Historians generally connect the significant expansion of U.S. involvement in Vietnam back to an incident in the Gulf of Tonkin in August 1964. Gary Newman was there. Today, he is president of the Vietnam Veterans of America Chapter 1059, as well as Chapter 1080 in Union Correctional Institution. The past few years, he has committed himself to raising $80,000 to construct a monument to those in Clay County who served in Vietnam. It will be dedicated in October in Green Cove Springs. Our conversation took place Aug. 14, 2017, at his home in Orange Park.
My name is Aaron Gary Newman. I go by Gary. I was born in Centerline, Michigan, which was a very small township at that time. I was born on February 28, 1942. I spent a good part of my younger years in orphanages and foster homes. I was kind of a rowdy teenager growing up. My stepfather was in the Air Force, and he had been stationed up in Fairbanks, Alaska, when Alaska was still a territory.
I didn’t care much for school and got myself into a little bit of trouble. I desperately needed discipline and someone to guide me in the right way. When I turned 17, I went to an Air Force recruiter. Two weeks after I turned 17, I was in the military. The Air Force had sent me down to Anchorage to go through all of my physicals and to be sworn in. It was while there that I met two sailors, and they told me what the Navy life was like and how they enjoyed it. I felt that was the kind of life I wanted to have because I was young, adventurous. I got hold of the Navy recruiter, and they sent me down to Kodiak Island, where I was sworn into the Navy on March 15, 1959.
At what point do you recall first hearing about a conflict in Vietnam?
Truthfully, I did not hear about Vietnam until I was actually there in 1964. Back then, a young, single sailor’s only outside source of information he ever had was if he bought a newspaper to read. On board ships, we did not have all of the media connection they have now. We did not have a radio to listen to. We got mail once a week, sometimes longer than that if you were out at sea. We just had no connection with the outside world. Everything was concentrated; you lived aboard a ship, you ate there, you worked there, and at the end of a long work day, you just didn’t feel like going over shore. We never had any contact with the outside world at all.
I do remember when Admiral Zumwalt took over… the Navy realized that we were kind of ignorant of the outside world. They assigned the lead boatswain mate to meet with all of the young seamen each day, and he would read the newspaper to us on the ship. That was basically the only information we ever had.
Vietnam never came up then, only on board the USS Maddox?
No… I served aboard seven different destroyers… it wasn’t until 1964 with me actually being there along the coast of Vietnam that I started learning about it.
Were you there when President Johnson claimed there was an attack in the Gulf of Tonkin?
Yes. Our ship was in Hong Kong on R&R. They didn’t tell the crew why, but we got underway and steamed directly over to Taiwan and Formosa. From there, we loaded a conex box. I was a torpedoman. They put the conex box right besides my torpedo. There was a marine sergeant and probably half a dozen sailors. The only thing I knew was they were translators, but we had no idea what that box was about, what they were doing in there, or anything else. We left there, and went on what they called DESOTO patrol. The Navy assumed patrol from the Gulf of Tonkin, go up to the DMZ just offshore, all the way up to Hanoi, then turn back around and do that same loop again. It was probably about August 1st when I had a conversation with the Marine who was aboard, who I knew had gone down to our armory and checked out a 30-caliber machine gun. He asked me, ‘Do you know what’s going on here?’ I told him I had no idea. He says, ‘Do you know where you’re at?’ I said, ‘No, all I know is we’re steaming up and down this shoreline.’ He told me then that we were off the coast of Vietnam. Then, on August 2nd, which was the day of the first attack, we were steaming pretty close to the shoreline, and then the captain came out over the loudspeaker and said there was information that they had three torpedo boats that were going to attack us. That’s when we started heading back out toward the international waters and toward the mouth of the Gulf of Tonkin.
He came over the loudspeaker and said there were three torpedo boats coming at us at a very high speed. He said if they come within a distance of five miles, he would fire warning shots, and if they didn’t stop then, we would fire for effect. That’s what happened. They came at us at extremely high speeds — probably 40 to 45 knots — in a figure-8 pattern, crisscrossing each other back and forth. As they got closer, I could see them. Then they came over the loudspeaker, saying they had fired torpedoes at us. There were six or seven launched at us, and we were firing back at them at the same time. We did leave one on fire, one sinking, and we had air cover come in from an aircraft at the mouth of the Tonkin, and they managed to strafe a couple of the boats and set one of them on fire. The whole attack didn’t last more than about 20 minutes or so, and after we just broke loose from there, we continued out to the mouth of the Tonkin, where we met up with a carrier and ammunition ship. This was the morning of August 3rd. We took on ammunition in stores and they assigned the USS Turner Joy to go back into the Gulf of Tonkin and continue our DESOTO patrol.
