During April and May of 1954, the war in Indochina was entering its final phase. The French troops posted at Dien Bien Phu, had been fighting the longest battle the French Expeditionary Corps, Far East, had ever fought, 169 da s of confrontation, with the last 57 days being absolute hell.
CVA-9, with ComCarDiv 3 embarked, The USS ESSEX carried probably the first Naval Security Group Detachment to see service in the waters of the country that was to become known as Viet Nam. Departing Manila, the ESSEX sailed into the Gulf of Tonkin Considerable discussions had been taking place in Washington regarding the use of American Aid. According to Stanley Karnow, [Vietnam-A History, The First Complete Account of Vietnam at War, pages 196-1981 Admiral Radford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, proposed sending B-29s, based in the Philippines, escorted by fighter aircraft from the Seventh Fleet, to conduct night raids against the Vietminh perimeter around Dien Bien Phu. General Twining of the Air Force endorsed Chis proposal, but it was rejected by General Ridgway, Anny Chief of Staff, who had little faith in air strikes and did not want to fight on Asia’s mainland.
The crisis began on 8 March with French General Ely asking Washington for help and ended on 19 June.
Under Operation VULTURE, there was the threat of the use of a nuclear attack, using the US nuclear armed carrier force near Vietnam, against the Vietminh forces. [List Threats to Use Nuclear Weapons-the Sixteen Known Nuclear Crises of the Cold War 1946-1985, by David Morgan.] On 10 April President Eisenhower sent Secretary of State Dulles and Admiral Radford to Europe to push Operation VULTURE. which Prime Minister Churchill opposed.
On 23 April French Foreign Minister Bidault refused Dulles’ offer of two atomic bombs. Dien Bien Plm fell on 8 May however on 25 May the NCS and Admiral Radford advised atomic bombing of China if Chinese troops supported the Viet Minh drive on Hanoi.
On 19 June President Eisenhower stated “atomic bombing China means bombing the USSR. What would the USA do with destruction extending from the Elbe to Vladivostok?”
China does not intervene and the crisis ends.
Little were we in our Supplementary Radio spaces aware of just how close we were to seeing the beginning of a nuclear war. The ships’ library had clippings from the San Diego newspapers stating there were three San Diego based carriers in the waters off Indochina. We were advised, on our return to the Philippines, if asked by reporters, to neither confirm nor deny where we had been or where we might be going. I remember the readiness drills, flight operations and the muddy water from the Red River Delta but thank God I don’t have to remember any “big Bang” or the beginning of a nuclear war.
As a footnote, little did I think I would be cruising These waters again, as part of a ComSecTeam in 1969 witnessing marine landings, helicopter operations, jet fighters streaming across the skies and the evenings illuminated by tracer fire and bomb blasts.
By John Korn, Navy Cryptologist