enormous risk, he turned the Swift inland. relief, bobbing in the water were 1 missing swimmers. With a full complement, they headed south.
Back at Danang, the CIA had mixed emotions about the missions. CHARON had failed to reach its objective, and while claiming it was sure the rockets went off, had not actually been there to witness the event. On the other hand, both teams had returned safely, marking the first time any of the Agency's saboteurs had managed to return home intact.
It would be one of the last CIA maritime operations in Vietnam. In January 1964 the entire covert program was transferred to the Pentagon and called Operational Plan 34A. The military would continue the missions using the new Nasty patrol boats - the command of SOG, the Studies Observation Group. Ranging up and down the North Vietnamese coast the Nastys were only moderately successful, but in 1964 they helped trigger a wider American role in the war with their role in the Gulf incident.
Dale Andrade, Ph.D., resides in Washington, D.C.