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If you like James Stockdale's story, you might also like:
Tom Clancy,
David Halberstam,
Daniel Inouye,
Colin Powell,
Fred Smith,
Michael Thornton,
Norman Schwarzkopf
and Neil Sheehan

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James Stockdale
 
James Stockdale
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James Stockdale Interview (page: 8 / 9)

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  James Stockdale

So President Johnson decided not to execute the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution after that first incident. What happened next?

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James Stockdale: The next night, Monday night, I had gone up to see the two destroyers. They were forming up to go back out to the middle of the gulf for the night. A storm was making up. You hardly ever hear thunder at sea but we were in a thunderstorm part of the time. I was in a thunderstorm in a single engine airplane. There's no "we" to it. The clouds were getting lower and it was ominous. We came back and landed just about dusk and I ate my supper in the ward room, which allowed flight suits. And then I went down into my ready room and started shooting the breeze.


Now every night on a carrier -- if you're flying fighters -- you have two planes on the catapults if you're in a dangerous area, ready to launch in an instant's notice. They have ammunition. They have fresh pilots in them that just had something to eat, and then we have two pilots down below that get up in the second two if they go. They shoot two and these guys are ready and they get another guy in. It was dark, the door opened and I got a signal to come out. It was the CIC officer and he said, "We just got a message that indicates that there's going to be some PT boats attacking the Maddox and the Joy tonight in an area just south of here and I'm going to send your pilots." I said, "Wait a minute." I quit listening and I tore off my hat and I got in my torso harness, ran up to the ladder because I'd been out there shooting at those boats two days before and I had to get in that seat, but already the plane on the starboard side had already turned up and was moving up the deck. I grabbed the plane captain and said, "Call up there and get that pilot out and tell him I'm getting in." Meantime on the bridge, the captain was saying -- I learned this in prison because one of the guys was on the bridge -- he said, "What the hell is Stockdale doing out there?" and they said, "He's getting in because he wants to take the flight." And he said, "Well, I guess I'd do the same if it was me." To hear that years later was kind of pleasant.


James Stockdale Interview Photo
We got out there and this guy took a cat shot, took off from the starboard catapult, and all his lights went out going down the track. I'd never seen that before. He had lost his generator. He was going to fly into the water. He didn't have any lights unless he could get this thing opened so that the lever would spin a little windmill to make enough electricity for cockpit lights and stuff like that. And he came alive. I said, "God, it's black as hell and he won't even be able to see his instrument panel." They had to land him because he just had this little electricity that was giving him light and there are a lot of switches you've got to have to get your bombs where you want them.


I was glad to go and I said to Hutch Cooper, who's the captain as I walked by said, "Hutch, I really want to go and I think I know what's going on tonight." He said, "Go ahead, Jim," and that was it, and that was against violation of everything. So I was alone, and then there were two A-4s behind me, and later in the night some more planes came down there. I had a hunch that this was a mix-up, because it was an intercepted message and could be misinterpreted as to what they would do. I called Wes McDonald, who was about 100 miles behind me, and I said, "Wes, if you want to do some dive bombings, get up a course above 2,000 feet, give me a call before you come down and I'll get out of the way, but I'm going to shut off all my external lights and I'm going to get below 1,000 feet." Now I'm doing this all on my own. It's all illegal, but I knew on a destroyer those black shoes get itchy if they see planes flying by with lights on them. Nobody could see me. That's what I wanted. Pretty soon the destroyers opened up gun fire. Here comes the big PT boats. I chased those bullets as they went along and went right down on the water and there was nothing there, because you could see -- the Tonkin Gulf has different physical characteristics. It's like a lake. It's like a shallow lake in the middle of a bunch of rocks in the middle of the ocean or close to shore. And any -- the water is very luminescent and if a bullet hits, if a shell hits the water you're going to see not only a splash but luminescence. And there was no disturbance. This went on for an hour.


Maybe not quite that because I was running out of fuel. These two destroyers started reporting things like they had sunk an enemy ship. That would have illuminated a stadium! Everybody was screwed up. I had no evidence that there were any PT boats there and I made that clear.


I came back to the carrier and landed. I was all alone and I went up in the ready room and there were all, three guys, four guys, sitting there kind of -- you know what kind of grins they had on their face and they said, "What's going on out there?" I said, "Yeah, that's what I want to know." I said, "I got so low I had salt water on my windshield. There's no boats out there!" They said, "Well, read this." It was a pencil copy of a message that the destroyer boss had sent while I was flying back. I can't give you the language exactly but the point of it was, "For goodness sake we have no positive indication that anything happened out here tonight, so let us at least hope we get verification before we take action." I said, "I agree with him entirely." Well, everybody kind of got giddy because we thought we were going to be in a war about two hours ago and now we see it's just a stupid screw-up.


James Stockdale Interview Photo


So I went down, went to bed just happy as a clam and went to sleep and the next thing I know I've got a man in the room. If any man was in the room it would usually be a steward who would probably be a black man who was waking me for some reason. I saw the glint on this guy's collar and I said, "What the hell are you doing down here?" He said, "I'm the assistant officer on deck. The captain sent me down here to let you know that he is going to give you a phone call in about ten minutes and he's got a lot of news for you." So, I sat there and the phone rang and Hutch, who I loved --he's dead now -- but he said, "Jim, I've got targets all over North Vietnam that are going to have to attack tomorrow. I want you to lead the most important strike, the one they call the number one, and that is the POL storage." POL is petroleum, oils and lubricants. It's fossil fuel. They had eight towering tanks that we'd all noticed. It was maybe 300 miles from where we were going to go. He said, "Hap Chandler is down getting the big bombs out of the bottom. You look him up and tell him what you want for Crusader armament." I found Hap. I'd known Hap for years. Knew him at Patuxent. I went to him and he said, "What do you want on the Crusaders?" And I said, "I want eight zoonies on either side. Nothing else." He said, "Aren't you going to have any defensive weapons?" And I said, "No, there'll be no action out there against us today except the flack." I could have said, "Hell, no. This is Pearl Harbor because we're going to attack a country that's not waiting for it." I didn't say any of that and it's just as well.


Had LBJ signed the resolution by now?

James Stockdale: Yeah.


They had already signed it and (President) Johnson had withheld it. Now I don't know what happened to it. But I said, "I'm going to be leading the first strike of a war under false pretenses." Now you would think that would be a big emotional thing, but I mean it was so mixed up. That's the only way to go. You can't stop -- everything is in motion. We blew those tanks off the wall. I took 18 airplanes. Some of them were A-1s, which had to figure themselves out. They go very slowly in comparison to our jets. I had to go to meetings and I told the A-1 skipper, "Do your navigation and get airborne, and you can just orbit the ship until the time you kilo yourself." Kilo means, "I'm headed for the target." That's a kilo signal. They did that, and then we were sitting there in the ready room and they say, "At midnight, L.B. Johnson announced to the American people that we are retaliating against outrageous activities of PT boats, and in fact some of these attacks are in progress." I had 300 miles to fly and I didn't even know. I said, "Yeah."


So it was all false pretense?

James Stockdale: No. That was a big screw-up. Even in the intelligence community, nobody disputes it now. There were bullets fired, but they weren't fired off of PT boats out there. It was some other action.

Are you saying the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution was based on false pretenses?


James Stockdale: No, I wouldn't say it that way. The Tonkin Gulf Resolution was written to be used by responsible people who knew there was action, and that they were going to sanction our retaliation. But, there wasn't any (action)! I laughed to myself. I didn't put it on the air, but I said, "Here we go. I'm starting a war under false pretenses."


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