The Last Battle of the Vietnam War: Mayaguez Incident by Mike Benge

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Two weeks after the fall of Saigon, on May 12, 1975, Khmer Rouge in an American-made PCF Swift gunboat seized the U.S. merchant ship SS Mayaguez and its crew in Cambodian waters. After the U.S. withdrawal from Viet Nam and the abandonment of the three countries of former Indochina, a number of conservative politicians and intellectuals in the United States had begun to question America’s “credibility” in the international field, suggesting that this would encourage enemies around the world to challenge America with seeming impunity. The Cambodian seizure of the Mayaguez appeared to be just such a challenge. President Gerald Ford denounced the seizure as an “act of piracy” and demanded immediate release of the ship.

President Ford, goaded by Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, believed that the ship’s seizure provided an opportunity for the United States “to prove that others will be worse off if they tackle us, and not that they can return to the status quo. It is not enough to get the ship’s release.” One Pentagon official told Newsweek at the time, “Henry Kissinger was determined to give the Khmer Rouge a bloody nose.” This in a way would be comparable to baseball’s traditional contemptuous gesture of kicking dirt on the umpire’s shoes after he had said, “You’re out of here!” They also wanted to avoid a repeat of the embarrassing Pueblo incident of 1968, where failure to promptly use military force to halt the capture of the U.S. intelligence ship by North Korea led to an eleven-month hostage situation.

On instructions from the President, Kissinger tried to send a message to the Chinese Liaison Office in Washington demanding the immediate release of Mayaguez and her crew; however, it was refused. Kissinger then instructed George H. W. Bush, head of the U.S. Liaison Office in Beijing, to deliver the note to the Chinese Foreign Ministry and to pass on an oral message that “The Government of the United States demands the immediate release of the vessel and of the full crew. If that release does not immediately take place, the authorities in Phnom Penh will be responsible for the consequences.”

The SS Mayaguez

The SS Mayaguez, owned by Sea-Land Service Inc., was the first all-container U.S. flag ship in foreign trade. Beginning in 1965, the SS Mayaguez sailed a regular route for Sea-Land Services in support of American forces in Southeast Asia: Hong Kong — Sattahip, Thailand — Singapore. On May 7, 1975, about a week after the fall of Saigon, the Mayaguez left Hong Kong on a routine voyage carrying 107 containers of routine cargo, 77 containers of government and military cargo, and 90 empty containers — all insured for $5 million. The exact contents of the 77 containers have never been disclosed, but the Mayaguez had loaded containers from the U.S. Embassy in Saigon just nine days before the fall of Saigon. There was speculation that some may have contained arms and ammunition. Nevertheless, during the entire incident the Khmer Rouge did not search the containers.

The crisis began on the afternoon of May 12, 1975, as the Mayaguez en route to Sattahip, Thailand, was allegedly sailing in a regular shipping lane in the Gulf of Siam about 60 miles from the coast of Cambodia, and about 8 miles from the Poulo Wai Islands.

Poulo Wai Islands (aka Wai Islands), is a group of two small wooded and uninhabited islands in the Gulf of Siam located some 95 kilometres (59 miles) to the southwest of the coast of Preah Sihanouk Province, Cambodia. Poulo Wai at times was claimed by Thailand, Cambodia, and Viet Nam. The latest claimant and occupier were the Khmer Rouge. There were many small boats about.

Reportedly, the Mayaguez was within the 12 nautical miles of territorial-waters claimed by Cambodia. However, the U.S. did not recognize 12 nautical miles territorial waters claims at that time, recognizing only 3 nautical miles, and characterized the location as international sea lanes on the high seas.

A Shot across the Bow

Suddenly, a few American-made PCF Swift gunboats were seen coming from Poulo Wai towards the Mayaguez and at 14:18, a 76-mm shot was fired across her bow. Swift Boats manned by Khmer Rouge (KR) then swarmed the Mayaguez firing several machine gun rounds and a rocket-propelled grenade which was considered as warning shots. 

The ship’s Captain, Charles T. Miller, had in its safe a U.S. government envelope only to be opened in special circumstances which he destroyed just before seizure.

According to U.S. military reports, the seizure took place six nautical miles off the island. Captain Miller heeded the warning and at the same time sent out a MAYDAY message and then stopped the ship. Mayaguez‘s SOS and Mayday signals were picked up by a number of listeners including an employee of Delta Exploration Company in Jakarta, Indonesia, who notified the U.S. Embassy in Jakarta. By 05:12 Eastern Daylight Time (EDT) the first news of the incident  reached  the  National  Military  Command  Center  (NMCC) in Washington, D.C. Seven KR soldiers boarded the Mayaguez and their leader, Commander Sa Mean, pointed at a map indicating that the ship should proceed to the east of Poulo Wai. Sa Mean ordered Captain Miller to follow the swift boats  around  Koh Tang Island to Poulo Wai Island, 1.5 km north, where 20 more Khmer Rouge boarded the vessel. A U.S. P-3 Orion surveillance aircraft from Patrol Squadron 17 confirmed that the Mayaguez had been moved to Poulo Wai.

With a diplomatic solution appearing unlikely, on May 14, at 5:45 PM, President Ford ordered General David Jones, acting Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS), to take military action against the Khmer Rouge. The JCS proposed to simultaneously send in the Marines to retake the Mayaguez and assault Koh Tang Island to free its crew (assuming that’s where they were being held), and bomb the Kompong Som oil storage complex and Ream airfield using aircraft from the Coral Sea. However, it was recognized that this will be complicated by the uncertainty surrounding the location of Mayaguez‘s crew. “Intelligence reports” varied: some were still on the ship, some on Koh Tang and others were on the fishing boat bound for Kampong Som. Nonetheless, the President ordered military action, and the Marine Corps detachment at Subic Bay was given the assignment. They were to assault a ship at  sea — the first such maneuver since 1826. Secretary of Defense James R. Schlesinger then ordered the military to locate Mayaguez and prevent her movement to the Cambodian mainland, employing munitions and tear gas including sea mines if necessary. Admiral Noel Gayler, the Commander in Chief, Pacific Command (CINCPAC), ordered the commander of the Seventh Air Force to move combat aircraft to the area.

The Plan

On May 13, Lt. General John J. Burns, commander of the Seventh Air Force at Korat Royal Thai Air Force Base, and his Seventh Air Force staff developed a contingency plan to retake Mayaguez using an assault force composed of men of the Air Force 56th Security Police Squadron; 75 volunteers from the 56th would be dropped onto the containers on the deck of the Mayaguez on the next morning. In preparation for this assault, five HH-53 and seven CH-53 helicopters were ordered to proceed to U-Tapao Royal Thai Navy Airfield in Thailand for staging. At approximately 21:30, one of the CH-53s (68-10933, call sign Knife 13) crashed en route to U Tapao, killing its five-man crew and 18 security police assigned to the 56th Special Operations Wing who were on board.

President Ford chaired an NSC meeting at 10:22 EDT (21:22 Cambodia), where the Air Force rescue plan was cancelled due to the loss of Knife 13 and the fact that the containers on Mayaguez could not bear the weight of the helicopters, and men rappelling down would be exposed to gunfire. It was decided that it was necessary to wait for the several Navy ships to arrive off Koh Tang and for the Marines to assemble in Thailand before a rescue attempt would be mounted. President Ford ordered the Air Force to stop any Cambodian boats moving between Koh Tang and the mainland.

The New Plan

On the afternoon of 14 May, Lt. General Burns, received the order to proceed with simultaneous assaults on Koh Tang and Mayaguez timed to begin just before sunrise (05:42) on 15 May. D-Company 1/4 Marines would retake Mayaguez while Battalion Landing Team (BLT) 2/9 Marines would rescue the crew on Koh Tang. At 21:00 on May 14, the rescue plan was finalized. Six hundred Marines from BLT 2/9 — composed of Golf and Echo Companies — were assigned to conduct a combat assault in five CH-53 Knives (Ks) and three HH-53 Jolly Greens (JGs) to seize and hold Koh Tang. Two helicopters would make a diversionary assault on the West Beach, while six helicopters would make the main assault on the wider East Beach. The East Beach force would move to the nearby compound where Mayaguez‘s crew was believed to be held and then move across and link up with the West Beach force. Two more waves of helicopters would be required to deploy all of BLT 2/9 to Koh Tang.

