The Path to War

Operation Pierce Arrow

4/5 August, 1964.


Saturday Evening, May 11th, 2002.

Updated June 25th, 2002.


Just watched a promo for The Path To War, on Larry King, which tells the story of the agony of LBJ in re US incursion in what would become the Viet Nam Conflict.  We'd had forces in Viet Nam since the early 50s, and I had been involved with my rifle company, B/1/3, in the evacuation of Catholics from the Red River Delta to the Rung Sat Zone south and east of Saigon in ‘55/56.  Operation Pierce Arrow would be an entirely different type of thing- an air assault on the Swatow bases in NVN as the reaction to the attack on our De Soto Patrol, and more specifically on the supposed attacks on DDs USS Maddox and Turner Joy.


Anyone interested in the full and complete story must read Ed Moise's Tonkin Gulf and the Escalation of the Vietnam War. 


The promo released a flood of memories that need to be written down now.  On 1Aug64 I became the Deputy Director of the Marine Corp Command Center (MCCC).  With that duty went that as Operational Spokesman for Headquarters Marine Corps.  I had completed my three years in HQMC some two months before, but had been retained in HQMC at the order of the Commandant of the Marine Corps, General Wallace M. Greene for the specific purpose of assuming my new duties when the incumbent in the Deputy Director's billet left the Headquarters.  Prior to my assuming the title and position, there was no Operational Spokesman..


Service Command Centers were fascinating places to work.  I had come to the Headquarters from George Washington University in June, 1961, at the very beginning of JFKs presidency.  The Service buildings along the Potomac were still shaking from the fallout from the Bay of Pigs.  My first eighteen months were served as a Joint Strategic Plans Officer dealing entirely with JCS matters in AO4J, the Plans and Operations Department of the G-4 Division, HQMC.  My duty was to review the Logistics Annexes of various contingency plans of the Joint, Specified, and Unified Commands, as well as to address the logistics sections of any JCS position papers that were written.  In the latter case, all the Service Action Officers had input into the documents that the JCS would eventually approve. 


Anyone who thinks JCS position papers are written by the Chiefs has another think coming.  They are written by the Joint Staff and Service Action Officers and progress through a number of stages.  They begin as "flimsys," which is what the paper is called at the Action Officer level, progress to "Buff," where the next level above the Action Officers, the Planning Officers take over, and finally the paper goes "green" and is placed on the JCS Agenda for approval.  When the latter occurs the paper is "Red Striped" and delivered to the SecDef, and sometimes forwarded to the President.  Action Officers for the Services are usually Majors/LtsCol, Planning Officers are almost always Colonels through Majors General with the Air Force almost always having a Major General and the Army a Brigadier.  Of course the Chiefs wore four stars, with their deputies (DCS Ops) being three starred.  On rare occasions I was designated as a "Planner" because we had only one such Colonel in the G-4 Division of the Marine Corps.  If I was designated as a Planner I sat across the table from, on occasion, flag officers from the three other Services.  But, since I represented my Service so far as input was concerned I had as much influence as anyone at the table on that paper.  This is a rare case of rank reversal indeed. 


It was a fascinating place for a thirty-four year old professional officer to be.  Action Officers briefed their Service Chiefs in regards JCS Agenda Items on which they had the "Action."  In that capacity I got to know the CMC, then General David Monroe Shoup, LtGen Wallace Greene, Chief of Staff,  Shoup's  Deputy for JCS Matters (OpsDep) MGen "Fog" Hayes, and the G-4, MGen "Lenny" Chapman.  Greene would succeed Shoup as CMC on 1Jan64, and Chapman would succeed Greene as Chief of Staff.  One of the Bennys that Action Officers enjoyed was that they were permitted in the "Gallery" of what was called "The Tank" when the JCS sat down and discussed "Your" paper.  In January, 1963, I was transferred to the MCCC (Marine Corps Command Center) because the Command Center was going to take over the action on JCS papers outside of normal working hours, and I was to teach the various Watch Teams how to handle them and be available as a consultant should they run into something they didn't know how to handle.


