Your ride back into history begins at the Seattle ferry dock and ends 50 minutes later as you glide into Bremerton's harbor. There on your right is the Vietnam War. You may remember it: the war to end all unnecessary wars (until Iraq). It is embodied in all 418 feet of the USS Turner Joy, a Navy destroyer built and launched in Seattle in 1958, serving honorably in the Pacific and less honorably in the Gulf of Tonkin, now retired and open for public visits at its Bremerton waterfront moorage.
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The Bremerton Historic Ships Association, in recounting the Turner Joy's war record—shelling and being shelled, earning nine battle stars—fortunately does not skip the chapter on the destroyer's questionable role in starting Vietnam. That came on an August night in 1964, when the Turner Joy and the USS Maddox were supposedly attacked in the gulf by North Vietnamese gunboats.
"Whether or not the North Vietnamese attacked the two ships . . . remains a mystery," the association acknowledges on its website. "Only they know for sure. It could well have been that bad weather and the freakish radar conditions for which the Gulf of Tonkin is famous caused radar echoes to appear on Turner Joy's screen and prompted her captain and crew to take defensive action in consideration of the events two days earlier."
But the association is much too diplomatic. To obtain Congress' approval to widen the war, President Lyndon Johnson called the attack "deliberate" and "unprovoked." He should have added "imaginary." American ships' radar crews had indeed misinterpreted strange nighttime weather conditions as incoming artillery and engaged in battle with a nonexistent enemy. "I had the best seat in the house to watch that event," Navy Cmdr. James Stockdale recalled in a 1994 interview with Media Beat, "and our destroyers were just shooting at phantom targets—there were no PT boats there . . . There was nothing there but black water and American firepower."
As Johnson would later privately concede in a widely reported 1965 comment, "For all I know, our Navy was shooting at whales out there." By then, Congress had bought his claim that our ships had been attacked, and the war was on. It relentlessly expanded under Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger until collapsing under the weight of 58,000 U.S. body bags. It ended with our abrupt abandonment of Saigon by helicopter in 1975, and has been over since for everyone but those who fought in it.
You can ponder all this heavy political shelling as you wander out from the souvenir-stocked museum store and down the ramps to tour the Turner Joy's decks, passageways, galleys, and gun turrets for a $12 admission cost (free for anyone in uniform). Fully loaded, the sleek boat weighed in at 4,000 tons with a crew of 17 officers and 175 enlisted. It was steam-turbine powered and armed with three 5-inch 54-caliber guns and two torpedo launchers. In 1964, after firing off 700 rounds in the South China Sea at enemy shore structures, one of her guns developed a dangerous hang-fire; attempting to clear the muzzle, three men were killed when the shell exploded.
Decommissioned in 1982, the ship was donated by the Navy to the Bremerton association in 1990, and—restored to her wartime appearance—put on display in 1991. It's also available for reunions, memorial services, and assorted ceremonies, and has a special program available for groups who want to book the ship overnight—perhaps to imagine, much as LBJ did, what it could be like to be attacked in the Gulf of Tonkin.
USS TURNER JOY MUSEUM SHOP AND GIFT STORE 300 Washington Beach Ave. (next to the ferry dock), Bremerton, 360-792-2457, ussturnerjoy.org.