The morning of the 4th, we were told there was some movement of the torpedo boats going around. There’s also some of our aircraft, flew over, and they were going in, and it’s my understanding that they were hitting oil storage facilities and some of the boat docks there.
If you put your hand in front of your face, you could not even see your hand. It was that dark.
That night, the night of August 4th, an important night, it was so dark, the clouds covered all the stars and moon. If you put your hand in front of your face, you could not even see your hand. It was that dark. It was my understanding that they were getting radio intercepts from inside that box. The linguistic experts were picking up Vietnamese communication, saying they were going to send some more boats out after us. That night, we got a report that they were getting ready to attack us. We started firing, and then we started getting reports of torpedoes in the water. We were doing high-speed turns to avoid these torpedoes. USS Turner Joy was also getting the same thing. We started firing our guns at what they thought were boats out there. With both Turner Joy and us firing numerous rounds, aircraft from the carrier came in and they were dropping these rounds that lit up the entire area. They could not see anything either, but we kept firing and firing, dodging torpedoes. I think there were approximately 23 torpedoes that were supposedly fired at us.
After a while, we broke off, and then there was trying to figure out what happened. I found out later that what happens is, for some reason, our radar was not working right. There were no boats out there. That’s been proven. We were firing at nothing. There never were any torpedoes fired at us. Our sonarmen were giving us false information. What happens is when a ship goes into a high-speed turn, the propellers form what they call a knuckle. It’s a huge air bubble. They were pinging off of these knuckles and calling them in as torpedoes in the water coming at us. The commanding officer knew there was probably an error, that there really was no attack. He passed this up the chain to the White House. It’s my understanding that President Johnson was given this information, that we should hold off, that it appears there was not an attack. President Johnson ignored that information. On August 5th, he went before Congress and asked for permission to escalate the war, to bring more troops in. It’s also interesting because, on August 5th, I watched a flight of aircraft go over us into the Haiphong area and take out more radar and fuel storage sites. There were two pilots shot down out of that flight. One of them was Everett Alvarez on August 5th. He was the longest POW held during the Vietnam War.
After Johnson went before Congress and asked for a buildup, Congress approved a resolution on August 7th to go and sent more troops over there. I’ll tell you something very few people know. On August 1st, as we went into the Gulf of Tonkin to assume patrol, there was a small, high-speed craft with a couple Vietnamese and a couple American soldiers on it… They came alongside us for about an hour or so, chitchatted back and forth with the commanding officer. That was known as a raid boat. They were launching boats with Vietnamese crews from South Vietnam, up into North Vietnam, shoot up the place, drop mines, and come back out. They were on a return trip from one of those raids the night before. The North Vietnamese knew they had hooked up with us and thought we were part of that raid operation. We were not. I think that is one of the reasons they attacked us on Aug. 2.
But two nights later, it was phantom?
Right. On August 4th, it was bogus. It never happened. It was a one-sided gunfight.
Between the Americans and themselves. At what point did you realize the impact of that night?
I started following it thereafter. I transferred to the Naval Magazine in Subic Bay (Philippines). I spent the first few months loading ships with ammunition. I worked in the torpedo and mine shops. I saw a lot of mines leaving, and new ones coming in. I figured out they were mining the different harbors in Vietnam. I knew there was a buildup going on. The tons and tons of ammunition we were putting on ships to go out. I knew there was something going on. But there was also something going on with me, personally. You have to test yourself. I was in a combat situation onboard the Maddox, but I never had a weapon and didn’t know if I had the courage to fight.
After I left Subic Bay, I returned to the United States on a ship in 1966. Around November 1966, they came out with an emergency message needing 500 volunteers — immediately. They didn’t say what it was for, but just to go to Vietnam. I volunteered. I’m a torpedoman. I got my orders in December, reported up to Mare Island (Naval Shipyard) for three months of riverine training. We were just standing it up. It was new.
