It’s fairly well known to students of pop culture and classic rock aficionados that the father of The Doors’ frontman Jim Morrison was a flag officer in the U.S. Navy. What is not as well known is that then-Captain George Stephen Morrison was the commander of U.S. Naval forces at the time of the Gulf of Tonkin Incident that gave the Johnson Administration the justification they needed to enter the Vietnam War.
After graduating with the U.S. Naval Academy’s Class of 1941, George Morrison was sent to Hawaii to join the crew of the minelayer USS Pruitt (DM 22). He was there on the fateful morning of Dec. 7 when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor.
After several combat deployments as a surface warfare officer, Morrison went to flight school. He pinned on his Wings of Gold in 1944 and flew combat missions in the Pacific for the balance of World War II and also during the Korean War.
In August of 1964, Morrison was aboard the USS Bon Homme Richard (CVA 31) leading the U.S. Navy force stationed off the coast of Vietnam. On August 2 several North Vietnamese patrol boats attacked the USS Maddox (DD 731) during an intelligence gathering mission that put the ship at 28 miles off the coast.
The PT boats fired several torpedoes that Maddox evaded while firing back with five-inch guns. Maddox hit one of the attacking boats, while F-8 aircraft launched from the USS Ticonderoga (CVA 14) strafed the others as they fled, sinking one and heavily damaging another. Maddox emerged from the skirmish having only been hit by a single bullet.
Tensions remained high over the next days, and Morrison put his assets on high alert. Under the direction of President Johnson, he also ordered Maddox along with the USS Turner Joy (DD 951) to sail close to the North Vietnamese coast to “show the flag.”
During an evening and early morning of rough weather and heavy seas, the destroyers received radar, sonar, and radio signals that they believed signaled another attack by the North Vietnamese navy.
For some four hours the ships fired on radar targets and maneuvered vigorously amid electronic and visual reports of enemies. Despite the Navy’s claim that two attacking torpedo boats had been sunk, there was no wreckage, bodies of dead North Vietnamese sailors, or other physical evidence present at the scene of the alleged engagement.
James B. Stockdale, later an admiral who was bestowed the Medal of Honor for his bravery during his time as a POW in Hanoi, was airborne in an F-8 during that time and reported seeing no enemy activity.
The details of the incident were distorted (perhaps intentionally) between Morrison and the other commanders on the scene, the Pentagon, and the White House. That night President Johnson interrupted prime time TV (a very big deal in those days) and told the American public that two U.S. Navy warships had been attacked on the high seas and he was asking Congress for support to counter the North Vietnamese aggression.
At the same time Morrison and his staff told Navy headquarters in Hawaii that the radar returns the destroyers had targeted were probably false returns generated by the rough seas. Headquarters relayed the information to Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, but he failed to gives those details to President Johnson.
Based on Johnson’s testimony that the destroyers had suffered an unprovoked attack in international waters, Congress approved the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, giving the president the authority to conduct military operations in Southeast Asia without a declaration of war.
According to an article by Jeff Cohen and Norman Solomon, the next year Johnson commented privately: “For all I know our Navy was shooting whales out there.”
George Stephen Morrison went on to earn his first star at the young age of 47. Five years later he was the keynote speaker at the decommissioning ceremony for Bon Homme Richard in Washington D.C. the same day his son Jim, the rock icon, died in Paris, France at age 27 after years of drug and alcohol abuse.
The elder Morrison was an avid piano player who had always encouraged his three children to appreciate music, but he never understood the choices Jim made and was always perplexed when he went to friends’ homes and saw posters of his son on their children’s walls.
George Stephen Morrison retired from the Navy in August 1975 as a rear admiral. He died in Coronado, California in 2008.