Assets for Recovery of the Mayaguez

The III Marine Amphibious Force (III MAF) — Task Force 79.9, D Company 1/4 Marines in the Philippines; the 2nd Battalion, 9th Marine Regiment — BLT 2/9 (which had been the first U.S. ground combat force committed to the Viet Nam War in 1965, but in May 1975 only a few of the officers, NCOs and enlisted men had seen combat in Viet Nam); Seventy five volunteers from the Air Force’s 56th Security Police Squadron (however, one of the CH-53s crashed before leaving Thailand killing 18 security police and its five-man crew); a 14-man U.S. Navy SEAL team; and six volunteer seamen from Mayaguez’s sister ship the USNS Greenville Victory.

Air support for the operation included, but not limited to: EC-130E Airborne Battlefield Command and Control Center; AC-130H Spectre “Spooky” gunship; A-7D Corsairs; A-7Es; P-3 Orions; F-111 fighter- bombers; F-4 Phantom fighter-bombers; nine Air Force HH-53 Jolly Green helicopters and 10 CH-53 (call sign Knife); U-21 aerial reconnaissance; HC-130P “King” command-and-control aircraft; EC-130 Cricket; OV-10 FAC (forward air control); and five C-130 slicks carrying BLU-82 “daisy cutter” bombs — 15,000-pound devices; the largest conventional explosive weapon in the U.S. arsenal at that time.

Vessel support included: The USS Holt (DE-706), a destroyer escort named after William Mack Holt; USS Henry B. Wilson (DDG-7) a guided missile armed destroyer named after Admiral Henry Braid Wilson; USS Okinawa (LPH–3) an amphibious assault ship; The USS Coral Sea aircraft carrier; USS Hancock (CV/CVA-19) an aircraft carrier built during World War II and the fourth ship to bear the name John Hancock — and an Army tug boat.

Civilian mariners support: Rear Adm. Sam H. Moore of the Navy’s Military Sealift Command (MSC), asked for civilian mariner volunteers from other MSC ships anchored at the Subic Bay U.S. Naval Base in the Philippines. Captain Raymond Iacobacci of the USNS Greenville Victory found six volunteers among his crew for the dangerous mission of accompanying the Marines during the recapture of its sister ship the Mayaquez — tasked to help get her underway. [USNS stands for United States Naval Ship — Navy controlled with civilian crew.]

During a briefing in the Philippines before leaving for Utapao Air Base in Thailand to link up with the assault Marines, the six MSC volunteer mariners had been shown photos of the Mayaguez and discussed plans to retake the ship telling them they should be able to have the ship underway within 2 to 6 hours after boarding — that is if nothing was damaged.

Koh Tang Island

Koh Tang  Island (aka Tang Islands) is the biggest  of a group of Cambodian Islands some 30 miles off the southern coast of Cambodia’s Sihanoukville Province and shared border with Viet Nam in the Gulf of Thailand. Around noon  on May 13, the Mayaguez anchored off Koh Tang. Two unarmed F-111 fighter-bombers appeared and began making low-level high-speed passes by the Mayaguez. Once the F-111s had left, two F-4 Phantoms soon arrived and began firing their 20 mm cannon into the water in front of the ship. The F-4s were followed by some A-7Ds and more F-111s which continued to fire into the sea in front of and behind the ship indicating that no further movement should be attempted. KR Commander Sa Mean radioed his superiors and was instructed to stay at Poulo Wai, and finally the Mayaguez dropped anchor at 16:55.

U.S. Air Force P-3, Orion, F-4E Phantom, F-111A, A-7D Corsairs, and AC-130H “babysat” the Mayaguez and just before 4 PM, pilots saw smoke coming from the stack of the Mayaguez. Two Corsairs strafed across her bow and the smoke died down. Many small boats milled around the Mayaguez, making it hard for the airmen to determine exactly what was happening. They then saw the 39 man crew of the Mayaguez board two fishing boat at 7 PM on May 13 and later saw people disembarking from the fishing boats onto Koh Trang.

Early on the morning of May 14, the Khmer Rouge loaded Mayaguez‘s crew onto one of the fishing boats and they left Koh Tang following a group of swift boats on a heading for Kampong Som. In an attempt to prevent their being taken to the mainland, two F-111s swept past the fishing boat, followed by a pair of F-4s and a pair of A-7s, which began firing in front of the swift boats and then directly at them, causing one of them to turn back to Koh Tang. The jets were then joined by an AC-130H Spectre “Spooky” gunship from the 388th Tactical Fighter Wing which proceeded to engage a second swift boat with its cannons. Then an A-7D sprayed a Swift boat with its 20mm cannon, sinking it; all total, three swift boats were reportedly sunk. The fighters then came at the fishing boat dropping bombs and firing their cannon into the water in front of it, spraying the boat with shrapnel. The fighter crews reported back that 30 to 40 Caucasians had been seen on board the fishing boat. Nevertheless, Captain Miller and the Mayaguez’s crew of 39 continued to follow the gunboat into Kampong Saom (aka Kompong Som), formerly Sihanoukville, on the mainland.

Release of the Mayaguez Crew

There, the Khmer Rouge authorities refused to accept responsibility for Mayaguez‘s crew and so the fishing boat moved further down the coast, dropping anchor off the island of Rong Sang Lem (aka Koh Rong Sanloem). On their arrival at Rong Sang Lem, Captain Miller was taken to the senior Khmer Rouge commander where he was subjected to a cursory interrogation before being asked if he could talk to the American planes from the Mayaguez. The Khmer Rouge explained that they had already lost three boats and numerous men and were anxious to call off the American bombers. Captain Miller explained that if they returned to the ship and restarted her engines they could then generate electricity to call their office in Bangkok which could then contact the U.S. military.

The Khmer Rouge radioed instructions to their higher command who then gave approval for Captain Miller and thirty nine crewmen to return to the Mayaguez. As darkness was falling it was decided that they would return to Mayaguez the following morning. At 06:07 on May 15th, the Khmer Rouge information and propaganda minister, Hu Nim, made a radio broadcast announcing that the Mayaguez and her crew would be released.

At 06:30 on Koh Rong Sanloem, the crew of the Mayaguez were informed that they would be allowed to return to their ship, after having agreed to a signed statement that they had not been mistreated. At 09:35 an orbiting P-3 Orion spotted the Thai fishing boat Sinvari. The USS Wilson, originally thinking she was a Khmer Rouge gunboat, was ordered to intercept her. The P-3 Orion then identified that Caucasians were aboard the Sinvari. Around 10:45, the Sinvari approached the USS Wilson which was stationed off Kaoh Tant Island supporting the amphibious assault. Aboard the boat was the crew of the Thai fishing boat, and the Captain and 39 crewmen of the Mayaguez. They had been set free by their captors after being moved earlier in the day to Kompong Som in a small Cambodian gunboat. They had again been moved to tiny Kach Island and where they were freed, picked up and brought aboard the USS Wilson.

The Radio transmission by Hu Nim that the crew and the Mayaguez was being released was intercepted by the CIA station in Bangkok, translated and delivered to the White House by 07:15 (20:15 EDT). The White House was skeptical of the Khmer Rouge message and released a press statement at 08:15 (21:15 EDT) saying that U.S. military operations would continue until the crew and the Mayaguez was in U.S. hands.

The Navy

Following Secretary Schlesinger’s instructions, a P-3 Orion aircraft stationed at Naval Air Station Cubi Point in the Philippines, but at an airfield in Thailand, took off to locate the Mayaguez. At that time, the aircraft carrier USS Coral Sea was en route to Australia, and was ordered into the area of concern in the Gulf of Thailand. Adding to this show of force, both the destroyer escort USS Harold E. Holt and the guided missile destroyer USS Henry B. Wilson were ordered to proceed at high speed from the Philippine Sea towards Mayaguez‘s last known location.

USS Wilson was assigned to support the Koh Tang operation, and, after retaking Mayaguez, USS Holt would be deployed in a blocking position between Koh Tang and the Cambodian mainland with the mission of intercepting and engaging any Khmer reaction forces. U.S. Navy aircraft from Coral Sea were given the mission of striking targets on the Cambodian mainland to prevent interference with the rescue.

The Air Force

Nine U.S. Air Force HH-53 Jolly Green helicopters of the 40th Aerospace Rescue and Recovery Squadron and ten CH-53 Knives of the 21st Special Operations Squadron were stationed at Nakhon Phanom in Thailand for the rescue operation.1 There were differences between the two types which would become relevant during the battle: the HH-53 was air-refuellable, had 450-gallon foam-filled (i.e., self-sealing) tip tanks, a tail minigun with armor plating, and two waist miniguns. The CH-53 was not air-refuellable, but had 650-gallon foamless tip tanks and two miniguns, although no tail gun. Thus, the HH-53’s fuel tanks were less vulnerable to ground fire and with its refueling capability, could remain in the battle area indefinitely as long as it had access to an aerial tanker.

