- Mayagüez incident
Infobox Military Conflict
caption=Aerial surveillance photo showing two
Khmer Rouge gunboats during the initial seizing of the SS "Mayagüez"
combatant1=flagicon|United States of America
United States of America
Randall W. Austin
strength1=More than 200
casualties1=18 KIA, 3 MIA and 41 wounded
casualties2=Estimated 60 killed The "Mayagüez" incident involving the
Khmer Rougein Cambodiaon May 12-15, 1975, marked the last official battle of the U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War(Despite the fact the battle took place outside of Vietnam, and without the involvement of Vietnamese nationals).Fact|date=September 2008
The names of the Americans killed are the last names on the
Vietnam Veterans Memorial, as well as those of three Marines who were left behind on the island of Koh Tangafter the battle and who were believed to have been subsequently executed by the Khmer Rouge while in captivity.
The merchant ship's crew, whose seizure at sea had prompted the U.S. attack, had been released in good health, unknown to the U.S. Marines or the U.S. command of the operation, before the Marines attacked.
Khmer Rouge seize the "Mayagüez"
The crisis began on May 12, 1975, when Khmer Rouge naval forces operating former U.S. Navy "Swift Boats" seized the American container ship SS "Mayagüez" in recognized international sea lanes claimed as territorial waters by Cambodia and removed its crew for questioning. Surveillance by
P-3 Orionaircraft indicated that the ship was then moved to and anchored at Koh Tang, an island approximately 50 miles off the southern coast of Cambodia near that country's shared border with Vietnam.
U.S. rescue preparations
Gerald Fordwas determined to end the crisis decisively, believing that the fall of South Vietnam less than two weeks before and the forced withdrawal of the United States from the country ( Operation Frequent Wind) had severely damaged the U.S.'s reputation. Ford also wished to avoid comparisons to both the Tonkin Gulf Incidentand the incident involving the USS "Pueblo", a U.S. Navy intelligenceship captured by North Koreain 1968.
Negotiations were not feasible, as the United States had no diplomatic contact with the newly installed
Khmer Rouge regimein Cambodia, then known as Democratic Kampuchea. Calling the seizure " piracy", President Ford ordered a military response to retake the ship and its 40-man crew, thought to be on Koh Tang. Ford ordered the aircraft carrierUSS "Coral Sea" into the area, and moved a substantial number of Marines from Okinawaand Subic Bay in the Philippinesto U Tapao Air Force Base in Thailandon May 14.
The main body of the "air contingency" reaction force was from 2nd Battalion, 9th Marines (BLT 2/9) (commanded by
Lieutenant-Colonel Randall W. Austin), was then in a training exercise on Okinawa. BLT 2/9 was chosen because most of the men of the designated reaction force, 1st Battalion, 9th Marines(BLT 1/9), were ending their tours of duty in the Far Eastand were not subject to further extension of their tours. BLT 3/9, which had just finished their participation in Operation Frequent Wind, was scattered in several ships across the Western Pacific, and could not be assembled in time. Ironically, the 9th Marine Regiment had also been the first U.S. ground combat force committed to Vietnamin 1965.
USAFSuper Jolly Green Giant helicoptersof the 40th Air Rescue and Recovery Squadronand the 21st Special Operations Squadronwere available in Thailand for the rescue operation. On May 13, before the Marine forces had been alerted, the Air Force moved 125 Security Police to U Tapao as a contingency security force; one of the transporting CH-53s crashed, killing 23 airmen.
Seventh Air Forcewas ordered to maintain surveillance on the "Mayagüez" in an attempt to keep the Khmer Rouge from moving the crew to the port of Kampong Som. F-111A fighter-bombers from the 347th Tactical Fighter Wing based at Korat Royal Thai Air Force Basein Thailandlocated the "Mayagüez", and on May 14, the F-111As sank one of the gunboats escorting the "Mayagüez". Early on the morning of May 14, four Khmer gunboats left Koh Tang for the Cambodian mainland. An AC-130 Spectregunship on the scene was directed to fire across their bows and prevent them from reaching the coast. The gunship's 40 mm cannon and 105 mm howitzer turned three of the gunboats back. Flights of F-111A, F-4D, and A-7D fighter-bombers attacked in front of the remaining gunboat with 2,000 pound bombs, 2.75 rockets and riot-control gas, but the boat refused to turn back. An A-7D sank the boat using 20 mm cannon fire and 2.75 inch rockets.
