Week of May 16

Week of May 16

Week of May 16

Less than two weeks after the fall of Saigon to North Vietnamese forces, and less than a month after the Khmer Rouge captured the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh, Cambodian Communist troops forcibly seized an American merchant ship, the SS Mayaguez, in the Gulf of Thailand. In so doing, the Khmer Rouge began what some argue was the “last battle” of the Vietnam War. In an attempt to recover the ship and rescue its 39 civilian crew members, President Gerald Ford ordered a force of 175 Marines to make an amphibious assault on the island of Koh Tang, where U.S. intelligence believed the crew was being held. The entire crew was eventually rescued, but the effort led to the deaths of 41 American servicemen.

Shortly after Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge regime took control of Cambodia, they began to seize passing merchant vessels in the Gulf of Thailand, asserting they were trespassing in Cambodian territorial waters. In doing so, the Khmer Rouge hoped to extend sovereignty over the islands and potential oil deposits in the gulf. No U.S. ships were harassed before early May, and the U.S. government did not issue any warnings for vessels to steer clear of the area. However, on May 12, 1975, two Khmer Rouge gunboats (which were, ironically, U.S.-built boats given to the previous Cambodian government) fired across the bow of the American container vessel SS Mayaguez, halting the ship in the Gulf of Thailand.

The Mayaguez was a 10,500-ton container vessel crewed by 39 men that was on its way to Singapore with a cargo of commercial and military supplies (though, crucially, it was not carrying any weapons). The ship’s captain managed to get off a “mayday” radio signal just before Communist forces boarded the ship. The Khmer Rouge commander ordered the crew to pilot the vessel to the Cambodian mainland, but U.S. air strikes in its path forced it to veer from this course and anchor just off the Cambodian coast, at a small island named Koh Tang.

The Ford administration decided on swift action, hoping a “ferocious” military response would avoid a long-lasting hostage crisis and also convince the U.S. public that the White House had command of the situation (Ford’s approval ratings were low at the time). Military leaders devised a three-pronged plan: a helicopter assault to retake the Mayaguez, an amphibious landing to rescue the crew, and an air campaign to prevent the Khmer Rouge from reinforcing Koh Tang from the mainland. Almost before the plan was devised, however, things began to go wrong.

On May 13, two days before the operation, 23 Air Force servicemen were killed in a plane crash in Thailand while training for the assault. American intelligence reports generally agreed that the crew of the Mayaguez was still on Koh Tang, but this could never be confirmed. The U.S. Navy and Air Force worked to prevent any traffic from moving to and from Koh Tang, but a few Khmer Rouge vessels did manage to escape the island. Unbeknownst to the U.S. military, one of them had carried the crew to the Cambodian mainland.

On May 15, approximately 175 Marines began the operation against Koh Tang. Intelligence continued to report that the Mayaguez crew remained captive on the island, and that it was only lightly defended by perhaps two dozen Khmer Rouge fighters. In the late afternoon, a flight of 14 Air Force helicopters approached the island to land the Marines on the beach. Far from encountering just a few poorly armed Khmer Rouge, however, the Marines engaged with nearly 200 elite Communist troops dug into prepared defensive positions. 15 Marines and 8 helicopters were lost within the first hour.

Of those 15 dead Marines, 12 of them were killed in a single crash, when their CH-53 Sea Stallion was shot down over water just as its Air Force pilot made his approach to the landing zone. There were 27 men aboard, and the crash killed 13 of them—12 Marines and the Air Force pilot. The survivors managed to escape the wreckage in chest-deep water. However, they immediately came under fire from the tree line on shore. Amid a storm of bullets and rockets, and having lost their own weapons, they had no choice but to swim further out to sea and hope for a water rescue. The 13 men who were killed in the crash could not be recovered at the time. Once the Americans realized the Mayaguez crew was no longer on Koh Tang, the main priority became extracting those Marines still on the island. In the ensuing withdrawal, at least three Marines were mistakenly left behind on the island, as well as the body of another. All three were executed by the Khmer Rouge shortly after the battle.