Send in the Marines

Secretary Schlesinger had issued an alert order to the 1st Battalion 4th Marines (1/4 Marines) at Subic Bay and to the 9th Marine Regiment on Okinawa. A reinforced company from 1/4 Marines was ordered to assemble at Naval Air Station Cubi Point for airlift to Thailand, while an 1100-man Battalion Landing Team (BLT) assembled in Okinawa. The III Marine Amphibious Force (III MAF) assigned Task Force 79.9 with recovering Mayaguez and designated D Company 1/4 Marines in the Philippines as the unit that would actually retake Mayaguez and was assigned to the USS Holt. The 2nd Battalion, 9th Marines — BLT 2/9, commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Randall W. Austin, received orders on the night of 13 May to return to camp and prepare for departure by air at dawn on the next day. At the time BLT 2/9 was on a training exercise on Okinawa. On the morning of 14 May, BLT 2/9 boarded Air Force C- 141s at Kadena Air Base to fly to Thailand. The 9th Marine Regiment had been the first U.S. ground combat force committed to the Viet Nam War in 1965; however, by May 1975 only a few BLT 2/9 officers and NCOs had seen combat. A good share of the troops were young Marines, many who had not completed training, much less been in combat.

Re-boarding the Mayaguez

The first phase of the rescue operation began at 06:13 on May 15 with the transfer by three HH-53 Jolly Greens to the Holt a unit of 57 D/1/4 Marines, an explosive ordnance disposal team, a Cambodian linguist, together with the six MSC volunteers to get the Mayaguez under way. The ship-to-ship boarding of Mayaguez was scheduled for one hour after the assault on Koh Tang began. As the Holt slowly approached, USAF A-7D aircraft saturated the Mayaguez with tear gas. Then the USS Holt maneuvered  alongside  and at 7:00, 48 Marines wearing gas-masks stormed over the side of the Mayaguez like swashbuckling pirates. The Marines had conducted one of the few hostile ship-to-ship boarding by the U.S. Navy since the American Civil War, secured the vessel after an hour-long search, and found her empty. At 8:20 the Marines raised the American flag.

Once secured, the six MSC volunteer mariners boarded to prepare the Mayaguez to get underway, and within five minutes, they had the emergency diesel generator running. The volunteers hauled out towlines, cut the anchor chain with an acetylene torch and prepared her for a tow.

At 10:45 AM, the USS Holt began her tow of the Mayaguez, while MSC engineers worked to get steam up. By noon, all Mayaguez crewmen were back aboard their own ship. The volunteers continued to assist until 7:30 PM, at which time they climbed aboard an Army tug boat, then picked up by a helicopter and flown to the MSC office in Sattahip, Thailand.

Minutes before the first helicopter landed the Marines at 06:03 on the West Beach LZ on Koh Tang Island, President Ford had received confirmation that the Khmer Rouge had released the ship and its crew. “The President and his chief of staff exchanged whoops of joy,” wrote Newsweek at the time, “Henry Kissinger beaming ear to ear, the lot of them celebrating what seemed in that taut midnight to be a famous victory.” President Ford went on U.S. national television announcing the recovery of Mayaguez and the rescue of her crew, but obscuring the fact that the crew had in fact been released by the Khmer Rouge, not rescued from them as his message implied. The reason for the unexpected release of the Mayaguez crew has never been fully understood; most likely, it was China’s intervention, for the Khmer Rouge and Cambodia was rife with Chinese advisors.

Marine Assault on Koh Tang Island

Koh Tang (aka Tang Islands) is the biggest of a group of Cambodian islands off the coast of Sihanoukville Province in the Gulf of Thailand. The island is situated approximately 52 km (32 mi) off the southwest coast of Cambodia. There were no permanent civilian inhabitants living on the island. Unknown to the Marines converging on Koh Tang, none of Mayaguez‘s crew were on the island. Em Son, the Khmer Rouge commander of Kampong Som District, had been given responsibility for securing Koh Tang, so on the 1st of May he taken an additional force of 100 men to defend the island against attack. These defenses were intended to counter the Vietnamese, not the Americans. Following the Fall of Saigon, the Viet Nam People’s Army moved quickly to take control of a number of islands formerly controlled by South Viet Nam and other islands contested between Viet Nam and Cambodia.

Phase One

The flight from U-Tapao to Koh Tang was a four-hour round trip. It was estimated that only 20-30 Khmer Rouge were on Koh Tang; however, there were several times that number. Neither had information been passed on to the Marines regarding the presence of anti-aircraft guns nor the large number of gunboats.

At 06:12, the eight helicopters (five CH-53 Knives (Ks) and three HH-53 Jolly Greens (JGs) of the Koh Tang assault force approached the only two Landing Zones (LZs) on the island — the East and West Beaches on the Northern tip of the island were the only points wide enough for the helicopters to land. Two additional CH-53s were tasked as Combat Search and Rescue helicopters, supported by an HC-130P “King” command-and-control aircraft of the 56th Rescue Squadron.

The Khmer Rouge had placed 60 mm mortars north of each beach, and south of the beaches was an 81mm mortar that could fire on either beach. Ammunition was stored in dug-in bunkers, one behind each beach, with a third ammunition dump located in the jungle south of the beaches near Em Son’s command post.

On the West Beach, the Khmer Rouge had a heavy machine gun, an M-60, a number of B-40 rocket-propelled grenade launchers, and a 75mm recoilless rifle dug into connected firing positions.

K-21, was the first helicopter to land on Koh Tang Island’s Western LZ precisely at 06:03, and as the 1st platoon of Company G was disembarking, the jungle erupted with small arms and automatic weapons fire along with RPG and mortar fire.

K-22, while approaching the LZ, was hit hard, as was K-21, and at 06:05 the call “Hot LZ!” was transmitted over the UHF helicopter control frequency. K-22 aborted its landing and began providing fire to cover K- 21’s withdrawal, and while doing so, K-21 lost an engine and ditched in the ocean three-quarters of a mile off the beach and flipped over. One crewman disappeared with the sinking aircraft and three other crewmen were recovered a short time later. K-22, with one engine destroyed and a severe fuel leak, limped back to the coast of Thailand escorted by JG-11 and JG-12, and crash-landed in Trat Province on the Thai coast. K-22’s passengers were picked up by JG-12 and returned to U-Tapao.

Nineteen-year-old Marine Al Bailey was in the first helicopter that landed on the West Beach. The Khmer Rouge held their fire until the chopper was less than 100 feet off the ground, when suddenly Bailey saw the tree line light up as gunfire began to rip through K-21’s fuselage.  The second that Bailey stepped onto the beach, black clad soldiers were shooting at him from less than 50 meters away. In fact, the first dead man Bailey ever saw was the Khmer Rouge soldier he shot in the chest.

On the East Beach the Khmer Rouge had two heavy machine guns dug in at each end of the beach and fortified firing positions had been built every 20 meters behind a sand berm connected by a shallow zig-zag trench. Two M-60 machine guns, several B-40 rocket-propelled grenade launchers and two DK-82 mortar/grenade launchers were in the firing positions. As helicopters approached the East Beach at 06:30, that was the largest LZ and was to receive the bulk of the forces, they encountered intense automatic weapons and RPG fire from the entrenched Khmer Rouge.

K-23 was touching down when intense fire erupted and destroyed an engine and shot off the tail pylon. Nevertheless, the pilot managed to land the helicopter despite the loss of control and 20 Marines of the third platoon of Company G (G/3) were able to disembark and sprint for the tree line north of the LZ. Moments later, the crew evacuated the helicopter and joined the Marines. In the tree line, the small force set up a perimeter and dug in; however, the Marines and helicopter crew were isolated and pinned down. The K-23’s copilot used his survival radio to call in airstrikes, but they would remain cut off from reinforcements and rescue for some twelve hours.