After spending several weeks in the foregoing role, I assumed duty as a Watch Team Commander.  Watch Teams did many things, including providing security for the Black and Gold books as well as the "Go To War" telytype that sat in a corner of our office.  The Black and Gold books contained the "EM" (Emergency) messages that involved specific targeting instructions from SIOP (Single Integrated Operations Plan).  We also held the codes to verify receipt of such messages, if required, as well as the codes to verify "Exercise" messages sent periodically from various command centers to assure the system was intact.   Practice messages were sent out several times a week.  And that's enough said about that.


I assumed duties as Deputy Director, MCCC, on August 1, 1964.  Our Director was a well beloved Colonel whose name I will not provide, although, most unfortunately, he is now deceased.  This gentleman, a veteran of the most costly battles in the Pacific during WW II, had been gravely wounded as the Executive Officer of one of the Rifle Regiments at the Chosin Reservoir in December, 1950.  The chest wounds he had incurred had left him in a severely weakened condition that permitted him to put in eight hours a day, five days a week, and no more.  I doubt that he weighed 130 pounds.  We all loved this man, and he took care of us as though we were his children.  He was the sixth senior Colonel in the Corps, and was on a first name basis with very nearly every General Officer in the Corps and those recently retired.  Some in the latter group had extremely influential jobs on Capitol Hill.  For instance, one friend of our Director was the military advisor to arguably the most influential member of the Senate, the Chairman of the Armed Service Committee.  And no, I won't tell you what his name was, although if you want to do the research you can easily identify him.  Unique to HQMC, all assigned officers to the MCCC wore uniforms as working attire, except the boss who along with almost all the other officers assigned to HQMC, wore civvies.   I'm going to write much more about the MCCC at some other time, but let it be said here that there was nothing- nothing – that was going on in the Corps that our Director was not privy to, and through him, the officers who were detailed to the MCCC.  He was our wise man, guru, prophet and father figure all rolled into one.  And we all knew how to keep our mouths shut.


All Service Command Centers received copies of all Flash Messages directed to POTUS (President of the United States).  Most of you know that a Flash Message reports enemy contact and takes priority over all other radio and telytype traffic.  National Flash Messages were those, usually from CINCs, or a major command such as Commander, 7th Fleet, (COM 7) that reported information that they believed should be in the hands of POTUS within five minutes.


As Ed Moise makes clear in his book, the Gulf of Tonkin Affair was a very complicated matter.  Let me try to simplify it for you.  Essentially there were two US plans that were impacting the Gulf of Tonkin.  The first of these was the De Soto Patrol.  This was simply a "showing of the US flag" and a reiteration of US belief in "Freedom of the Seas" by destroyers that were ordered to stay outside of the twelve mile limit that most nations claim as territorial waters. 


The other was COMUSMACV's OpPlan 34A-CIA OpPlan TIGER.  The latter included many types of operations, white, gray and black.  Command centers knew the proposed patrol routes of De Soto patrols, because COM 7th made JCS  info on plans they forwarded to CINCPAC.  We also held the 34A-Tiger plans.  Both plans were tracked minutely, at least in the MCCC and I must assume in the other command centers as well as well as the NMCC (National Military Command Center). 


Our Status of Forces Officer in the MCCC was a WO Joe Kennedy, and each morning I'd check with him to see what was happening.  It was Kennedy who drew my attention to a 34A/Tiger Op that was going down on Hon Matt Island that was only a few miles from the projected patrol route of the De Soto Patrol, then the USS Maddox.  At the time we had no idea, at least in the MCCC, if COMUSMACV was provided information on De Soto Patrols, and we also did not know if COM 7 held 34A/Tiger.  Our assumption was that both knew of the other's plans.  That assumption was incorrect.


34A/Tiger required a "Category" ("Cat") clearance and an absolute "need to know."  As an example, there were twelve separate Cat clearances for knowledge of certain aspects of atomic weapons.  One of  these was "Stockpile," or where the weapons were actually located and what "Mark" of weapon it was. 