A few minutes later, at approximately 0715, a Thai wooden fishing boat was observed leaving the island for the mainland. The crews of the U.S. aircraft suspected that the boat might be carrying the crew of the "Mayagüez", so they did not fire directly on the vessel. During the four hours it took this boat to reach Kampong Som in Cambodia, A-7s and flights of F-4Ds employed rockets, strafing and riot-control agent in front of the vessel in an attempt to make it turn back to Koh Tang. It later turned out that the crew of the "Mayagüez" was on the small craft; however, since this could not be confirmed at the time, military planners proceeded as though the crew were still on the island.
Upon its arrival at U Tapao, the commander of BLT 2/9 and his staff undertook a
surveillanceof Koh Tang by helicopter during that same afternoon. They were prevented from closely approaching the island in order not to compromise the secrecy of the mission, but determined that the island was so covered in jungle growth that the only two viable landing zones available were beaches on the west and east shores of the northern portion of Koh Tang.
The rescue mission was organized into several groups. A unit of 57 Marines from Delta Company, 1st Battalion, 4th Marines was to be transferred by three helicopters to the
destroyerescort USS "Harold E. Holt" for boarding the "Mayagüez". A larger force of 600 Marines from BLT 2/9 — composed of Golf and Echo Companies — were assigned to conduct a combat assault in eight helicopters to seize and hold Koh Tang. Two additional CH-53s (because of their superior firepower, all the rescue helicopters were used for troop lift) were tasked as Search and Rescuehelicopters, supported by an HC-130"King" command-and-control aircraft. The flight from U Tapao to Koh Tang was a four-hour round trip.
The guided missile destroyer USS "Henry B. Wilson" was assigned to support the Koh Tang operation, and the frigate USS "Schofield" was deployed in a blocking position between U.S. forces and the Cambodian mainland with the mission of intercepting and engaging any Khmer reaction forces. (However, despite numerous radar contacts and communications intercepts, the "Schofield" did not engage during the operation.) Navy aircraft from the "Coral Sea" were given the mission of striking targets on the Cambodian mainland to prevent interference with the rescue.
At 0600 May 15, the first phase of the operation began with the transfer of D/1/4th Marines to the "Holt". As the destroyer escort slowly came alongside, USAF A-7 aircraft "saturated" the "Mayagüez" with
tear gasmunitions. Equipped with gas masks, the Marines at 0720 hours then conducted the first hostile ship-to-ship boarding by the U.S. Navy since 1826, securing the vessel after an hour-long assault, finding it empty.
Simultaneously, the eight helicopters (five
CH-53and three HH-53) of the Koh Tang assault force approached the island at 0615, encountering intense automatic weaponsand rocket propelled grenade(RPG) fire from Khmer forces entrenched there. A CH-53 crash-landed on the east beach but successfully off-loaded its 20 Marines and crew of five. They set up a defense perimeter but remained cut off from both reinforcementand rescue for twelve hours.
The second CH-53 in their section was shot down by two RPGs, exploding and crashing fifty meters off-shore. A pilot, five Marines, and two Navy
corpsmenwere killed in the crash, another Marine drowned swimming from the wreckage, and three Marines were killed by gunfire trying to reach the beach. A tenth Marine died of his wounds while clinging to the burning wreckage. The surviving ten Marines and three Air Force crewmen were forced to swim for four hours before being picked up by the gig of the arriving "Henry B. Wilson". Among the Marine survivors was the battalion's Forward Air Controller, who used an Air Force survival radiowhile swimming to direct air strikes against the island.
On the western beach of the island, the first section of two CH-53 helicopters came in at 0630 hours. The first landed safely but while off-loading its Marines came under heavy automatic weapons fire, destroying an engine. It managed to take off, protected by
suppressive firefrom the second CH-53, and ditched a mile off-shore where all but one of its crew was picked up. The second CH-53 was damaged so severely that it turned back with its Marines (including the Golf Company commander) still aboard, and crash-landed on the Thai coast, where its passengers were picked up and returned to U Tapao.
