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Under Attack - Gulf of Tonkin

by Pat Dingle

The USS Yorktown CVS 10 entered the Vietnam War several months before it really got started on Feb. 24th 1965 with Operation Rolling Thunder, the sustained bombings of North Vietnam. U.S. Marines entered the war for the first time, all 3,500 of them, when they began landing ashore in Da Nang on March 8th with orders to guard our air base there and nothing more. We were just over the horizon for that event. The Yorktown's mission had changed from anti-submarine warfare to that of air-sea rescue of airmen shot down over the North. To a man we in Operations Intelligence thought during January and March of '65 fat chance of the North Vietnamese ever being able of doing that. We were wrong, man were we ever wrong. By Dec. 24th 1965 170 United States military aircraft had been shot down, 94 of those were Navy. I turned 18 in April while on duty in CIC. It was interesting times to be a teenage sailor. At times very interesting.

OI stood watch 5 hours on, 7 off, 7 on, 5 off 24/7 for months at a time. Early one morning during that first April of the war, about 0300, I was on duty in the air section of CIC trying to stay awake. It's very dark in there and it's hard to stay alert when you're stuck on a corner station with nothing important to do. I was on an emergency radio headset in the air section with steady quite static droning in my ear just doing radio checks every hour with my counterparts on the attack carriers a hundred miles or so to the south of us. The Yorktown was the only carrier in those early days to steam off the coast of North Vietnam far to the north of the DMZ. I was sprawled with my legs straight out in a chair squeezed between two radar scopes when a door across the room burst open and the Admiral's staff officers rushed out of his war room and right up to me scaring the shit out of me. They gave me a hand written message and said send that "Flash". As I took it someone said "Send that EMERGENCY". I looked up, it was the Admiral. I sat up straight and started broadcasting as I read, "Alfa Whiskey, Alfa Whiskey, this is Alfa Sierra, Alfa Sierra, FLASH FLASH, EMERGENCY EMERGENCY, two high speed contacts closing bearing (?now) range ?? speed 45 plus knots, request CAP over". It hit me, holy shit we're under attack, as we all waited for a response from the USS Ranger who was controlling the combat air patrol of fighter jets that flew over the fleet 24/7. Nothing, no response, so I repeated the broadcast as the Admiral and staff leaned over me with an anxious look on their faces. I shook my head negative, still no response. They grabbed the note from me and rushed over to another radarman about twenty feet away in the surface section and had him broadcast the request for help. I was now fully awake and alert.

I personally don't remember the next half hour and all the moving parts above my lowly pay grade but a highly respected 3rd class PO at that time, Bill Wages, wrote on the old Yorktown website some years ago that the CAP didn't come, too far south, so we launched our A-4 Sky Hawk jets (same type of aircraft John McCain flew when shot down) and they blew the two North Vietnamese torpedo boats right out of the water. I did however stay hours after my watch and listened in on the after action and our capture of the surviving enemy sailors. One of our helicopters radioed the North Vietnamese sailors in the water refused to climb into a sling lowered to puck them out and requested permission to shoot them. Permission denied, after a long pause, so one of our destroyers put a small boat in the water and fished them out by hand. Several years later I read in the Stars and Strips that there had been a POW swap the prior month of about 500 South Vietnamese Army guys for 25 sailors from the North. They had to be the ones who came out in the Gulf of Tonkin to attack the Yorktown that night. Like I said, interesting times to be a teenage sailor. And memorable lifelong lessons learned to say the least.

Stories of some of those rescues and losses to follow along with liberties ashore in those far away lands....


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