When I checked in, it put them in a dilemma. They said they were going in through the rivers, the canals, the tributaries. ‘That’s where we’re going to be fighting. What are we going to do with a torpedoman?’ Hah. They finally wound up putting me on a 40mm gun mount. That would be my second tour.
Can you recall your general impressions of the country?
It’s an absolutely beautiful country. It’s even head and toes above the beauty of the Philippines and some parts of China that I’ve been in, but the people were extremely friendly, especially the children. The Americans were able to connect quickly with the children. They liked to hang around us and whatever. But these were only chance encounters with the kids as far as the riverines went, because we spent all of our time out on the water. When we weren’t on the water, we were tied up to a dock at an Army base, which was Dong Tan. If we were on a mission and we happened to dock at the beach for whatever reason, the children would flock to us.
We were basically set up to be ambushed. That was part of our purpose.
We encountered quite a few firefights. We were basically set up to be ambushed. That was part of our purpose. We acted as a blocking force, where they would push the enemy into us.
What were those encounters with the enemy like?
At first, all of us felt pretty cocky. We were young people. When you’re in that young age group, you feel almost like you’re bulletproof. You can’t do anything to me. Our first few initial firefights we were in went pretty smoothly. We got some good training in.
Everything hit home after about our fourth month there, when our leading chief took a B40 rocket in his chest, and it killed him. That really hit home. The ones that fired the rocket itself at him were captured. They were on my boat for about two and a half or three hours, awaiting transportation to wherever they go to interrogate them… The anger. At that point, on our gun turrents, there was a word in Vietnamese — ‘sat cong,’ which means kill the Vietcong. We painted that on our gun mounts in eight or 10-inch letters as a dare to come get us. We’re ready now. I think we had that feeling from that point on. We were there to fight. We all grew up when the death of our leading chief happened. From that point, on it was just bring it on. Let’s do it.
Do you recall how those combatants were captured? The ones who fired the rocket.
Yes. We were on a river. Had landed our troops on the right. There was an open field. Some Vietcong ran into this hut. They told me to take the hut out and whoever was inside it. Off to our left, there was a canal that went up. Every time ‘Mike 1,’ one of our gun boats, started to go up this little canal, they took heavy fire. About the fourth try, the leading chief told the radiomen and the coxswain — the guy who’s driving the boat — to get into the mortar pit. He assumed communications and driving the boat. As he went up the canal, that’s when these two Vietnamese popped up from a little bunker, fired their round, it came through the boat, and hit him right in the chest — saving the lives of the people he said to get down into the mortar well.
A helicopter came in and fired over where the bunker was, fired a few machine gun rounds down at them. They gave up, threw their hands up, and they were able to capture them, brought them over to my boat and waited for transportation.
You had about six or eight months left then? What was the remainder of that time like?
About eight months, yeah. I believe it was December 1967, we were ambushed. This was a huge ambush. We were taking the Vietnamese 5th Marine Battalion upriver to a seek and destroy mission. There was probably about 15 or more of us boats going in a convoy. Up ahead, a cable suddenly came up. The Vietcong had attached a cable around a tree on one side of the river, and on the other side did the same thing. When we got up to a certain point, they chopped one tree so that when it fell over, that cable popped up and prevented the boats from going any further. They also did the same thing at the end of our convoy. We were locked right in. They just threw a hale of B40 rockets at us, machine gun fire, rifle fire — everything they could throw at us. We immediately turned our boats into the shoreline, dropped our ramps, and it was just right-close-in fighting. The end result of that, after our two-hour battle, was we killed 250 Vietcong. Apparently, we had stumbled upon their main battalion, grouping up, probably getting ready for Tet, which was the following month. We virtually totally destroyed that battalion.
As I got up on the bow of my boat, a sniper round went probably about an inch away from my ear. Right past my ear.
My boat had beached, and South Vietnamese were getting tore up at the beginning. As I got up on the bow of my boat, a sniper round went probably about an inch away from my ear. Right past my ear. The medic boat was right beside me. They were putting all the wounded in there. I left my boat and helped as best I could with the wounded — putting bandages on, comforting them, whatever I could do.
I imagine your experience with the riverines was twice as difficult as your first tour, right? How did you feel at that point — did you regret it?