Two other sections of the first wave, consisting of the remaining four helicopters, eventually landed all of their Marines between 0630 and 0930 hours, although the final insertion required support from an AC-130 Spectre gunship in order to penetrate the Khmer fire on its fifth attempt. 81 Marines landed on the west beach under the command of the company
Executive Officer, and 29 Marines of the battalion command post and mortar platoon landed a kilometer to the southwest. 130 Marines had reached Koh Tang but in three isolated beach areas and in close contact with Khmer troops. Unknown to U.S. commanders, the Khmer were well entrenched in anticipation of a Vietnamese attack over an ongoing territorial dispute. While isolated, the Marines were able to use their 81 mm mortars as fire support for their contingents and devised a makeshift communications network for controlling supporting air strikes by USAF A-7 and F-4 aircraft.
Of the eight helicopters assaulting Koh Tang, three had been destroyed and four others damaged too severely to continue operations. One of the three helicopters used on the "Holt" portion of the operation had also been severely damaged attempting to pick up the platoon isolated on the east beach. This left only three helicopters of the original eleven available to bring in the followup forces of BLT 2/9, so the CH-53s whose mission had been search and rescue — the last available helicopters — were reassigned to carry troops. The five helicopters picked up 127 Marines of the second wave at U Tapao between 0900 and 1000 hours.
Release of the "Mayagüez" crew
The "Mayagüez" crew had been removed from Koh Tang and released before the Marines began their attack on the island. The men — all alive and in good health — were found on a fishing boat and subsequently transferred to the "Holt".
U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staffdecided that, with the ship recaptured and the crew released, further reinforcement of Koh Tang was unnecessary and recalled the second wave. The helicopters with the second wave reversed course until the recall was canceled when Lt. Col. Austin, on the ground on Koh Tang, convinced the commander of the Seventh Air Force that the reinforcements were necessary to prevent his units from being overrun.
The second wave was seriously delayed but eventually landed 100 additional Marines and evacuated 9 wounded, making a total of 202 Marines and 5 Air Force crewmen on Koh Tang. At midday the
command postplanned a linkup of its small contingent with the bulk of Golf Company on the west beach landing zone. Using mortar fire and A-7 airstrikes to clear the jungle between the two forces, it reached the west beach perimeter at 1245.
Extraction of Marine elements
Another attempt to extricate the Marines on the east beach was made at 1415 hours but was repulsed by heavy fire. One of the two helicopters employed had a fuel line damaged but made an emergency landing on the "Coral Sea", which repaired it by 1700 hours. At 1600 hours Air Force
OV-10Forward Air Control ( FAC) aircraft arrived and took over the direction of air support. Between 1730 and 1800 hours a third attempt to rescue the east beach force was successful, using two helicopters and the gig from the "Henry B. Wilson" for gunfire support. Two more HH-53s were put out of action by battle damage. The 3rd Platoon force had suffered one Marine and one helicopter crewman wounded (in addition to those killed in the crash off-shore).
The remaining three helicopters were then joined by a fourth that had been out of service at its Nakhon Phanom base but had been repaired and flown to the area. This force immediately began to withdraw the remaining 202 Marines from Koh Tang, protected by AC-130 fire and naval gunfire support from the "Henry B. Wilson". The first load of 41 Marines was lifted out at 1830 hours by the only operable CH-53 and flown to the "Coral Sea", followed by 53 taken aboard the helicopter with the repaired fuel line. When the HH-53 newly arrived from Nakhon Phanom picked up a load of 34, the remaining Marines on Koh Tang came under intense attack. The trip to the "Coral Sea" was a thirty minute round trip, so the pilot decided to deliver his Marines to the nearby "Henry B. Wilson", made in complete darkness while hovering over the ship with only its front wheels touching down. He immediately returned and picked up 40 more, and by that time the SAR helicopter had almost returned from the "Coral Sea."
With each withdrawal of troops, the Marines contracted their perimeter on Koh Tang. They carefully supervised the re-deployments to ensure no one was missing, but during the last reduction of the pocket, three Marines of an
M60 machine gunteam were mistakenly left behind. The last extraction, made in the dark at 2010 hours, withdrew under heavy mortar fire and flew to the "Coral Sea".
