Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations
KNKX Connects showcases people and places around Puget Sound. Through audio, photography, music and journalism — discover a new connection with Bremerton.

A ship at the center of the Gulf of Tonkin incident brings naval history to life in Bremerton

The story of how the USS Turner Joy ended up in middle of one of the defining events of the 20th century, starts deep in the heart of the ship - the Combat Information Center.

“This is where they kept track of everything, motion under the water, over the water, you name it they kept track of it here,” said Charlie Birdsell, director of the USS Turner Joy Museum.

The USS Turner Joy is a retired Vietnam-era warship, a destroyer, that’s now moored in Bremerton, Washington, not too far from the ferry terminal.

It’s an attraction now. But while it was in action, an attack on the ship in 1964 in the Gulf of Tonkin is what led to direct U.S. involvement in the Vietnam war. Today, it’s widely believed that fateful attack never took place.

The attack

In August 1964, another destroyer called the USS Maddox was patrolling the coast of Vietnam, spying on the Northern Vietnamese army, when it was attacked by torpedo boats and called for help.

The Maddox fired back, and with the help of nearby fighter planes, successfully fought off the attack. By the time the Turner Joy arrived to assist, the attack was over. But two days later, the ships were attacked again.

“Both the Turner Joy and Maddox once again, were reporting that they were under attack, torpedoes were in the water. And they responded,” Birdsell said.

Information was flying back and forth between the ships in their combat information centers, as they fired into the night, at enemy targets.

Birdsell said he has spoken to sailors who were on the ship at the time.

“They saw that torpedo go right past the ship, right on the starboard side, they just missed it. They watched it go by. They're absolutely adamant about this.”

Photos inside of the USS Turner Joy in Bremerton, Washington. A reporter interviews a person aboard the ship.
Parker Miles Blohm
Director of the USS Turner Joy Museum Charlie Birdsell speaks with KNKX aboard the vessel in Bremerton, Wash.

After getting word of this attack, President Lyndon Johnson addressed the public, and told Congress: U.S. forces had come under a sustained and unprovoked attack, and the U.S. needed to respond.

This led Congress to pass the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution. It didn’t officially declare war, but the resolution gave the president the authority to defend U.S. forces in the region. Johnson then authorized the first American bombardments of the northern territory of Vietnam. After that came the rapid deployment of hundreds of thousands of troops.

The United States would be mired in this conflict for years and it sparked an intense anti-war protest movement. But that attack that the sailors were so adamant about, has since been questioned.

The mystery

“We have known for many years now, several decades, that the second night of the Tonkin Gulf incident was fantasy. It did not happen,” said Christoph Giebel, professor of history and international studies at the University of Washington.

Despite what Johnson told the public, records show military leadership didn’t see any evidence in the morning that an attack had taken place. There was no debris or oil sheen on the water.

“There was no indication of any enemy boats in the vicinity,” Giebel said. “USS Maddox and the Turner Joy report back to Washington, that they had opened fire, but that it is doubtful that they were actually under attack by the North Vietnamese Navy torpedo boats.”

There’s no debate about the first attack on the USS Maddox. Giebel said one attack wasn’t enough to warrant retaliation, though. But, a second attack would change the calculus.

“Then you have, of course, much more of a reason to believe that this is a sustained provocation against United States forces. In other words, it's an act of war.”

Giebel said the second alleged attack was just the event the U.S. government needed to escalate their involvement and try to save a campaign against communism in Southeast Asia that was at risk of failing.

“[The Gulf of Tonkin incident] showed the American leadership willing to use misrepresentations and lies to implement plans of direct intervention in Vietnam that they had already drawn up months before,” Giebel said.

Today, when he teaches his students at UW about the Vietnam War, Giebel encourages them to take the ferry from Seattle to Bremerton and look to their right as they land, to see this important ship with this complicated role in history.

When he looks at it, he sees a tragic remnant of a tragic war. But, others, like Charlie Birdsell, said the Turner Joy represents the critical viewpoint of the sailor’s who were there.

“It's always very real, when you tell the story, and you're standing here, right across the hallway from CIC, where all of that happened,” Birdsell said.

Photos inside and outside of the USS Turner Joy in Bremerton, Washington.
Parker Miles Blohm
The Combat Information Center, CIC, of the USS Turner Joy. Radar operators and navigation worked in this area just off the bridge of the ship.

In 1973, almost a decade after the Gulf of Tonkin incident, President Richard Nixon signed the Paris Peace Accords withdrawing military forces from Vietnam. By the end of the war, nearly 60,000 Americans, and nearly three million Vietnamese people, had died, according to the highest estimates.

The agreement was signed on January 27. Birdsell said the Turner Joy is connected to that moment too.

“On the morning of the 28th the gun line commander, knowing the history of the Turner Joy, told the captain of this ship that ‘You were there to start it, might as well finish it.’”

And just before 8 a.m., out of its most forward gun, the Turner Joy fired the last naval round of the Vietnam War.

The ship's role today

Naval history is prominent all around Bremerton. Memorials, museums, and historic sites are everywhere. This all makes a lot of sense.

“The city of Bremerton really didn't exist until the shipyard was here," said Megan Churchwell, curator at the Puget Sound Navy museum.

Aside from the Suquamish people who are native to the area, there wasn’t an established town until the late 1800s. That’s when the federal government was persuaded by some explorers to establish a naval base.

Once the base and shipyard were established, the city of Bremerton started to grow too. And it really took off around World War II.

“Bremerton in 1940 is this sleepy little town of like 15,000 people. Bremerton in 1945 has 80,000 people,” Churchwell said. 

The city, and the Navy, have been linked ever since. The Navy is still the largest employer in Kitsap county.

“We have a lot of shipyard workers, we have a lot of active duty sailors, we have a lot of retired sailors who went to work at the shipyards," Churchwell said. "But then, for the average person who doesn't have that military connection, they might not have ever set foot on on a shipyard or on one of the Navy's ships.” 

There is one ship that anyone can visit: the USS Turner Joy.

"It's the only one in the state of Washington that you can visit that you can actually see a destroyer that saw action," Birdsell said.

A few sections of the ship have been turned into exhibits, like a memorial to POWs from the Vietnam War, but for the most part it looks the same as it did when it was built in Seattle in the 1950s. Bremerton is a fitting resting place for the historic vessel, and it's now one of city's most popular attractions.

Today, Birdsell said the Turner Joy tries to focus on the experiences of the sailors. What their day to day life was like, how they kept busy for months at a time, where they slept, ate, and showered and what they were tasked to do. It focuses less on the controversy or what people choose to believe.

“We tried to stay out of that whole conversation,” Birdsell said. “We're going to let the sailors present their story, and let others if they dispute it, that’s fine as well. But the fact is, it was a historical event, the Turner Joy was there, and there's no way to backtrack on that.”

Scott Greenstone contributed reporting.

Mayowa Aina covers cost-of-living and affordability issues in Western Washington. She focuses on how people do (or don't) make ends meet, impacts on residents' earning potential and proposed solutions for supporting people living at the margins of our community. Get in touch with her by emailing