COMMAND DECISIONS RELATING TO THE LOSS OF LTJG JOSEPH P. DUNN, U.S.N
by Daniel J. Gallagher, Lieutenant, United States Navy
Graduate Class 9001
Thesis submitted to the Faculty
of the Defense Intelligence College in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of
Master of Science of Strategic IntelligenceAugust 1990
The Introduction to the thesis is below. To read the full thesis a pdf version is available HERE.
On February 14, 1968 an unarmed United States Navy A-1H Skyraider piloted by Lieutenant junior grade (LTjg) Joseph Patrick Dunn was shot down by a pair of People's Republic of China Naval Air Force MiG-17 jet fighter aircraft off the east coast of Hainan Island in the South China Sea. Dunn's Skyraider was the second of an unarmed two-aircraft ferry mission led by an EA-1F four-man electronic countermeasures variant of the A-1. Both aircraft were enroute from Cubi Point Naval Air Station, Philippines to the USS Coral Sea (CVA-43) conducting operations as an element of Task Force 77 in the Tonkin Gulf.
Subsequent search-and-rescue (SAR) efforts by elements of the U.S. 7th Fleet on behalf of LTjg Dunn were unsuccessful. Having failed to locate the young Naval Aviator, the Department of Defense (DoD) listed him as missing in action (MIA) until 1981, when a status review hearing by the U.S. Navy changed his status to killed in action (KIA). 
The SAR effort by the U.S. 7th Fleet on behalf of LTjg Dunn involved three U.S. aircraft carriers (USS Kitty Hawk, USS Kearsarge, and USS Coral Sea) and accompanying units. The efforts of the 7th Fleet in this case were no less than extraordinary. At the height of the Tet Offensive, a large force was temporarily withdrawn to recover one man.
The SAR effort to recover LTjg Dunn distinguished itself from hundreds of other such incidents during the Vietnam Conflict because of the involvement of PRC forces, its proximity to PRC territorial waters, and the gravitation of U.S. decision-making from local and theater commanders to the highest levels of the U.S. government.
Ultimately, a critical decision concerning Dunn's life was made by President Lyndon B. Johnson. He ordered forces searching for Dunn to approach no closer than 20 miles to China. Further, he ordered that if Dunn were located within the search area no rescue could be attempted within Chinese territorial waters twelve miles from the shore.
President Johnson’s orders overrode the military orders and intentions of the Commander of the U.S. 7th Fleet. Criticism of U.S. decision-makers after the incident reflected the opinion that Dunn "was abandoned to his fate in Hainan waters on orders from beyond the Pentagon." This criticism was faulty. The twelve-mile restriction ultimately did not impact the probability of recovery because Dunn was not detected by forces long enough to consider recovery.
President Johnson's decisions were made during trying times, both domestically and internationally, for the United States. At home, protests and anti-war demonstrations were beginning to grow as a genuine distaste for the war materialized. Abroad, the siege of Khe Sanh and the Tet Offensive began in January 1968. The USS Pueblo was seized that same month by the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) and tensions between the United States and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) in Europe were high. These four situations and others obligated considerable U.S. resources and attention.
Presidential decisions relating to the SAR effort for Dunn had to consider the domestic and world environment and the potential for further conflict with China during a rescue attempt. U.S. capabilities were stretched thin in February, 1968. Task Force 77 had diverted forces from the Vietnam War toward Korea in response to the Pueblo incident. Rescue operations potentially would face considerable opposition from aircraft based on Hainan Island and in southern China. In addition, the past intervention of the PRC in the Korean conflict in 1950 weighed heavily in decision-making during the Vietnam War. Under these circumstances, President Johnson decided that the risks to the interests of the United States from an expanded conflict with the PRC outweighed the necessity to locate and rescue LTjg Dunn.
The escalation of decision-making to the National Command Authority (NCA) represented an appropriate shift in light of the potential of the situation to expand into a major confrontation with the PRC. Many authors have criticized the Johnson Administration generally for its micromanagement of the war and specifically for restrictions placed on the application of force. Although this criticism is often justified, the NCA has the authority and duty to alter rules of engagement (ROE) to the circumstances to best reflect the broad interests of the United States.
President Johnson entered the developing situation off Hainan Island because he judged it might expand into a conflict with the PRC. If war grew to involve the PRC, the broader interests of the United States would potentially be adversely affected: hence, the Presidential decision was consistent with the broader interests of the United States.
 Department of Defense, POW/MIA Fact Book, Washington, DC: DoD, July, 1990. According to the Fact Book, 2,302 Americans are still unaccounted for as a result of US involvement in Southeast Asia. Following Operation Homecoming in 1973, 1,259 men were officially listed as POW or MIA and 1,124 as KIA/body not recovered. All the services reviewed each of the cases in the early 1980s, resulting in a presumptive finding of death in each case but one. That individual is listed as a prisoner of war for symbolic reasons.
 John B. Nichols and Barrett Tillman, On Yankee Station (New York: Bantam Books, 1987), 21. This opinion was also expressed in newspaper articles and by the family of LTjg Dunn after the incident.