The crew of the Mayaguez was ultimately rescued. After the United States announced it would cease its bombing of the Cambodian mainland once the crew had been safely recovered, all 39 men were found in a drifting fishing boat in the Gulf of Thailand by the destroyer USS Wilson. It remains unclear what role, if any, the military action on Koh Tang played in the Khmer Rouge’s decision to release the crew. Personnel from the destroyer USS Holt recovered the Mayaguez itself, which had been essentially abandoned at anchor. Everything told, 41 American Marines, Airmen, and Sailors were killed in the operation, and at least 50 were wounded.

In 1991, the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command (JPAC) began an investigation and operation to recover those men who went missing in action on Koh Tang. Over the following 22 years, JPAC undertook dozens of recovery operations, including a joint U.S.-Cambodian underwater investigation in 1995 to locate and repatriate the remains of the 13 men who died in the helicopter crash just off shore. The remains of each of those 13 missing men were ultimately identified, the last of whom was identified in 2013. All of them were interred in Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Virginia. A total of five servicemen from the operation on Koh Tang remain officially unaccounted for, and efforts to locate their remains continue today.

The legacy of the Mayaguez incident remains complicated. By all accounts, the military operation suffered from bad intelligence and poor planning. It also did not lead directly the rescue of the Mayaguez’s crew. Each of the 39 crew members was ultimately recovered alive, though 41 Americans died to make that possible. Polls immediately after the operation indicated that nearly 80 percent of the U.S. public believed operation had been a success.

The three Marines left behind on Koh Tang and ultimately killed by the Khmer Rouge have not been recovered. Their names are:

  • Private First Class Gary L. Hall, 18, from Covington, Kentucky
  • Lance Corporal Joseph N. Hargrove, 24, from Mt. Olive, North Carolina
  • Private Danny G. Marshall, 18, from Waverly, West Virginia

The Marine whose body was left behind on the beach was Lance Corporal Ashton N. Loney, 20, from Albany, New York.

The 13 men whose remains were recovered from the waters just off Koh Tang were:

  • Second Lieutenant Richard Vandegeer, 27, from Columbus, Ohio
  • Hospital Corpsman Bernard Gause, Jr, 34, from Birmingham, Alabama
  • Hospital Corpsman Ronald J. Manning, 21, from Toronto, Ohio
  • Lance Corporal Gregory S. Copenhaver, 19, from Port Deposit, Maryland
  • Lance Corporal Andres Garcia, 20, from Carlsbad, New Mexico
  • Private First Class Daniel A. Benedett, 19, from Auburn, Washington
  • Private First Class Lynn Blessing, 18, from Lancaster, Pennsylvania
  • Private First Class Walter Boyd, 19, from Norfolk, Virginia
  • Private First Class James J. Jacques, 18, from Denver, Colorado
  • Private First Class James R. Maxwell, 18, from Center Ridge, Arkansas
  • Private First Class Richard W. Rivenburgh, 21, from San Diego, California
  • Private First Class Antonio R. Sandovall, 19, from San Antonio, Texas
  • Private First Class Kelton R. Turner, 18, from Los Angeles, California

All those killed in the operation to rescue the crew of the Mayaguez, including the 23 Air Force Airmen killed in the training accident on May 13, are memorialized on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall in Washington, D.C., on Panel 1W, Lines 124–132.1


1Dominic D. P. Johnson and Dominic Tierney, Failing to Win: Perceptions of Victory and Defeat in International Politics (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2006); Clayton K. S. Chun, The Last Boarding Party: The USMC and the SS Mayaguez1975 (London: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2011); Spencer C. Tucker, ed., Encyclopedia of the Vietnam War: A Political, Social, and Military History (Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2011); Matthew M. Burke, “13 Who Went Missing in Mayaguez Incident to Be Buried at Arlington,” Stars and Stripes, May 14, 2013 (accessed 5/16/19); Gregory Ball, “1975–The Mayaguez Incident,” Air Force Historical Support Division (accessed 5/16/19); “Wall of Faces,” Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund (accessed 5/14/19).


 


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