Well, this is what I regretted. When my time was up, my boat was tied up in Dong Tan, and I can remember so vividly running down the pier with mortar rounds dropping all around. We were still in (the Tet Offensive). This was the end of February 1968. I waited around and I was able to get a helicopter ride from there to a place called Bearcat, which was another Army base. Like hitchhiked it. They sent me into Saigon. I got into the air terminal. I was separated from my crew. They had already got there before me because they had caught a boat and got a ride up. I got there, come to find out six hours before they had dropped mortar rounds right into the passenger terminal. Out of the 11-man crew we had, everybody was wounded, except I didn’t get wounded because I wasn’t there. And our radio man. Everyone got shrapnel and everything. They didn’t even bother to report it. Our plane was due in a couple hours later. We waited around and got on our plane.
Before that, they got us together and told us to go in the restroom and take off all of our clothes. Give them to the Vietnamese guy there. I’m thinking, ‘Why are we giving our American uniforms to a Vietnamese guy who’s going to give them to the Vietcong to use or sell them on the black market?’ Anyway, we changed into civilian clothes. They had the trip arranged for us to arrive into Travis Air Force Base in California at 2’o clock in the morning. They had buses there, ready to take people to airplane terminals or wherever they needed to go locally. I caught a bus in civilian clothes, but it was a few days after that I got to thinking about why did I have to give up my American uniform? I couldn’t wear my Navy blues or anything else. Why would you have me come home at 2 in the morning, when nobody would be there? In my opinion, this was all pre-staged. I’ve always regretted that. I’ve heard other stories of others coming back home with no thank you, welcoming, being cursed at, spit at, things like that.
What was your immediate re-entry?
I went to a Greyhound Bus line. They gave me two weeks off. Threw us right from the battlefield, right into society. There was no counseling, downtime or anything. I went back up to Alaska to stay with my parents. Like every returning guy, I barhopped a little bit. Never did drugs ever in my life. I did barhop. I still had that desire to fight, that mentality to fight. I really came close to putting myself in a bad position because there was a bar. They had a blind man in a country western bar, and he was singing songs. These Army guys were there and they were throwing bottles at him. If I had found a knife, I would have jumped in there and taken out as many as I could. I was still in that mentality. Fortunately, nothing happened. It came within seconds of happening. I looked back on that several times in my life, thanking God I made the right
After coming back from that, where do they send me? To New York City, to the Armed Forces Police Detachment. They put a gun on me and tell me to go out there and find as many AWOLs and deserters as I can. Still, I have no downtime, and I still have this mental state of “anything that moves is an enemy.” Any disturbance, any quick noise, I’m on the ground. That’s when I met my wife, Mary Anne. It was a Chinese New Year when we had gone out. I could not take the firecrackers. It was a bad scene for me.
You’re 26 years old. Were you able to see then how the war had changed you?
I did not realize how much the war changed me until several years later, after I got out of the military. Of course, I got into a field of law enforcement, and again I have a gun on my hip. I’m still thinking in certain situations that happened about still being in country. Nervous. Quick movements. Sudden noises. Always sitting with my back to the wall, where I can see everything.
It wasn’t until after my law enforcement career, when I started working with veterans, when everything really started hitting home. I suddenly realized I’ve got PTSD. I deal with it the best I can. I’ll give you an example. I was at a doctor’s office one day with my wife. I met a young Marine sergeant, who had been in Iraq and he was hit with an IED and had lost his legs. I just broke down in tears. I don’t know why. It happened to me when I had operations on my legs. I woke up — and again when I had this operation two or three weeks back — I woke up and was talking about killing Vietcong. When I came out of anesthesia. But I deal with those things the best I can.
How do I deal with it? A lot with my wife. She’s the only one who I can really confide in with those things. And that didn’t happen until we were married probably for over 30 years.