For instance, the US periodically assured one certain country that we had no atomic weapons in that country.   Of course we did, and any of us who read the traffic could have told which LST the weapons were aboard, which Mark of weapons they were, and where they were berthed in one of that country's ports.  That situation went on for years, and yet none of the thousands of us who knew sneaked out a copy to the press.  I don't believe that you could get away with that now.  How times have changed. 


Whenever a 34A/Tiger item was on the JCS agenda, the rest of the agenda would be briefed first, then the OpsDep would announce, "Everyone not cleared for Spook leave now."  Not even the Chief of Staff of the Marine Corps or any of the Gs were cleared because they had no "need to know."  Rank was not important in establishing this, position was.  And that was the way it should be.


This sets the stage.  What follows are my own recollections regarding the first air strike delivered by US aircraft on NVN, Operation Pierce Arrow.  Again, if you want chapter and verse on the prelude to this attack, please read Ed Moise's book.  This gives you radar plots, track plots, radio transmissions, and the whole nine yards.


No one except the principals (JCS and their OpsDeps, and their immediate intelligence assistants) were cleared for SI ("Signals Intelligence") in August, 1964.  My work was wholly on the operations side, and that did not include raw intelligence produced by reading the enemies' mail. 


It was a Saturday afternoon, about 1530.  I had come into the office (MCCC) about 1000 to read the traffic, and was departing the Headquarters for a quiet Saturday evening with my wife and two teenage daughters.  I was in the stairwell at first floor level when I heard someone calling me from up the stairs.  It was Captain Al Grey, whom I knew to be the SI officer for HQMC and in that capacity I'd had very little to do with him.  Al had only been in the Headquarters a few months.  He had a message he had just received, and he needed advice as to what to do with it.  I saw the "SI" stamped on it and told him I wasn't cleared.  He said that I came closer to having the clearance than anyone else then present in the Headquarters, and begged me to read it and tell him who should be notified.  So I did.  The intercept was from the NK Navy, and was a contingency plan for an attack on De Soto patrol.  I returned with Al to my office, picked up the KY-1 (secure phone) that we had to General Greene's quarters, and read the message to General Greene.  He told me to make sure that LtGen Buse,  (his OpsDep)  saw the message.  I left that up to Al, and departed for my own quarters.  Monday morning I was told to appear in the office of the G-2/G-3 of the Marine Corps, who cautioned me about revealing the contents of the SI message, granted me a one time access to SI materials (!?!) and had me sign ten forms or so, and the matter was over.


(Eight months later the Secretary of the Navy, Mr. Paul Nitze, decided that the NavyOps Briefer and I  required SI clearance.  The reason was administrative, not for "need to know."  Normally the Navy Ops Briefer went first, I followed in the bi-weekly SecNav briefings.  (CNO and CMC or their reps were always in attendance as well as selected staff members.)  We were then excused to the ante room and the SI briefers did their thing.  The problem was that on numerous occasions the SI guys would bring up a matter that required the expertise of the operational briefer to clarify.  This meant that the OpsBriefer had to be brought back in the room for questions, and while he was there no one could speak in "SI."   This was clumsy and time consuming, so SecNav decided after one of the briefings in March '65 that both the NavyOpsBriefer and myself must be SI cleared by his next briefing in two days.  FBI agents swarmed over my home town that night, talking to former teachers, neighbors, school friends and whatever.  The fact that I'd been in the Marine Corps for over twenty years continuous active duty mattered not.  But I was cleared for SI.  Among other things it meant that I couldn't get a passport for ten years after my retirement date, and this was written into my retirement orders.  It also "red flagged" me, and to get to Viet Nam it required the intercession of both SecNav and CMC which they kindly accomplished.)


