Did A Sea Creature Start the Vietnam War?

Was the Vietnam War, one of the most controversial military engagements taken by the United States in the 20th century, actually started by “glowing sea creatures”?

The question has haunted biologist Todd Newberry of the University of California-Santa Cruz ever since he had a chance conversation in 1966 with a Navy sonar engineer who had participated in what was considered as the spark of the Vietnam War – the Gulf of Tonkin incident in August 4, 1964.

Two days earlier, the USS Maddox and the USS Turner Joy, which had been conducting covert raids against radar installations in the Gulf of Tonkin, were attacked by three North Vietnamese boats.

The ships succeeded in repelling the attack and managed to retreat, but two nights later, during a violent storm, the ships’ sonar displays detected once again what was believed to be another wave of attacking vessels.

The USS Maddox spent hours carrying out evasive maneuvers and firing shells in to the darkness, but despite having clear sonar hits of incoming torpedoes and sightings of enemy lights, the vessels ultimately found no evidence of any enemy ships in the area.

The so-called "unprovoked attack" would later play an important role in U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara’s decision to double down on airstrikes against North Vietnam, starting a ten-year war that claimed more than 58,000 Americans and devastated Vietnam and its neighboring countries.

However, Newberry – and a handful others – have wondered for years: was the USS Maddox really attacked by enemy vessels that night or did something else happen?

 

Tube-shaped creatures

Certainly there were skeptics – then U.S. President Lyndon Johnson was quoted as saying regarding the Gulf of Tonkin incident, “For all I know, our navy was shooting at whales out there.” And McNamara has acknowledged that the incident might be probably due to what he termed as the “fog of war.”

Newberry, on the other hand, believes that what the USS Maddox encountered during that stormy night in 1964 were actually pyrosomes – long, tube-shaped colonies of filter-feeding organisms up to 60 feet long.

Pyrosomes are colonies of clear filter-feeding organisms with a strange life history. Each half-inch long individual pyrosome is tube-shaped and catches floating food as it takes in water at one end and shoots it out the other in a near-continuous jet, allowing it to feed as it swims. 

Individuals in the colony are stuck together – side-by-side – forming a long blunt-ended tube. With the combined jet propulsion, the whole colony swims steadily along. Pyrosome colonies look, for lack of a more accurate analogy, like a giant swimming condom.

Newberry told the Atlantic magazine that he recognized the Navy man’s description of torpedo-sized shapes appearing on the USS Turner Joy’s sonar displays during the supposed attack. 

“These things [pyrosomes] are the size of torpedoes, so they produce the same [sonar] image,” Newberry said. “It all fit together, as far as the character of the colony and its behavior.”

Not only could they have been picked up on sonar and mistaken for torpedoes, but their bio-luminescence could also account for the sightings of lights during the encounter, according to Karen Osborn, a research zoologist at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History.

“They could certainly have shown up on sonar,” she noted. “I can totally see that if you didn’t know that something like them exist and you were looking at them in the water, your imagination could go pretty crazy with what you were seeing.” (With reports from Atlantic magazine/UnexplainedMysteries.com)

 

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