Ignorance of New DK Regime Led to Mayaguez Fiasco
“Bucktail is tally-ho, the target is the hooches….”
“Let’s try two pods on the first pass… Bucktail, you’re cleared hot.”
“Bucktail’s in hot.”
The four F-4D Phantom fighter jets that made up Bucktail fired eight rockets tipped with white phosphorous that burn through anything in their path. They were headed toward the heart of the Khmer Rouge encampment on Koh Tang.
As the rockets disappeared into the trees, Ric Hunter, leader of Bucktail, thought of an eagle’s talons reaching out as a raptor dives toward ground.
“That’s it, my friends, that’s it.”
Bucktail had hit its target.
Meanwhile on the island, 21-year-old Khmer Rouge platoon commander Mao Ran was ordering his men to shoot the helicopters that kept dropping off more US Marines, while he tried to dodge bullets and explosions.
“My men shot down two helicopters,” he recalled recently. “One blew up in the air and dropped to the sea. Another one we shot in the sky, but the bullet hit only the rear part of the helicopter and it dropped near the shore of the island.”
This was the scene on Koh Tang 25 years ago, when US Marines landed on the island to rescue the 39-member crew of a merchant marine ship called the Mayaguez, seized by Khmer Rouge forces on May 12, 1975.
Coming less than two weeks after the Americans’ humiliating evacuation from Saigon, then-President Gerald Ford was determined to ensure that the US not seem a helpless giant. But in the end, many argue, that’s how America appeared.
The 18 Americans who were missing after the rescue attempt were listed as the last casualties in America’s war with Indochinese communists. The Cambodians who died in the fighting and from US bombings of Sihanoukville—perhaps scores—were added to the long list of those who would lose their lives in the country’s 30 years of war.
Today, Koh Tang is nearly deserted. The only residents are a handful of soldiers stationed on the island, located 56 km southwest of Sihanoukville. The yearly visits from a US MIA team, searching for the remains of the 18 missing Marines, are the rare occasions when the island has visitors. Otherwise, the jungles that fill the 7 km-long island, and the pristine waters surrounding it, mostly go untouched.
But for 14 hours starting May 15, 1975, the island was filled with American and Khmer Rouge soldiers, fighting ferociously in what was officially described as Ford’s “toughest” problem. The sounds of exploding bombs and firing guns were deafening.
For all the death the battle caused, the fighting was for naught. The Mayaguez crew had been released and picked up by a US warship around 11:30 pm on May 14, hours before the first Marines arrived at Koh Tang the next morning, according to a newly declassified memo from then-US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger to Ford, titled “Debrief of the Mayaguez Captain and Crew.”
Although it has been reported that the Mayaguez crew was released before the Marines landed, Kissinger’s memo provides new details as to what happened in the few days after the ship’s seizure and the feelings of the crew during that incident.
Before the captain of the Mayaguez held a press briefing in Singapore after his crew’s rescue, the memo said, he got his men together to agree to present one story to the media: praising the US government’s actions in securing their safe release.
According to the memo, however, the chief engineer of the Mayaguez had a different idea. He believed US commanders must have known the crew was not on Koh Tang during the fighting, but was released and returned to safety.
The last battle the US fought in Southeast Asia appeared to follow the pattern of America’s involvement in the region in the first place: misbeliefs, misunderstandings and miscalculations.
In a statement made in New York in September 1975, Democratic Kampuchea Foreign Minister Ieng Sary offered his thoughts on the Mayaguez incident.
“In fact,” he said, “this issue did not have to reach big bloodshed.”
Just over a week after the fall of Saigon, Vietnamese communists wanted to meet with their Cambodian colleagues about their mutual borders, according to historians. Traditionally concerned over Vietnamese desires for Cambodian land, the Khmer Rouge in early May 1975 began stopping all foreign ships sailing near the border.
The Mayaguez was headed to Sattahip, Thailand, to deliver non-arms cargo for military bases in that country when it was approached by a Khmer Rouge gunboat on the afternoon of May 12, 1975. The Khmer Rouge claimed that the ship, in the Gulf of Thailand 96 km off the Cambodian coast, was in their territorial waters.
At precisely 2:21 pm, the engines on the Mayaguez were shut off, but the crew was able to send distress signals, according to Kissinger’s memo to Ford.