        K-31 was following K-23 into the zone when it began to take sustained automatic weapons and RPG hits from the jungle bordering the beach. As the helicopter was trying to gain altitude to abort the landing, an RPG impacted the cockpit and killed the co-pilot. Seconds later, a second RPG impacted the aircraft causing the port external fuel tank to explode engulfing the helicopter in a ball of flame. K-31 crash landed in four feet of water approximately fifty meters from the beach. Seven Marines and two Navy corpsmen were killed in the crash of the helicopter, and another Marine died of his wounds while clinging to the burning wreckage. Three more Marines were killed after they made their way to the beach and charged the tree line. The remaining ten Marines and three USAF crewmen swam seaward. One of the survivors in the water was the forward air controller (FAC), First Lieutenant Terry Tonkin. At 06:20, using a USAF survival radio, he was able to direct A-7 air strikes on enemy positions surrounding the eastern LZ until its’ battery failed. The surviving ten Marines and three Air Force crewmen were forced to swim for two hours before being picked up by the gig of the newly arrived Henry B. Wilson.

In the first twenty minutes of the assault, three helicopters had been shot down and another had sustained severe damage. At this time, the remaining four helicopters were directed to divert their landing from the eastern LZ to the western LZ. This decision probably prevented more helicopters from being destroyed in the heavily defended eastern LZ.

However, after previously ordering the diversion, the AMC, mistakenly ordered K-52, JG-43, and K-51 to insert on the eastern LZ. K- 52 was hit hard by enemy fire, aborted the landing and barely made it back to the Thai coast. K-51 and JG-43 then diverted to the West Beach and successfully inserted additional Marines shortly after 12:00. The main perimeter in the western LZ now had an effective force of 205 Marines.

K-32 was inbound to the East Beach LZ when it was hit by an RPG and aborted its landing, so it diverted to the West Beach LZ and landed thirteen additional Marines increasing the force there from 20 to 33 Marines. At the K-21 crash site K-32 dumped fuel and proceeded to rescue the three K-21 crewmen. Although severely damaged, K-32 was able to return to Utapao for repairs.

F.U.B.A.R.

The unexpected events of the opening rounds of the battle had overwhelmed the Airborne Battlefield Command and Control Center (ABCCC). The lack an adequate Forward Air Controller added to the chaos and eliminated the UHF link. Air-ground communications were made over the already overburdened VHF tactical nets. No one seemed to be in command or coordinating the battle — confusion reigned. The most significant command and control obstacle was the inability to effectively communicate and coordinate fire support during the battle. The Air Mobility Command (AMC) was ineffective and at best monitored rather than coordinated the battle. It was not able to command or even gain situational awareness through most of the battle in order to make timely and accurate decisions for fire support.

The ABCCC was inundated with radio traffic and messages from tactical units and three echelons of higher command. Within the first minutes of combat after UHF radios were destroyed in helicopter crashes, the remaining VHF nets were used to coordinate actions between units on the ground and were saturated to the point where they were barely usable. Compounding the problem was micro-management from higher headquarters that constantly and simultaneously demanded battle reports, tactical direction, and casualty counts. Moreover, it also attempted to control the tactics of helicopters and the Marines. From the opening shots of the battle, the ABCCC became a bottleneck as the battle raged with little direction. There was sufficient firepower to provide continuous support of the USAF helicopters and Marines at Koh Tang and there was no workable plan to coordinate fire support.

Back on the West Beach, the 20 Marines were under continuous fire but managed to push into the treeline and overran an enemy 60 mm mortar position in the process. The young Marines were undergoing a Khmer Rouge baptism-by-fire and were soon running out of ammunition. JG-42 landed at the western LZ at 0626 with 30 Marines of Com- pany G. Al Bailey felt an immediate sense of relief when his senior NCO Staff Sergeant Tuitele walked down the ramp like a comic book superhero. “He stepped out of the helicopter and was like, ‘Let me get this shit under control.’ It was a walk in the park to him, he was ready to conduct business.” The six-foot-two, 250 pound Samoan was a highly respected scout sniper with two tours in Viet Nam who had been training these “boot” Marines on Okinawa when they were assigned this mission.

The first thing the he did was calm the Marines on the West Beach and spread them out into a defensive perimeter.

Tuitele then noticed an enemy machine gun position on a ridge at the north end of the beach that was raining down fire, making it impossible for helicopters to land. “I’m going to take care of this problem,” Tuitele said and disappeared into jungle. “Within 15 minutes the machine gun position was silenced,” Bailey later wrote. “About another 20-25 minutes later, I heard more gun fire to my 11 o’clock position and then silence.” When the Samoan emerged from the jungle, he was carrying two AK- 47s, Cambodian cigarettes, and Ho Chi Minh sandals. “They’re having a garage sale on the other side of the island,” he joked. His commanding officer Dick Keith was checking their northern perimeter when he saw Tuitele carrying the AK-47s. “I asked him where he had been all morning?” wrote Keith, “to which he simply replied ‘Looking for some souvenirs, sir.’”

“Most of us were 18 to 21-year-old young men, scared shitless, experiencing the throes of heavy combat for the first time. By just his presence, his calm demeanor,” wrote Bailey, “SSgt Fofo Tuitele buoyed us up past paralyzing fear.”

Years later in an interview by VOA Khmer, retired marine Al Bailey recalled. “He went up in there and heard a gun fire in one position and then it was stopped. And then he would hear the next position. He’d hear some gunfire and then it would stop. And then he went to the third position and it stopped. I’m gonna say it took him about half an hour or twenty minutes.” When Tuitele returned with the loot, “that changed the whole tide of the battle … it slowed down, the gunfire slowed down, and then we got more airstrikes in and we got more helicopters in.” said Bailey.

When Marine Fred Morris watched Cambodian soldiers climb a huge tree overlooking their position, he pointed the tree out to Tuitele, who lifted an M-60 machine gun off its stand and fired it from his hip. As he raked the palm tree with machine gun fire, men began to fall out of it. “I don’t know if they were already dead from being shot but if they were not the 70-90 feet fall had to of killed them.” wrote Morris. After things calmed down, Morris asked Tuitele if he was hurt because of the blood on his sleeve. “He just looked at his arm and said ‘it’s not mine,’ He didn’t elaborate.”

JG-42, JG-43, and JG-41 all met heavy fire in their multiple attempts to insert Marines on the West Beach. Overhead, an AC-130H, Spectre 61 (Spooky) gunship from the 16th SOS was able to pinpoint all friendly positions and began providing 20 mm and 40 mm suppressive fires to the attempted insertions, at times coming within 50 meters of the friendly troops.

JG-42’s second attempt was able to deposit its Marines on the beach even though it suffered heavy damage in doing so and limped back to U- Tapao.

JG-43, carrying the BLT command group and a section of 81 mm mortars, first attempt to land on the western LZ was unsuccessful; however, its’ second attempt was successful in landing 30 more Marines about 1,000 meters southwest of the LZ. This group of Marines not only were isolated but they were particularly vulnerable because most carried only 45 caliber pistol side arms.

JG-41 was forced to refuel from the orbiting HC-130 tanker (King 24) before trying for the fifth time to insert its Marines that was to be  the final insertion. With Spooky’s support, JG- 41 began another run-in to the West Beach even though damage to the rotor system and engines caused him to break off the approach. However the Marines on the  island had seen the enemy positions and the Spooky used its 105 mm howitzer to destroy the Khmer Rouge’s fortifications. JG-41 came back in for yet another insertion attempt, again with Spooky providing covering fire. As JG-41 was off-loading the Marines onto the West Beach, Khmer Rouge mortars began to range the helicopter. One round landed within 10 feet of its’ tail rotor, temporarily causing JG-41 to abort the insertion. Despite two more attempts, JG-41 was never able to deliver the last five Marines and had to limp back to U-Tapao.

While JG-41 was attempting to insert the last five Marines onto the West Beach, the Thai fishing trawler delivered the crew of the Mayaguez to the USS Wilson. With the Mayaguez and its’ crew now in American hands, the task of recovering the 136 Americans on the island began.

By 0630, the situation at Koh Tang was grim. Fourteen Americans were dead. Of the 180 Marines and sailors in the first wave, only 109 were ashore and were in three isolated positions. Sixty personnel of Company G were on the western LZ fighting against tough enemy resistance while establishing and expanding their perimeter. Of these, 20 Marines from G/3 (not including five USAF crewman) were defending an isolated position near the eastern LZ and 29 personnel from the BLT command group and a section of 81mm mortars were about 1,000 meters south of the western LZ and working their way north against stiff enemy resistance.

