A Boyhood in Africa

Africa in the early 1960s as experienced by a young ex-patriot

Archive for June 2015

The Gulf of Tonkin Incident

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In early 1964 father was ordered to move his operation from Salisbury to Cairo. Since he entered the Foreign Service, he’d been assigned to administer capital projects to upgrade diplomatic facilities throughout Africa. This had been ongoing since the early fifties. When first assigned, he was one of eight Foreign Service officers so tasked. In 1964, with much of the work complete, he was the only one left.

As there wasn’t room within the Embassy compound, office space was leased in a building immediately adjacent thereto. Father employed two people, the twin sister of one of the Embassy administrative aides to serve as receptionist and a local architect. From the office windows we could see into the compound below. To the south was the Embassy building proper set in a lush garden, appropriate since that part of Cairo is named “Garden City”. At the east end of the compound was an ornate palatial residence that housed the USIS Library (during the year we resided in Egypt students would be incited to burn it down). Immediately to our east was the Marine guard quarters that were hard not to notice since the Marines were given to loudly playing volley ball at what seemed like all hours of the day (and night).

That summer was noteworthy as it was the last one I experienced before my hormones decided to kick in. That was the summer I became a teenager. The year or so before males enter puberty is perhaps the last time we get to have some control over our mental faculties. Once the hormones kick in reason is shut out of the mix and things become much more complicated.

As it was summer, I was not yet in school. Later that year I would enter the eighth grade in Cairo American College. But for the time being, it was summer and since I’d little to do, I helped out in father’s office. Basically this obliged me to periodically fetch the mail from the communications suite and purchase the occasional hot dog from the Embassy canteen. I learned to hand draft and was set to work making ink on Mylar tracings of embassy and consulate plans.

The communications suite itself was strictly off limits as within it was an array of secretive communications gear. There was a wall of lockers that served the same function as would a bank of post office boxes. I would simply go down the hall to the locker assigned, insert the key and retrieve whatever had been placed within. Though there was at least one daily world brief, none of this stuff was classified. Whenever something classified did arrive, a card was placed in the locker that obliged father to come down and sign for whatever it was in person. This didn’t happen often.

But there was an interesting stretch of days when there were several world briefs. That was during the Gulf of Tonkin Incident. As was usually the case, I ventured down to the Embassy around 10:00 AM. There was the usual pile of teletype messages neatly arranged within a folder held shut by a piece of string wrapped around two plastic buttons. There were few envelopes and the latest copy of “ENR” (Engineering News Report). What set this bundle of messages apart was its thickness. Once the folder was opened it became apparent why. The daily world brief, normally a page of two in length, was at least ten pages long. It was that long because if gave a detailed account of what had happened earlier that day in the Gulf of Tonkin.

Over the next three days, these briefs were replaced by what seemed like hourly SITREPs (Situation Reports). Most of us recall what happened. A US Navy cruiser named the Turner Joy, on patrol in the Gulf of Tonkin, reported that it was under attack by North Vietnamese torpedo boats. Most of are also now aware that there may have been little substance to the basis for the “Incident”. Some speculate that LBJ wanted to show himself to be more hawkish so that he could win the November election. At that time however, the story told by that series of SITREPs was to me quite riveting. In retrospect I’d have to say that the story these SITREPs told was just a bit too tidy to not be told according to some prewritten script. But at the time, it seemed as though the “Good Guys” had been tested and had prevailed.

Collatio Tomi

Since first posting this, something occurred to me. On the second morning there were numerous SITREPs, perhaps one an hour. I remember that in at least two of them it was reported that flotillas of North Vietnamese torpedo boats were launched in what were alleged to be attacks on the Turner Joy. When this happened weapons were deployed to destroy the boats. Except for a few that managed to return to port towing other disabled boats, all were reported sunk.

There are other similar maritime patterns. When fishing fleets put out to sea they often do so in what could appear to a radar operator miles out at sea as a flotilla of torpedo boats. What if the first of these flotillas was actually a fishing fleet? That might explain why the first flotilla seemed to put up so little resistance. When a second flotilla put out to sea it reportedly attempted to assist the first flotilla. That second flotilla was also engaged and most of its vessels sunk. Perhaps the second flotilla was sent out to rescue those stricken from the first flotilla and no hostile actions was intended? Since most were sunk and most of the crew members now departed, we’ll probably never know. I wonder if the official US record still describes these flotillas as torpedo boats.

Written by GW Abert

June 22, 2015 at 16:27

Posted in Uncategorized