(After his leg operation…) My wife said, ‘Listen. You’ve been in the house too long. You need to find something that you are interested in and just get out of the house.’ I thought about it and said what do I know the best? I said, ‘You know, I’m a veteran. What I know best are veterans.’ I did not like any of the veterans’ organizations. I decided to start a Vietnam Veterans of America chapter. That was 2011. I started going to different meetings, looking for Vietnam veterans who would come together with me. In January 2012, our national headquarters gave me a charter for Clay County. I’m the founder and president. I’ve had an opportunity to work closely with many Vietnam veterans who have serious issues about how they were treated when they came home. They’re still extremely bitter about that. Even though we’re getting a younger group and people are telling us, ‘Thank you for your service.’ Vietnam veterans accept that, but there’s one thing always on our mind — are you saying that because you feel obligated to say it? Or are you saying it because you really mean it? We don’t know.
The last 10 years, when the Vietnam veterans finally said we’re coming out of the woods, we’re coming out of our hibernation we’ve been in, and we’re going to talk about what we’ve done, leave a legacy behind to tell everybody we were not bad people, that we are good. That’s where the TAPS Monument comes in. The Vietnam veterans have a motto: ‘Never again will one generation of veterans leave another behind.’ I look as far as I can into those veterans who have been forgotten. What better way of remembering those veterans from Clay County who gave everything than to have a memorial built just for them? It’s going to be built on the west side of the old courthouse in Green Cove Springs, 915 Walnut Street. Our dedication is September 11th at 11 a.m. The property is a historic site because of the old courthouse and old jail. We had to get permission from the historical society to dig up the ground. The property sits within the city limits of Green Cove Springs, so we had to get the permission of the Green Cove Springs City Council. The actual property belongs to the county, so we had to go before the board of county commissioners and get their permission. It’s been a two-year project. When we gave our presentations, we told everybody we do not want one single penny of taxpayer money going into this monument. I’ve raised $83,000 in two years, all of it from the public. No taxpayer money. No government.
How have you done that?
I learned that in a political year, at the end of the political season, if there are any moneys left over, that money has to be done away with. Non-profit organizations — that money can be given to them. I approached several politicians and asked if you have any money left over, could you keep us in mind? Sen. Rob Bradley gave us $25,000 out of his campaign fund. Travis Cummings, our state representative, gave another $2,000. There were other politicians who gave lesser amounts. I attended many, many meetings to sell the project. All types — women’s clubs, veterans’ organizations, civic groups — and I had quite a bit of backing from all of the citizens. It didn’t get off the ground very well to begin with. I wound up with a committee of around 21 people, which was a cross-section of the entire county. I had politicians, business people, people involved in civic affairs in the county, business leaders. We worked hard and sold this project to the public. We hope to have enough money left over that will carry us for quite a few years in the future so that if there’s any upkeep or anything needed like that.
How many members are in the chapter you started in 2012?
The people I work with — some are serial killers, murderers, rapists, pedophiles, everything you could think of. But we come together once a month as brothers — Vietnam veteran brothers.
I have 130 members. I also told you we don’t forget any veterans. I started a chapter in Union Correctional Institution and have 108 members over there. All Vietnam veterans, every one of them with an honorable discharge. When they got back, they did not have the counseling available compared to our soldiers coming back today. There was no counseling, no drug or alcohol rehab programs they could be put into, no education programs, no job opportunities. They didn’t have any mentors, and they were taken from a battlefield condition, thrown directly into society, which led them to have problems in their daily life. The people I work with — some are serial killers, murderers, rapists, pedophiles, everything you could think of. But we come together once a month as brothers — Vietnam veteran brothers. It’s a healing program for them. They’re getting their self-esteem, their self-worth, their self-value back. It’s Vietnam Veterans of America Chapter 1080, and I go there monthly.
What haven’t I asked about the Vietnam conflict that you want to impart?
You should ask about the devastation that was thrown upon us, as far as our married lives, our ability to get back into society. I’ll give you an example. With my membership in my organization, I encourage the spouses to come. Now, our veterans are speaking about their experiences in Vietnam after almost 50 years of silence. They’re communicating with each other about it. It’s been a very healing experience. If you can imagine holding things inside you for that long, and not even telling the person closest to you about what happened, there’s a lot of hurt, a lot of anger still out there in the Vietnam veteran, but we’re not going to be silent anymore. We’ve decided it’s time people need to hear our stories.
Was there something in particular that spurred that?
We can’t understand it. We really can’t. We remained silent too long. We’ve all decided that it’s not going to happen anymore. We don’t want to be quiet. We want to tell you our stories.
This interview transcript has been edited for clarity and brevity.