Things were not going any better on the East Beach, where two helicopters had already been shot down by the Khmer Rouge. It was decided that the platoon isolated on the East Beach should be extracted; following suppressive fire from an AC-130 “Spooky.” JG 13 landed there at 08:15 amid a hail of machine gun fire. It had landed some 100 meters away from the Marines who were reluctant to risk running to the helicopter, the helicopter took off again with its fuel lines ruptured and went on to make an emergency landing in Rayong, Thailand

As the Marines were battling the Khmer Rouge, USAF tactical air was not able to provide much close air support. The situation on the ground was confusing, and the pilots were unaware of the location either of friendlies or the enemy. Because the jungle was so dense, the fighting was extremely close. Smoke to mark positions was difficult to see through the jungle and the Marines were running low on pyrotechnics and ammo. In an attempt to link up with southern isolated group, a patrol entered the jungle and quickly ran into strong enemy fire resulting in one Marine killed and four wounded. As the patrol withdrew to  the perimeter, the enemy conducted a fierce counterattack on the heels of the patrol. The Marines, fighting bravely, repulsed the attack.

The initial phase of the assault was over and 131 Marines and 5 USAF crewmen were on Koh Tang. As the Marines fought for their lives, the recovery of the Mayaguez had proceeded as planned.

Phase Two of the Plan

Eight of the nine helicopters that had flown to Koh Tang had been destroyed or so severely damaged to continue operations — K-21, K-23 and K-31 destroyed and K-22, K-32, JG-41 and JG-42. An additional helicopter, JG-13, used in the recapture of the Mayaguez was also severely damaged. That left only five helicopters available for the second phase of deploying Marines to Kho Tang Island.

Of the original eleven helicopters selected for the Mayaguez rescue mission, only five remained flyable, JG-11, JG-12, JG-43, K-51 and K- 52 to transport the follow-up forces of BLT 2/9 to Kho Thang. In phase one, K-51 and K-52 had been assigned the mission of search and rescue; now they would ferry Marines.

The five helicopters picked up 127 Marines at U-Tapao who would be used to reinforce and stabilize the ground situation before extracting the Marines and airmen. They were enroute from U-Tapao to Koh Thang sometime between 09:00 and 10:00 hours.

On a more positive note, word had been received that the USS Coral Sea was still heading towards Koh Tang and would be close enough to serve as a maritime staging platform by the afternoon. This would make it possible for the remaining helicopters to conduct multiple, short- duration extractions between the island and the ship, rather than making round trips to U-Tapao. Its’ arrival would bring the fire power of the carrier air wing to bear.

K-52 approached the East Beach at 12:10 on 15 May in the second wave of Marines assaulting the island but was shot up and had to abort the insertion. Leaking fuel and without any air refueling capability, K-52 headed back to Thailand without delivering the Marines.

K-51 and JG-43 approached the West Beach, maintaining near continuous minigun fire at enemy gun flashes from as close as 50 meters from their aircraft. Despite mortar and machine gun attacks by the Khmer Rouge, both helicopters were able to successfully deliver 100 additional Marines. K-51 then evacuated five wounded Marines before it left the beach. After JG-43 deposited its’ Marines on the beach, it proceeded to the HC-130 tanker to refuel. However, JG-43 had suffered fuel line damage, so the pilot made an emergency landing aboard Coral Sea at 14:36. Once on board, the pilot shut down the helicopter, then he and the crew disembarked and got out of the way while the flight mechanic and Navy maintenance personnel did their magic and repaired the damaged helicopter. By 17:00, JG-43 had been repaired and returned to rescue duties on the eastern side of the island to attempt the rescue of the 25 Americans stranded there.

K-52 approached the East Beach and hostile fire punctured its fuel tanks so the pilot aborted the insertion. Leaking fuel, and without any air refueling capability, K-52 headed back to U-Tapao without delivering the Marines.

JG-11 and JG-12 approached East Beach just before 14:15, but were repulsed by heavy fire; nevertheless, they tried their run-ins once more. As JG-11 turned its tail to the beach to let the Marines exit via the ramp, JG-12 hovered offshore to provide covering fire. Once JG-11’s Marines were ashore, JG-12 took its’ place on the LZ. As JG-12 was about to lift off, the pilot received a radio call from the ground commander asking him to hold while he evacuated the wounded. With JG-11 providing covering fire, JG-12 stayed on the beach to accept the wounded Marines. Once loaded, JG-12 sped for U-Tapao. JG-11 flew to tanker King-24 to refuel, and then joined JG-43 for rescue duties on the Eastern side of the island. With reinforcements on the island, the Marines on the western side had consolidated and were now strong enough to hold their positions.

The Marines and USAF crewmen were split into three groups: 82 on the West Beach, 29 south of the West Beach, and 25 on the East Beach. At about 16:00, two OV-10 Bronco FACs from the 23rd Tactical Air Support Squadron finally arrived to take over forward air controller and on-scene commander duties. Their call sign was “Nail.”

Up to that time the situation had been a goat rope.

Egress

The U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff decided that with the Mayaguez recaptured and the crew released further reinforcement of Koh Tang was unnecessary and ordered the U.S. forces to “immediately cease all offensive operations against the Khmer Rouge and to disengage and withdraw all forces from operating areas as soon as possible”. The Marines were digging and preparing for a long night when they learned that helicopters were on the way to take them off of the island. The task became the recovery of the 136 Americans still on Koh Tang Island.

Soon after the arrival of the FACs, USAF F-4 fighters and naval gunfire pummeled the East Beach, and A-7s dropped canisters of tear gas to suppress the Khmer Rouge defenders. The change in controllers marked a turning point in the quality of airborne firepower available to the Marines, because for the first time that day they had an airborne observer exclusively dedicated to providing accurate and timely close air support. With darkness approaching, the 25 Marines stranded on the East Beach would have to be extracted by helicopter. Unfortunately, two of the four serviceable helicopters remaining were returning to Thailand leaving only JG-11 and JG-43 to rescue the 25 men huddled on the Northern tip of the East Beach.

JG-43 then led the way with JG-11 on its’ wing to provide covering fire. Intense small arms and mortar fires met JG-43 as it approached the beach. While JG-43 was in a hover, the miniguns in the helicopter’s doors jammed, the ramp gunner was hit by mortar shrapnel, a fuel line ruptured, and one engines was disabled. With the crew struggling to keep the helicopter in the air, the pilot nursed JG-43 out of the East Beach  area and headed to the USS Coral Sea where he made a single-engine landing. Extracting the Americans from East Beach was now a matter of urgency.

JG-11 was offshore waiting for clearance to attempt rescue. Nail 68 began calling in F-4s, A-7s, and the AC-130 “Spooky” to soften the area along the edge of East Beach. By this time, JG-12 and K-51 had returned after delivering wounded to U-Tapao and were available to assist with the recovery of the Marines. On its third attempt, JG-11 made a high- speed run-in to rescue the East Beach force with fire support from JG-12, K-51, Spectre 11, Nail 68, and the Wilson’s gig mounting four M60s.

JG-11 as it approached the East Beach, but was not able to actually land because the K-23 wreckage was fouling the LZ. Instead, the pilot turned the tail of the helicopter to the trees, and while skillfully hovering the helicopter several feet off the ground just north of the original LZ, dropped the aft ramp on the rocks on the beach. Small groups of Marines began moving to the helicopter; however, the extraction was difficult because it would see-saw up and down. Only a few Marines at a time could board the helicopter’s rear ramp in this fashion by timing their jumps to coincide with the downward motion of the aircraft. In the process, JG-11 was hit numerous times, but once the 20 Marines and five Airmen were safely on board, they were taken to the Coral Sea; however the helicopter had taken massive damage and would not fly again that day

K-51 and JG-12 diverted their attention to a report of another American who was said to have taken shelter in the wreckage of K-23. JG-12 established a hover over the wreckage while K-51 used its miniguns to suppress the enemy fire coming out of the treeline. JG-12 dropped its hoist into the water next to the wreckage of K-23 and for over two minutes—a long time to be stationary and exposed to enemy fire— the hoist operator trolled the hoist through the water near K-23. On K-51, the left side minigun ran out of ammunition so the pilot reversed direction to bring the right-side gun to bear. After determining there were no survivors on K-51, a severely damaged JG-12 headed to the USS Coral Sea, followed by K-51. With no major damage to his helicopter, the pilot of K-51 returned to assist in extricating the Marines from the West Beach.