Because of intense direct and indirect fire, the body of LCPL Ashton Loney, who had been killed by enemy fire early in the battle, was left behind. In addition, as mentioned, it was later discovered that the Marines had also left behind a three man machine gun team which had been assigned to protect the right flank of the constantly shrinking perimeter during the final evacuation. The members of this machine gun team were PFC Gary L. Hall, LCPL Joseph N. Hargrove, and PVT Danny G. Marshall. Radio contact with the team was lost after they were ordered to evacuate on the last helicopter. Major McNemar and Major James H. Davis made a final sweep of the beach before boarding the helicopter and were unable to locate them. They were subsequently declared Missing in Action.
The final action on Koh Tang included the dropping of a
BLU-82bomb, a 15,000-pound device that was the largest non-nuclear weapon in the U.S. arsenal.
Casualties during the operation were 14 Marines killed or missing (ten in the helicopter crash and four at the west beach), two Navy corpsmen killed, and two Air Force crewmen killed. Thirty-five Marines and 6 airmen were wounded. Estimates of Khmer Rouge casualties were 60 killed out of a land and sea force of about 300.
Controversy about Marines left behind
It has been reported that the three Marines left behind survived the battle and were subsequently executed by the Khmer Rouge;Fact|date=July 2007 however, there are no reliable accounts to corroborate this, and no forensic evidence has been found which supports that claim.Fact|date=July 2007
Recovery efforts between 1995 and 2001 by
Joint Task Force-Full Accountinglater found bone fragments that might have belonged to the three abandoned Marines, but DNA tests have proven inconclusive due to the small size of the fragments. Hargrove, Hall, and Marshall all received obligatory Purple Hearts from the Marine Corps. However, Hargrove's family did not receive the award until 1999, after investigative journalist and author Ralph Wetterhahnpublished several articles in popular magazines about his findings.Fact|date=July 2007
Impact on Thailand
The Mayagüez incident had a direct effect on the political situation in Thailand. The U Tapao airbase had been used by U.S. rescue forces despite an explicit refusal of permission by the Thai government, resulting in considerable anger towards the United States. The Thai government called the act a violation of Thailand's sovereignty, and as soon as they returned to base, all the Marines were immediately flown to the Philippines. Many Thai groups called for the withdrawal of all U.S. forces from the country and exhibited an increased distrust of their own military, which they presumed to be complicit in the communications delay permitting the use of its
Impact on U.S. military rescue planning
The U.S. military received much criticism for its handling of the incident. In addition to the failure of intelligence to determine the whereabouts of the crew of the "Mayagüez" and the presence of a sizable hostile force on Koh Tang, the timing of the operation was questioned until it became clear that combat had been underway four hours before the crew was released. 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 Windhad been the basis for many decisions made during the crisis. When many of the coordination and communications problems arose again during Operation Eagle Claw, the hostage rescue mission in Iranin 1980, significant changes in joint and special operations were brought about.
List of hostage crises
* USS "Liberty" incident
* [http://www.kohtang.com Koh Tang Beach Vets/"Mayaguez" Recovery Website]
* [http://www.usmm.org/mayaguez.html Capture and Release of SS "Mayaguez" by Khmer Rouge forces in May 1975]
* [http://www.vspa.com/nkp-56th-sps-mayaguez-1975.htm 56th Security Police Squadron, Nakhom Phanom RTAFB, USS "Mayaguez" rescue operation]
*Dunham, George R. (Major USMC), and Quinlan, David A. (Colonel USMC), "U.S. Marines In Vietnam: The Bitter End 1973-1975", Headquarters USMC, Washington D.C. (1990)
*Frisbee, John L., "The Mayaguez Incident", "Air Force Magazine", Vol. 74, No. 9 (September 1991)
*Kissinger, Henry A., "Years of Renewal", ch. 18 ("Anatomy of a Crisis: The "Mayaguez").
*Wetterhahn, Ralph, "The Last Battle: The Mayaguez Incident And The End Of The Vietnam War", Plume Publishers (2002)
*Hunter, Ric, "The Last Battle of Vietnam", "Flight Journal", Vol. 5, No. 2 (April 2000)
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