The gunboat crew ordered the Mayaguez captain to proceed to Sihanoukville, but he refused, claiming the radar on the ship was broken. After hours at anchor, the ship was instructed to head to Koh Tang.
“We had a right to search them because they were in Cambodian waters,” said Mao Ran, who is now commune chief in Preak Khe in Kompong Speu province. “We looked but we didn’t see any American soldiers. We found nothing.”
After the ship arrived at Koh Tang, the entire crew was taken off the Mayaguez and put aboard a Thai fishing boat, which proceeded to Sihanoukville around 7 pm May 13.
When Ford was informed of the Mayaguez, he ordered three warships to the area of the seizure. More than 1,000 Marines were sent to Thailand to prepare for the assault.
Using tear gas and other measures, US aircraft tried to intercept the Thai fishing boat headed to Sihanoukville and it almost turned back, but the crew was forced at gun point to follow Khmer Rouge orders, Kissinger’s memo said.
The Khmer Rouge leadership was unaware of the Mayaguez seizure until they heard the news from Voice of America, “because American technology brings the news faster than our armed forces,” Ieng Sary said in his New York statement.
After the top cadre received a report from Khmer Rouge forces on the island, they ordered the immediate release of the ship on May 13 “because we did not want to have a complicated problem with the American government,” Ieng Sary said.
“But at the moment we ordered a release of the ship, Americans were dropping many bombs on Koh Tang,” he said. “The Americans dropped so many bombs that we think no one could escape alive.”
The first casualties of the Mayaguez rescue were on May 13, when a helicopter carrying Air Force personnel crashed en route to Thailand. The 23 people on board were killed.
At 6:30 pm on May 14, the Mayaguez crew was released and got on a Thai fishing boat that displayed white flags. Five hours later, the boat pulled up alongside the USS Wilson, where they learned Marines were heading to Koh Tang to rescue them.
“The crew was released before the Marines landed, though not before they left the station or before you made the decision to proceed with the landing,” Kissinger wrote in his comments to Ford.
On the morning of May 15, more than 170 Marines headed toward the island aboard eight Air Force helicopters. They were expecting 30 to 40 Khmer Rouge soldiers to be on the island, but instead they were met by 150 to 200, according to US troops who fought on Koh Tang. Three helicopters were shot down immediately.
Mao Ran, however, disputes those figures, saying the initial US intelligence reports were correct. When the Americans started their attack, he deployed his 40 soldiers around the island for a counterattack.
“They started shelling the area,” Mao Ran said. “They dropped bombs on the island and the area around the ship. The battlefield was controlled by the Americans. I did not expect this kind of war to happen on the island. We were very surprised.”
“It’s the first time I fought directly with Americans.”
Larry Barnett thought he was going to be killed during the fighting when the helicopter he was in was hit by enemy fire. Another helicopter that was flying next to his had just burst into a ball of flames when he looked at the back of his helicopter and saw a bright flash of light.
“Then the tail section just folded off,” he said in an e-mail interview. “I closed my eyes fully expecting to wake up dead.”
Barnett said he and other Marines received scant intelligence information before the mission, which he claims cost his friends their lives. They were told the most they should expect was sniper fire.
“None of us were saying much,” Barnett said of the helicopter ride to Koh Tang. “But the look in everyone’s eyes said pretty much the same thing: This ain’t gonna be as easy as they are making it out to be. Now do I believe there were mistakes made? Absolutely.”
Hunter said he didn’t even have intelligence reports before he flew out to the island.
“We basically picked our ordnance, flew down to the area and sorted it out when we got there,” he said in an e-mail interview. “I led my mission in the way I’d been trained, and hoped and prayed I didn’t kill any fellow Americans below me.”
Although the attack was unexpected, the hardened Khmer Rouge soldiers quickly got their forces together and fought back.
“After the Americans entered, we attacked them,” Ieng Sary said in New York. “Our armed forces hid themselves well to fight the American entry.”
Fourteen hours after the battle began, the Marines were ordered to evacuate. Fighting darkness and enemy fire, helicopters tried to land to extract the Marines while US air strikes attempted to provide protection for the evacuation. Fifteen US soldiers were killed that day and another was wounded.