About this time, five “slick” C-130s from the 50th Tactical Airlift Squadron arrived ready to drop BLU-82 “daisy cutter” bombs – 15,000- pound devices; the largest conventional explosive weapon in the U.S. arsenal at that time. Unsure of the tactical value of the BLU82s at that point in the operation, Nail 68 directed the first one be dropped in the jungle south of the beaches as a way of showing the Khmer Rouge the power of what was possible. The BLU-82 was dropped causing a huge explosion that sent a shockwave across the Marines on the West Beach. The Marine commander on the beach quickly called Cricket with the instruction that no more bombs should be dropped for JG-11 reported that a Marine might be in the wreckage of K-31. Cricket ordered the C- 130s to return to base without dropping any more bombs.

As a moonless night fell over Koh Tang Island, the two remaining helicopters, K-51 and JG-43, were joined by JG-44. JG-43’s ruptured fuel line had just been repaired with rubber hose and duct tape on board the Coral Sea. JG-44 was just entering the operation after being rushed out of maintenance from its home base at Nakhon Phanom RTAFB. They began the withdrawal of the remaining Marines from the West Beach, receiving protection from AC-130 “Spooky” fire and naval gunfire support from the Henry B. Wilson and her gig.

K-51 was the first helicopter onto the beach; it was just before 19:00. Because high tide had covered the beach, K-51 with its’ nose gear in the water and taking blistering fire from the Khmer Rouge defenders, 41 Marines managed to load onto the helicopter. The heroic Air Force pilots and pararescuemen (PJs) packed each helicopter with twice the normal combat load. As the heavily loaded helicopter lifted off, a rocket propelled grenade flew past, narrowly missing it. With the crew of K-51 treating the wounded Marines, the pilot headed to the Coral Sea to offload the survivors and refuel.

By now, Nail 68 was running low on fuel. Worried about the remaining Marines on the beach being overrun, the pilot turned on his landing lights and flew the length of the beach to verify their safety and point out the friendly positions to the pair of newly arrived FACs, Nail 69 and Nail 51. The AC-130 overhead, Spectre 11, used its sensors to confirm the friendlies’ location. Nail 68 handed control of the fight over to Nail 69 and headed home.

JG-43 and JG-44 then approached the West Beach with the new FAC, Nail 69, marking the enemy mortar position with smoke rockets. But it was now too dark for the fast-movers to see the marking smoke. Rather than delay the extraction to coordinate strikes by the AC-130s or naval gunfire, the decision was made to continue without preparatory fire. However, when JG-43 attempted to land on the beach, gun fire was seen coming from the semi-submerged Swift Boat that had been shot up by an AC-130 “Spooky” the previous day. A-7 aircraft were called in to destroy the boat with their 20mm cannon and Nail 69 also called on the Wilson to use its 5-inch on the boat. Despite a moonless night, JG-43 finally landed on the beach to take on board 54 more Marines. Not realizing there was not room in the LZ for both helicopters, when JG-44 tried to land, it almost collided with JG-43, but its’ copilot flashed the landing light in time for JG-44 to go-around. JG-43 then lifted off and headed for the Coral Sea.

JG-44 then made his run-in to the beach. Heavy enemy fire caused him to abort the first attempt, but once the Marines had suppressed the resistance, they cleared JG-44 back in. It hovered across the water with lights off (USAF crews did not fly with night vision goggles then), guided only by the verbal instructions from his crew. Once safely onto the beach, the Marines closed their perimeter down to 50 meters from the LZ. Nail 69 began strafing the treeline and calling in fire from the AC- 130 overhead. Fully loaded with 44 Marines, JG-44 took off and headed to the Coral Sea. The remaining 73 Marines in the shrinking West Beach perimeter came under intense attack and were in danger of being overrun since they were badly outnumbered and out-gunned — time was critical!

At that moment, there were no helicopters available to pull the rest of the Marines off the island. Air power would have to hold the enemy off until K-51 was refueled and available. Nail 69 then got a call from the ground commander, “We need to get off this beach in 15 minutes or we don’t get off at all.”

JG-44’s round trip to Coral Sea would take thirty minutes, so the pilot made the decision to divert to the USS Holt which was much closer to the beach and drop the Marines there. But the landing area of the destroyer escort was tiny and not stressed for an H-53. Also, JG-44‘s landing lights had been shot out. While hovering the helicopter, JG-44 set its’ nose gear on the ship’s landing pad, with the tail and main gear flying off the back of the ship. All of the Marines exited through the forward door. With the situation on the ground getting dangerous, the ground commander gave the word to, “Go for broke,” and Nail 69 cleared Spectre 11 to start laying down fire “danger close” to the Marines. Within five minutes and in total blackness, JG-44 returned to the beach, guided only by a Marine onshore turning his flashlight on and off. JG-44 then loaded 34 of the 73 remaining Marines onto the helicop- ter. As it lifted off, the engines began losing power because of all the salt water they had ingested. A return to the USS Holt was out of the  question because salt build-up on the engines turbine blades heightened the threat of compressor stall. The Holt’s tiny helipad left the pilot no margin for error and so with degraded engines JG-44 was forced to go to the Coral Sea. With 39 Marines still on the beach, the situation was desperate.

K-51 was finally refueled and en route to the West Beach, but smoke, haze, darkness, and salt spray severely restricted visibility and complicated the landing approaches. Under fire and after three attempts, the pilot finally dropped the aft ramp of K-51 onto the beach and what was thought the remaining Marines clambered aboard. Having loaded everyone save for themselves, the Marine commanding officer and his senior NCO combed the beach looking for stragglers. Pararescueman (PJ) TSGT Fisk asked them if all their men were aboard and they  ensured that there were no more survivors remaining on the island. Nevertheless, the PJ left the safety of the helicopter and ran to the tree-line to search one more time. At the edge of the trees, the PJ found two more Marines and the three returned to the helicopter. For over ten minutes the helicopter had remained on the beach and believing that now all Marines were accounted for, K-51 lifted off at 20:10 and headed to the Coral Sea leaving Koh Tang Island to the Khmer Rouge. Nail 69 then had the AC-130 scan the beaches with the infrared and low-light-level television sensors in an attempt to confirm there were no Americans still on Koh Tang. Spectre reported not seeing anyone.

The battle had lasted for 14 hours, from dawn until dark and the Mayaguez Incident had ended; however, this conclusion is not without controversy.

According to another report, even as K-51 left the West Beach, there was confusion as to whether any Marines remained on Koh Tang. The pilot, radioed the FAC that some Marines aboard claimed there were still fellow Marines on the ground, but this was soon contradicted by Marines’ CO who claimed that all Marines were off Koh Tang. Two hours after the evacuation was completed, with the Koh Tang Marines dispersed among three Navy ships, Company E Commander discovered that three of his Marines were missing. The Marines checked all of the Navy ships but could not locate Lance Corporal Joseph N. Hargrove, PFC Gary L. Hall, and Pvt Danny G. Marshall, members of a three-man machine gun team which had been assigned to protect the right flank of the constantly shrinking perimeter during the final evacuation. Sergeant

Andersen was the last member of the Marine force to see the three Marines alive at about 20:00. So much for the postulate “Leave no man behind.”

Later, Air Force Sergeant Robert Veile later told Newsweek, “It was after 8:00 p.m. when the radio aboard the AC 130 Airborne Battlefield Command and Control Center came to life. I suspected that it was a Khmer Rouge ruse until I asked for the Marine authentication code and the man repeated it without missing a beat. I was the last to talk to them. I had to tell them that nobody was coming back for them.”

As the night wore on, Marines, Air Force PJs, and Seals on nearby Navy ships planned to return to Koh Tang to search for the lost machine gun team. A Seal team led by Tom Coulter was waiting for orders to launch a search and rescue mission; however, the ranking Navy officer rejected a night mission. Marines Lester “Gunny Mack” McNemar and Captain James Davis volunteered to return to the island the next day under a white flag. When Vice Admiral R.T. Coogan rejected even this — which had been his original plan — tempers boiled over. Later that night USS Henry Holt commander Robert Paterson called Coulter into his quarters for a conference call with the White House. Although he does not remember who was on the call (convenient amnesia) that canceled the rescue operation, Coulter remembers that “someone on the call had an accent – Kissinger perhaps?

The Bombing of Kompong Som

President Ford ordered that the bombing of the Kompong Som (coast of Sihanoukville) oil storage complex, the naval base at Ream and its airfield be limited only to attacks by carrier-based aircraft and to commence at 07:45 (B-52s had been recommended).

When the Khmer Rouge broadcast at 06:07 on May 15th and announced that the Mayaguez and her crew was being released, Kissinger ordered a delay to the planned airstrikes. Nevertheless, after the release of the Mayaguez and its crew was confirmed, President Ford again ordered their destruction in a last act of defiance.