It was no surprise then when just two days later Maddox reported herself under attack.  This was the first Gulf of Tonkin incident, and there was no question in anyone's mind that an attack had been made on Maddox.  This was on August 2d, if memory serves, and the JCS recommended retaliation on the Swatow bases and POL sites from where the attacks had come.  There was no reaction from the White House.  However, just two days later Maddox had been joined by Turner Joy. 


Flash messages began arriving in Washington about 1000 that morning.  We were, as I recall, minus 11 from the Gulf of Tonkin, so it would have been close to the middle of the night there.  The messages read like this:  "Torpedo 1 in the water…." Then a few minutes later:  "Torpedo 1 missed."  As I recall, this went on for the next three or four hours, until we got the message:  "Torpedo 24 in the water…."  Then, a few minutes later:  "Torpedo 24 missed."  In the meantime we were getting reports from De Soto's air cover that they could find no targets around the two destroyers.  About the time torpedo 15 was reported in the water I called my opposite number in Navy Flag Plot and asked him what the hell he made of all this since he knew a lot more about torpedoes than I did.  We agreed that, given the air reports, the two cans were shooting at radar ghosts.


I have read elsewhere that "everyone" in Washington was convinced of the legitimacy of the second attack.  Au contraire.  I know that the people who were in my business believed it not.  And getting ahead of the story just a bit, I sat in the "Tank," meeting  place of the JCS, the following morning and none of them believed it either.


Whatever, during the early afternoon the Chiefs were called to the White House.  The OpsDeps (the JCS Deputies) were convened in The Tank, their usual meeting place in the Pentagon.  About 1700 the MC's OpsDep's (LtGen Buse) staff secretary called me and told me to stick around, that Buse wanted to talk to me on his return from the Pentagon along with several other officers.  Buse returned from the Pentagon about 1800, and met with Col "Willy" Stiles, head of G-3 JCSOpsSection, Col Guildo Codespoti, G-3 Joint Actions Officer, myself, and Captain Al Grey, the Chief Spook in the Headquarters (and future CMC, and big buddy of Sal's).  We met in Al's space since it was the most secure in the Headquarters. 


Buse told us that POTUS had ordered a retaliatory strike on certain Swatow bases and POL facilities to take place as early as the next morning, Gulf of Tonkin time, as soon as COM 7 could get his carriers in position.  All of these targets were on the 94 Target Plan that had been drawn up some time previously, so we knew that COM 7 undoubtedly had target profiles on each one of the 94.  Johnson himself had requested air time on the networks at 2100 that evening to announce the strike, which we anticipated would take place simultaneously with the Johnson speech.  CINCPAC had been instructed to order COM 7 to conduct these strikes ASAP, with copies of the JCS messages to go to COM 7 so that he could anticipate CINCPAC's command and begin moving immediately into position. 


The problem was that there were so many FLASH and PRIORITY messages clogging the comm. networks that everything was delayed.  Buse told me that CMC wanted a 0700 briefing before he headed for The Tank for a briefing at 0800 the following morning.


Then he said something which I've never forgotten, and says a great deal about the military's attitude on Viet Nam as of that particular time:  "We've tried to get this train to roll for the last year, and now it's going down the track at an ever increasing rate of speed and no one knows where the hell it's going."  A more prescient statement I've not heard.


I went home about 1900, had a quick martini, and told my ever-loving, ever-suffering wife that Johnson would be speaking on the networks at 2100.  Since I knew what he was going to say, I'd have the dinner she kept warm for me now since I had a 0300 reveille the next morning so I could get in and prepare for the CMC brief at 0700.  So I hit the rack.  I heard her come to bed about 2345, late for her, since she was a working girl, and I asked her if she heard Johnson speak.  She said that she had, but that he hadn't spoken until 2335.  That made me wonder, but 0300 comes mighty early….