Mao Ran claims only six Khmer Rouge soldiers died in the fighting, although US intelligence reported that the enemy had at least 55 casualties. An untold number of Cambodians were killed when the US bombed the Sihanoukville port area and Ream naval base.
In the days after the battle, Khmer Rouge soldiers went about cleaning up the island, confiscating a large number of rifles and taking care of the dead American soldiers.
“We went out to sea and tied a rope around the neck of the floating bodies to pull them farther away from the island,” Mao Ran said. “We buried the bodies on the ground.
“They left behind American bodies floating in the sea and on the ground.”
They also left behind three Marines who were still alive. Lance Corporal Joseph Hargrove, Private First Class Garry Hall and Private Danny Marshall, who made up a machine gun team, were protecting the Marines during the final evacuation and were ordered to evacuate on the last helicopter. That was the last contact Marines had with them.
A few days after the Marines who fought in the Mayaguez returned to Okinawa, a memorial service was held for those missing on Koh Tang. The names of the three on the machine gun team were not listed on the program flyer.
Charlotte Hargrove, who had already lost a son in Vietnam in 1968, was sent a letter that said Joseph was missing, that the Marines had searched the island but couldn’t find him, according to Sandy Hargrove, Joseph’s sister-in-law. A year later, the family received a letter saying Joseph Hargrove had died, that he couldn’t have hidden on Koh Tang for a year.
Several years ago, they heard rumors that Joseph Hargrove, of the US state from North Carolina, was inadvertently left behind alive on Koh Tang during the chaotic evacuation.
Joseph had turned 24 the day the Marines landed.
“The country gave him one heck of a party,” said Sandy Hargrove. “To have someone’s life mean so little to his country hurts. I don’t think his case was treated at all. It is one of the biggest insults a government could give a family. The Marines and the government should be ashamed of themselves.”
As Mao Ran and his men were searching the jungles of Koh Tang to find possible American survivors, they came across one soldier about 10 days after the American evacuation from the island.
“He kept fighting and would not surrender,” Mao Ran said. “So we shot him, and he died.”
In 1999, two Khmer Rouge cadre interviewed by a US MIA team said two Americans were taken to Sihanoukville, imprisoned, then executed in the weeks after the Mayaguez battle. Mao Ran, however, said no Americans were taken prisoner.
“We didn’t find any more surviving soldiers,” he said. “We found only dead bodies.”
Barnett says he still shakes with anger when he thinks of the machine gun crew that was left behind.
“Every time I think about it, I feel like someone has ripped my heart from my chest,” he said. “Can you imagine their fear, hoping and praying that someone comes back for you and nobody comes?”
For months after the fighting, Mao Ran said the Khmer Rouge were still wondering why the Americans attacked them at Koh Tang. The Khmer Rouge were kept on alert for five months after the Mayaguez battle in case the Americans attacked again.
“Maybe they attacked because they lost the war and were an accomplice of Lon Nol so the Americans felt angry and disappointed,” Mao Ran said.
Mao Ran returned to Koh Tang in January for the first time since the Mayaguez battle to help an American MIA team that was searching for the remains of Marines he had help kill 25 years ago.
“Of course, it was strange to see the island again,” he said. “I never expected to see the same area where we fought again.”
Barnett thinks about May 15, 1975, every day and has cried a lot of tears in the last 25 years for the friends he lost.
“I doubt that I will ever forget,” he said. “The only thing I am looking for myself is peace in my own heart. I hope that God will allow me to be an olive branch to the Khmer Rouge and Cambodian people so that healing can begin for both our nations.”
The Pentagon has identified the remains of six missing Marines, and it plans to announce the identifications this week.
One of the identities was publicly announced in early February. At the end of February, the remains of Andres Garcia were returned to his family in the state of New Mexico for a full military burial.
The Mayaguez battle has been all but forgotten, with most of the attention focused on the harrowing story of the fall of Saigon. On Monday, a small, quiet ceremony was held at US Ambassador Kent Wiedemann’s home in Phnom Penh to honor those who died 25 years ago in America’s last confrontation in the region.
At the ceremony, first secretary of the US Embassy Carol Rodley talked about the tragedy of the battle and acknowledged that Marines may have been left behind in the evacuation.
Ieng Sary apologized for the Mayaguez battle in his New York statement, four months af- ter the fighting.
“We are sorry about this issue,” he said, “as it should not have cost so many lives.”