Casualities and Losses

An hour after this photo was taken, everyone aboard this CH-53 helicopter was killed when it crashed in a remote area of northwest Thailand. The passengers were all security policemen assigned to the 56th Special Operations Wing, Nakhon Phanam (NPK) Royal Thai Air Force Base,

Thailand, and were to be a part of the assault force to recapture the SS Mayaguez and rescue its crew from Cambodian forces on Koh Tang. (U.S. Air Force Photo by Boyd Belcher) Regarding the loss of 23 lives in the helicopter crash, the Vice Admiral George P. Steele, the Seventh Fleet commander, later stated: “The idea that we could use U.S. Air Force air police and Air Force helicopters as an assault force appears to me as ridiculous today as it did then.”

Total casualties during the operation were: 10 U.S. Marines, two Navy corpsmen, and an Air Force crewman killed in the crash of one CH-53 helicopter; another Air Force crewman was killed in the crash of a second CH-53; an additional third CH-53 crashed due to mechanical failure on the way to U-Tapao airfield, killing eighteen USAF Security Police and five flight crew; fifty were wounded including thirty-five Marines and six airmen; and three Marines were left behind and later killed after capture by the Khmer Rouge.

Leave No Man Behind

When the final chopper was ready to take off at around eight PM, the Marines on board told the Air Force crew that a three-man machine gun team — Joseph Hargrove, Gary Hall, and Danny Marshall who were covering their flank  —  was  still  on  the  beach.

Nevertheless, it took off and left them behind. In a negligent command decision, the last casualties of the final battle of the Viet Nam War were three live Marines known to have been left behind on Cambodia’s Koh Tang Island. On 21 July 1976 their status was changed to KIA/BNR (Killed in Action/Body Not Recovered).

In 1999, Em Som, the leader of the KR soldiers on Koh Tang, approached the Department of Defense’s Joint Task Force-Full Accounting (JTF-FA) in Phnom Penh, Cambodia upon learning that they were looking for further information regarding the events on Koh Tang Island. According to Em Som, approximately one week after the assault one of the Marines was captured and killed after trying to steal food from the Khmer Rouge. The description of the Marine matched that of Lance Corporal Joseph Hargrove. Em Som went on to tell the investigators that three days later, after setting up an ambush, they captured two Americans matching the descriptions of PFC Gary Hall and Pvt Danny Marshall. Em Som then informed Khmer Rouge naval commander Meas Muth of the captured Americans and was ordered to take the prisoners to the port of Kompong Som. Once they reached the port, the two Americans were put in a car and taken “to Mr. Meas Samouth’s (aka Meas Muth) place” in the Ti Nean Pagoda above Sihanoukville where they were stripped to their underwear and shackled. A week later, on orders from Phnom Penh, “We saw the Americans die with our own eyes, but it was not my men who killed them,” said Em Som. “They were not shot. They were killed with a stick.” Hall’s body purportedly was buried in a shallow grave near the beach, while Marshall’s was dumped on the beach cove.

According to Rich Arant, translator for the UN’s Khmer Rouge Tribunal, “Multiple first-hand witnesses from the Khmer Rouge 164th Naval Division have given detailed sworn testimony regarding the capture of U.S. military personnel on Tang Island, events surrounding their handling on the island and the Cambodian mainland by the Khmer Rouge chain of command, and their final disposition.” However, as they continually retold events their stories changed.

Why were the three Marines left behind? Of course, it was a Command Decision! The politicians in Washington could care less, President Ford had already obtained credit for demonstrating his command at a time of international crisis by “rescuing the Mayaguez,” as Kissinger so desired and who scored beaucoup brownie points with Ford for his advice. So what if three Marines were left behind, after all, aren’t they expendable?

Honors

A number of U.S. military personnel were awarded medals following the events, including:

        ◦ TSgt Wayne Fisk, a pararescueman on K-51, received a second award of the Silver Star

        ◦ 1st Lt Bob Blough, pilot of JG-44, was awarded the Silver Star

        ◦ 1st Lt Terry Tonkin, USMC, the battalion’s FAC in the assault on Koh Tang, was awarded a Silver Star.

Four Airmen were awarded the Air Force Cross:

        ◦ Capt Rowland Purser, pilot of JG-432

        ◦ 1st Lt Donald Backlund, pilot of JG-11

        ◦ 1st Lt Richard C Brims, pilot of K-51

        ◦ SSgt Jon Harston, flight mechanic of K-31

The six volunteers from the USNS Greenville Victory were awarded the Merchant Marine Distinguished Service Medal and the Navy Distinguished Civilian Service Medal.

No Medals for the Mud Marines

Although they all fought courageously during the futile Koh Tang Island battle, one Marine stood out head and shoulders above others: six-foot- two, 250-pound American- Samoan Staff Sergeant Fofomaitulagi Tulifua Tuitele – better known as “Fofo” (left in photo; credit Fred Morris Koh Tang Beach Club). The majority of the Marines were young recruits, aged between 18 and 21, and a good share of them had not completed training and had never seen combat when sent on this mission – nevertheless, their fighting spirit was strong. Due to the communications goat rope, US forces could have suffered much heavier casualties if not for the bravery of Marines like SSgt. Tuitele, who made his way to two Khmer Rouge’s heavy gun positions to silence them to pave the way for the safe landing of helicopters. However, his conspicuous heroism during the battle was seemly overlooked.

While Air Force, Navy and Marine officers, and two helicopter crewmen, were heavily decorated, and rightfully so, for their disastrous rescue missions, the unsung heroes, the enlisted “Mud” Marines were not. Even though they fought bravely and prevented a much worse outcome of the assault, they did not receive the acknowledgement they deserved. They were even denied the Vietnam Service Medal, something that most every service man or woman received if they served in the theater of Viet Nam and Cambodia and even those on ships stationed off shore. (SSgt. Tuitele’s served two tours in Viet Nam as a Scout-Sniper and was the recipient of a Bronze Star and Purple Heart for saving the life of a fellow Marine, which qualified him for the Vietnam Service Medal. (One might also assume there could have been a few other Marines in the assault on Koh Tang who had also served in Viet Nam and was likewise qualified.)

Despite the fact that the Pentagon bureaucrats denied the Marines the Vietnam Service Medal, the names of those KIA in the Mayaguez incident were engraved at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and the remains of the 13 who were killed when their helicopter was shot down were buried together in Arlington National Cemetery with full military honors.

Forty-three years after the Mayaguez Incident a renewed effort was begun to get the long overdue recognition for the veterans of the “Last Battle of the Viet Nam War.” In 2016, Congressman Mark Meadows (R- NC) and Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI) introduced a bill to award veterans of the Mayaguez rescue operation the Vietnam Service Medal, but it failed to pass through Congress, even though the Code of Federal Regulations Title 32 – National Defense, stipulates that the cutoff date for qualifying for the medal was July 3, 1975. The Marines landed on Koh Tang Island, May 15, 1975. This should have qualified them for the Medal; however, congressional and military bureaucrats prevailed – honor denied!

In an article in for The Diplomat, researcher, historian and President of the Fainting Robin Foundation, Prof. Peter Maguire concludes that SSgt. Tuitele’s conspicuous heroism during the Koh Tang was grossly overlooked and later became the subject of a congressional investigation. The effort to get Tuitele the recognition he deserved was being spearheaded by the enlisted Marines whose lives he saved. Only recently has the valor of Marine “Fofo” Tuitlele come to light. In a letter of testimony to investigators, Herrera, one of Fofo’s Marines wrote, “His talent and experience were needed on that fateful day.” “I can tell you that what SSgt-T directed us to do and how he re-supplied us did two things for me and I’m sure the others.” “We had a little more confidence and supplies to continue the fight. Without that I do not know if we would have survived.” Al Bailey put it best, “Whatever courage I displayed that day, I drew from that courageous man.” “His talent and experience were needed on that fateful day.” “Many more lives would have been lost for not the actions of SSgt Tuitele,”

Although, Samoa is an American Protectorate, citizens from that country do not enjoy American citizenship. Even though American- Samoan Master Sergeant Fofomaitulagi Tulifua Tuitele honorably served the United States in the Marine Corps for 23 years and was decorated for his courage as a Sniper-scout in Viet Nam, it wasn’t until March 3, 2016 that the Government, in a special naturalization ceremony, bestowed upon him United States citizenship. To “Fofo” an honor more valuable than any medal.