What we now know is that, of course, Johnson had not wanted to tip his hand to the NVN, but had been assured that by 2100 Washington time the last of our attack aircraft would be departing the target.  At 2100 there was still no absolute assurance that the strike was on, so Johnson's speech was postponed, then postponed again for obvious reasons.  CINCPAC had finally assured MacNamara that he believed that the strike had gone in at 2200 Washington time, so by 2330 aircraft would clear the target area.  Well, that was wrong.  The first aircraft did not arrive over the target until two hours after Johnson's speech to the nation.  But this was the services screw-up, and in no way can Johnson be held accountable for it.  Moise tells of this miscommunication in great detail pp. 214-217.


When I got in to my office, I was advised that there had been a total foul up re getting the strike orders to COM 7, and as a result of this Johnson had actually spoken to the nation prior to the first birds arriving on target.  We had lost two aircraft and crews, but we had some excellent photos of the strike damage.  My Visuals/Graphic Aids expert, MSgt Rodgers and I put together a 20 minute brief, and CMC and his retinue appeared at 0700 sharp.  We gave the briefing, integrated with photos, in CMC's Conference Room that had a rear view projector, and a podium that had all the bells and whistles.  It went slick as grass, an event that did not always happen since CMC was a difficult man to please.


He told me to pack up my briefing materials and accompany him to the Tank for a briefing of the Chiefs.  That was how I got on the floor of the Tank that morning and heard the discussion that followed my brief as referred to above.


And that was how the first US air strike on NVN looked from the safety of Washington, D.C.  In the months that would follow the US would initiate "Tit for Tat" Raids.  The 94 Target List expanded to a 400 Target List.  34A/TIGER raids would be a succession of one disaster after another.  We followed every airdrop of personnel into NVN, and they seemed to go in the bag as soon as they landed.  If the NVN hit a bridge in SVN, US aircraft, many times accompanied by ADs from SVN, would hit a bridge in NVN.  If the NVN hit a barracks, as they did at Pleiku, we'd hit a NVN barracks.  We joked at the time that if we were NVN we'd watch carefully the targets they were hitting in SVN, and if it were a barracks, it would be politic indeed to sleep well away from their assigned barracks that night.


As many of you are well aware, there has been a prolonged period of time on awv(not the other) regarding what I would define as one principal question:  Were the U. S. Public and U. S. Congress deliberately deceived when the Johnson Administration went before them to ask for the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution?


This past Sunday, 23 June, 2002, 60 Miinutes ran a segment that addressed that very question.  The guest, Michael R. Beschloss, Ph.D, a teacher and writer of history had recently completed the second volume re "The Johnson Tapes."  His answer to the question was a resounding yes.  He buttressed his argument with excerpts from the tapes themselves, and after fifteen minutes according to Beschloss, there was no question that there had been deliberate deception.  I agree.  And I know.  I was part of it and made every effort to see that the veil was not lifted.


The problem was that it was US policy to deny authorship of the 34A Plan.  No one who talked to the press or congressman was able to admit that these strikes against North Vietnam had their origin from US personnel and assets.  When I was asked, and I was asked in nearly every briefing about 34A ops, although not by that name, my reply was that this was a South Vietnamese operation, so I'd have no details regarding it.  That was the deception.


Do you recall when poor old Olly North got into trouble for "lying to Congress"?


What concerns me to this day is that the Congress was asked to approve the Gulf of Tokin Resolution with insufficient information and therefore acted on a false premise that not only one attack had been made in the Gulf of Tonkin, but two, and that the US had no connection to the raids along the NVN coast and other dirty tricks which went under the name of 34A.  No one who looked at the second De  Soto incident could state for a fact that it had occurred and that there were many who doubted it occurred.  The least that could be said, honestly, was that there were questions about the second incident.  Of course we have known for years that there was in fact no second incident.  If Moise's book makes nothing else clear, that point is made distinct for sure.


Some of you recall the U-2 incident.  When the aircraft was missing our story was that a weather recon was overdue.  The weather recon story was repeated over and over.  Khruschev then produced plane and pilot, including the cameras involved.  The Eisenhower administration had been caught in a bald faced lie.  Khruschev went to the United Nations and banged his shoe on the desk.  So the poor handling of the second De Soto incident must be seen through the lenses of those glasses too.


