After the Khmer Rouge seized the SS Mayaguez, a US container ship with a crew of 39, as it passed Koh Tang island in international waters 35 years ago, former President Gerald Ford and senior US leaders felt compelled to respond with force.
Declassified documents released Friday by the US State Department chronicle the closed-door meetings before the military reaction to the May 12, 1975, seizure of the Mayaguez in what would be remembered as a military fiasco and the final battle of the US war in Southeast Asia.
The 1,056-page disclosure, covering the years 1973 to 1975, came as part of the State Department’s continuing release of official records on US foreign relations during the Indochina War.
As the newly released records show, after the US military withdrawal from Southeast Asia, US leaders determined that US military prestige was at stake in the Mayaguez incident.
According to the minutes of a morning meeting at the State Department on May 12, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger expressed shock followed by strategic concern for the image of the US.
“We haven’t reached the point yet where American ships get captured by Cambodians,” said Mr Kissinger, telling Deputy National Security Adviser William Hyland: “I know you damned well cannot let Cambodia capture a ship a hundred miles at sea and do nothing.”\
In the minutes of a National Security Council meeting held several hours later, Ford is recorded reacting as his advisers detail the situation—the Mayaguez was being towed to the Cambodian shore but at least part of the crew was believed to be on Koh Tang.
When Vice President Nelson Rockefeller remarked that there was “an old Chinese saying about a dagger hitting steel and withdrawing when it hits steel, and that is the impression that we should convey,” Ford hastily agreed.
“I think that that is what we will do,” he said. “We will turn around the [aircraft carrier] Coral Sea. We will get mining ready. We will take action.”
The documents show that when Ford gave the go ahead to begin the US mission at about 5:42 pm on May 14, the mission was clear: Seize the Mayaguez in Kompong Som, now known as Preah Sihanouk province, sink and strike Khmer Rouge patrol boats and aircraft and occupy Koh Tang.
The next morning, Lieutenant Daniel Hoffman, a marine who had never seen combat, was flying over the Gulf of Thailand toward Koh Tang.
Speaking yesterday by telephone from South Carolina, Mr Hoffman said marines who landed on Koh Tang were inexperienced and not expecting to face the heavy resistance that waited for them.
“We were supposed to land at dawn for surprise and instead landed at 7 am, and it was a complete disaster,” said Mr Hoffman, who is now president of the Mayaguez Veterans Organization. “We had been told we were going up against 15 to 20 militia-slash-fishermen—we used the word pirates—on the island that might have automatic weapons, when in fact there was a reinforced battalion of between 400 and 600 Khmer Rouge marine forces.”
Mr Hoffman described watching the first four helicopters to arrive at Koh Tang getting hit. He said 13 or 14 marines died as three of the helicopters plunged into the ocean and that the fourth escaped but crashed in Thailand.
According to Mr Hoffman, the marines, who managed by noon to join together and protect a position, were forced to forget their plan, which had been to sweep out across the island “like a World War II movie.”
“There was a 159 of us on the island. Of those, 50 were injured and 41 were killed, and those were the last 41 on the wall,” said Mr Hoffman, referring to the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington. “Included in the 41 were those air force personnel who were killed the day before in a crash.”
Unbeknownst to the marines, the crew of the Mayaguez was not on Koh Tang and had been released onto a small vessel by the Khmer Rouge.
Mr Hoffman said yesterday that he respected Ford’s decision to attack the Khmer Rouge, but that feeling the mission was justified hadn’t assuaged his survivor’s guilt.
According to Mr Hoffman, the servicemen who were successfully extracted after the “tremendous bloody mess” on Koh Tang are now mostly concerned with finding and repatriating the remains of the marines whose bodies were left on the beach and never recovered. Three marines left alive on the island were later executed by the Khmer Rouge.
Mr Hoffman said his requests to speak with representative of Monarch Investment, a Russian-owned company that the Cambodian government sold a 99-year lease on Koh Tang to in 2008, have been ignored.
A representative for the company could not be reached yesterday, but according to Monarch’s website the investment group plans to build casinos on Koh Tang in the shape of various recognizable landmarks: the Eiffel Tower, the Coliseum, Big Ben, Red Square, Venice and Angkor Wat.
Earlier this year, the USS Patriot, a countermeasures vessel, was using sonar to survey the ocean floor near Koh Tang at the behest of RCAF when officers saw an irregularity they believed to be Knife 21, the one helicopter shot down during the Mayaguez incident that had not been recovered, according to Warrant Officer Jesus Torres, who serves as operations commander of the US Embassy’s defense attache office.
“The Safeguard, a salvage ship came to check out the wreck but due to, I think, choppy seas, that didn’t happen but it is going to come back,” Officer Torres said, adding the boat was scheduled to return next month.