In May 2018, American Samoan Congresswoman Aumua Amata Coleman Radewagen filed a DD-149 “Application for Correction of Military Record” along with the four letters from Marine eyewitnesses on Koh Tang Island attesting to SSgt. Tuitele’s courageous actions. Seemingly her efforts were either lost or pigeonholed by the bureaucrats.

Controversies

The chain of command for the operation was convoluted and a goat rope. Although the Marines requested FAC support from the get-go, the request was denied by the overall operations commander because he thought A-7s could do the job because they were FAC qualified, even though they were “fast-movers – a wrong-headed decision that cost lives. The A-7s’ high speed and short loiter time resulted in OSC duties changing among 10 different aircraft, four during the first assault wave, before Nail 68 and his wingman arrived to provide on-scene command.

Because of the perceived sense of urgency at the national level, the joint task force was hastily cobbled together, and the diverse elements had no time to prepare, plan, and rehearse — a disastrous decision. The axiom “Too many cooks spoil the broth” came into play causing leaders to compound a tragic situation with bad decisions; i.e., 1) the direct involvement by the President, Henry Kissinger and the National Security Council in tactical decision making, 2) too many high-level people constantly requesting sitreps jammed the tactical frequencies needed for command and control, and 3) inept and poor planning based on inadequate intelligence and faulty assumptions. Nevertheless, during the 14-hour battle at Koh Tang, it was personal courage and initiative that saved the day and prevented a tactical defeat that would have had strategic implications for the President.

Some of the Mayaguez’s crew members brought lawsuits in admi- ralty law at the San Francisco Superior Court against Sea-Land Service Inc. relating to the incident. The crew members claimed that the defendant’s Master was derelict in his duty by “recklessly venturing into known dangerous and hostile waters of foreign sovereignty (Cambodia)” inviting the capture of the Mayaguez. Evidence was provided that Mayaguez was not flying a flag, and had sailed about two nautical miles off Poulo Wai Islands. In June 1977, a settlement was reached. In February 1979 another settlement was reached by other crew members, making a total settlement of $388,000 to the crew members that took legal action.

The reason for the unexpected release of the Mayaguez crew has never been fully understood; among the many theories are successful intervention by China, Israel or Viet Nam. Most likely, it was China since Secretary of State Kissinger had sent a message to the Chinese Liaison Office in Washington demanding the immediate release of Mayaguez and her crew; however, it was not accepted. Kissinger then instructed George H. W. Bush, then head of the U.S. Liaison Office in Beijing, to deliver the note to the Chinese Foreign Ministry and to pass on an oral message that “The Government of the United States demands the immediate release of the vessel and of the full crew. If that release does not immediately take place, the authorities in Phnom Penh will be responsible for the consequences.” The note was accepted for China was committed to backing the Khmer Rouge and did not want to foster any more problems with the U.S.

The timelines in the various versions of the Mayaguez incident are conflicting and lead to the claim by some that the assault on Koh Tang Island, and the bombing of the Khmer Rouge’s port at Kompong Som, its oil storage complex, naval base at Ream, and airfield, and the loss of 41 American lives was unnecessary since the top brass and the President Ford knew of the release of the Mayaguez and its crew before the commencement of the operation.

In a much-later Congressional hearing on the Mayaguez incident, the U.S. military received much criticism for its handling of the incident including the hastily contrived timing of the operation, and the failure of intelligence to determine the presence of a sizable hostile force on Koh Tang as well as the whereabouts of the crew of Mayaguez. Reportedly the military testified, “… it became clear that combat had been underway four hours before the crew was released.” However, this is contradicted by the statement that “… the transmission (i.e., the Khmer Rouge broadcast that the Mayaguez and its crew was being released, ed) was intercepted by the CIA station in Bangkok, translated and delivered to the White House by 07:15 (20:15 EDT).” and the assault on Koh Tang Island was in play an hour earlier at 06:12.

Within the services, the Marines in particular were critical of the ad hoc nature of the joint operation and the perceived pressure from the Administration for hasty action, although the success of Operation Frequent Wind (i.e., the evacuation of Americans from South Viet Nam after the communist takeover in April 30, 1975, ed.) had been the basis for many decisions made during the Mayaguez crisis.”

SSgt. Sergeant Tuitele later testified before a Board of Inquiry: “We lost 41 and saved 40. What kind of trade is that? That’s what bothers me still,” said Tuitele. “It didn’t have to happen like that. It all sounded good on paper, but it was a disaster.”

“In many ways, it was an unnecessary military operation,” said historian Maguire, “By the time they landed on the island, the ship had already been freed.” The top brass knew it, but it was full speed ahead and damn the torpedoes. “Whoa sailor, I’ve heard that line before …” — Shades of the Son Tay Raid.

In his book When the Center Held, Donald Rumsfeld, who became President Ford’s Secretary of Defense in October 1975, called the “successful handling” of the Mayaguez Incident, the last battle of the Viet Nam War, “a turning point” for President Gerald Ford because it forced him “to demonstrate his command at a time of international crisis.” Rumsfeld goes on to make the erroneously claim that only three Americans died during the operation when in fact 41 American servicemen died. Was this a weird Freudian slip in which he was referring to the three Marines who were left behind? Who knows? After all, Rumsfeld was a politician, and some thought not a very good one at that.

What was learned from the Mayaguez Incident? Seemingly little or nothing. “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” The problems of joint command and control, faulty intelligence, and Washington micromanagement were not unique to the Mayaguez Incident—these challenges were the cause of the bungling and loss of the Viet Nam War. It would be repeated over and over again at Grenada (Operation URGENT FURY) Iraq and Iran (Operation EAGLE CLAW), until finally forcing the Congress to act and create US Special Operations Command and a national-level capability to address contingencies such as these. However the vestiges of the problem of C & C by Washington seemed to have lingered in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The SS Mayaguez was scrapped in 1979.

And the band plays on….

CITATION: in Indochina in the Years 1963 – 1976 (Supplement). Vietnam Veterans for Factual History. RADIX Press, Huston, TX.  2021.

Sources

http://www.usmm.org/mayaguez.html

http://www.seafarers.org/log/2007/022007/Ford.xml

http://www.samoanews.com/our-troops/last-battle-vietnam-and-unsung-heroes-including-one-our-own

http://pacificguardians.org/blog/2016/03/07/american-samoa-war-hero-fofo-tuitele-from-vailoa-finally-awarded-us-citizenship/

https://thediplomat.com/2018/06/leave-no-man-behind-the-truth-about-the-mayaguez-incident/

https://www.govinfo.gov/app/details/BILLS-115hr1788ih

https://www.fordlibrarymuseum.gov/museum/exhibits/mayaguez/index.html

https://www.classic-country-song- lyrics.com/whoasailorlyricschords.html — co-written and recorded by Hank Thompson

https://aircommando.org/portfolio-view/acj-vol-7-1-mayaguez-incident/

http://www.usmm.org/mayaguez.html

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mayaguez_incident

https://www.quora.com/Why-did-Vietnam-invade-Cambodia-after-supporting-the-Khmer-Rouge-earlier

http://www.americanthinker.com/articles/2016/12/china_builds_deep_water_seaport_in_cambodia_on_the_gulf_of_thailand.html

Biographical Information: Michael Benge

Michael D. Benge served in the Marine Corps from 1956 to 1959. In 1963, he joined the International Voluntary Services (a forerunner of the Peace Corps), and served in Viet Nam under contract with USAID (United States Agency for International Development, becoming fluent in both Vietnamese and Rhade (the lingua franca of Montagnards in the highlands). In 1965, he joined USAID and while serving as the Senior Civilian Advisor  in CORDS at Ban Me Thuot, Darlac

Province, Mr. Benge was captured by the North Vietnamese during the 1968 TET Offensive while attempting to rescue a group of Americans. He was held in numerous camps in South Viet Nam, Cambodia, Laos and North Viet Nam. After his release in 1973 during “Operation Homecom- ing,” while on medical leave, he returned to Viet Nam and continued his work with the Ministry of Ethnic Minorities. Mr. Benge was the recipient of three medals from the Government of South Viet Nam for his work in civil and political affairs, public health, and ethnic minority affairs. He was also the recipient of the State Department’s highest award for heroism for rescuing 11 Americans before capture and one for valor for actions while a POW. Mr. Benge retired from USAID after 44-1/2 years of government service. He is a student of South East Asian politics, and is very active in advocating for human rights, religious freedom, and democracy for the peoples of former Indochina and has written extensively on these and other subjects. He has been a frequent contributor to VVFH publications.