We all know that Congress, and it would now appear, the whole of Washington, including the services, leaks like a sieve.  That was not true to the same extent in 1965, but certainly Congress leaked.  When the Johnson Administration felt that a Gulf of Tonkin Resolution was necessary, I would feel better today if they had called for a Joint Congressional Committee to meet and review all, and I mean all, the facets of US operations in SEASIA at that time.  From that group would have come a recommendation to the entire Congress to either pass it or reject it.  And the Congress would have acted up or down.


Consider this.  In a June 10 meeting of top Administration officials, they drew up a number of talking points that anticipated questions that might be asked if the matter came before congressional committees.

Q. Does this resolution imply a blank check for the President to go to war over Southeast Asia?

A. The resolution will indeed permit selective use of force, but hostilities on a larger scale are not envisaged, and in any case any large escalation would require a call up of Reserves and thus a further appeal to Congress.  (Moise, p. 227.)


Is that the reason that Reserves were not called up?


Why then didn't the Administration move to Congress immediately and ask for approval of the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution in June?  Why because there was no proximate cause at that time.  The Maddox, then the Maddox and Turner Joy incidents, although the latter was seriously in doubt at the time, gave the proximate cause.  Am I then suggesting that the entire affair was staged so that an attack would be precipitated?


Now that is a damned interesting question.  Had Maddox been withdrawn, and De Soto patrols cancelled, the attack orders I read in that stair well that Saturday afternoon could not have been executed.  There would have been no incident.  But can the US cut and run every time one of its basic beliefs, such as "Freedom of the Sea" is challenged?  Is there a weight and balance question in there somewhere?  Did the NVN actually fall into a US trap by attacking Maddox giving us the excuse we wanted to widen the war against the North?  What do you think?


Moise concludes, as do I, that there was no US plot to draw the NVN out.  There is certainly no evidence of one of which I am aware.  It was pure serendipity that the tracks of 34A and De Soto all but crossed.  It is certainly understandable that the NVN, looking at the two tracks, could have concluded that there was collusion.  But if there was I was sure fooled by it.  From having tracked both 34A and De Soto from their onsets I can but conclude that there was no connection, sub strata or otherwise, between the two.  


Strangely, no one in the debate has noticed what I know eventually happened.  Sometime that fall the De Soto patrols were cancelled.  I was in the MCCC on a Saturday afternoon with a football game on the TV screen, and the sound on low, when it was announced that the Secretary of Defense would have a statement at half time.  Someone caught it, and the sound turned up  McNamara came on, as advertised, made a short speech about the US precious right to sail the seas, and that was why we insisted on continuing our patrols in international waters.  The game began again and a copy of a priority message from the JCS to CINCPAC came over my desk.  All De Soto patrols had been cancelled.  We looked at the message, considered McNamara's message, and shook our heads in awe and wonder.


I was to spend another sixteen months in the MCCC before being liberated from that 24/7 job and journey to Viet Nam to serve in various interesting billets.  I needed the rest.  During those sixteen months there were few days when I wasn't on the Hill with CMC briefing anyone who would sit still long enough to be briefed.   General Green was spreading the message:  The Marine Corps, when called on, was ready, and could do much more than it was now tasked with doing.  When these were congressional briefings, on the way back to HQMC in that big green (what else) sedan with DC license plates "1776," General Green would roll up the window that separated us from the driver and intone:  "When you return to your office, I want you to write a Memorandum for the Record concerning this brief.  Say who attended, and in some detail what you told them and the discussion that ensued.  Then make sure Francine [his secretary] gets a copy.  They're not going to blame the Joint Chiefs of Staff for Viet Nam as they blamed them for the Bay of Pigs."  Emphasis added.


Sorry, General Green.  They did anyway.            


Copyright 2002.  R. E. Sullivan, Ph.D.  All rights reserved.  No part of this document may be copied, faxed, electronically transmitted, or in any other manner duplicated without express written permission of the author.