Almost 38 years to the day since they were shot down during fighting that followed the Khmer Rouge’s seizure of a U.S. merchant vessel, the remains of 13 U.S. Marines are to be buried together in Virginia today.
In a statement dated Friday, the Defense Prisoner of War/Missing Personnel Office in Washington announced that the remains of private first class Daniel Benedett had been accounted for on January 30 this year.
Daniel Benedett was the final missing member of the crew of Knife 31, a U.S. Air Force helicopter that crashed during a U.S. assault on Koh Tang on May 15, 1975, which followed Khmer Rouge naval forces capturing the S.S. Mayaguez, a U.S. merchant ship.
Half of the 26-man crew of the helicopter was rescued at sea but 13 were lost. The remains will be interned at the Arlington National Cemetery today, the statement says.
According to the statement, from 1991 to 2008, more than 10 investigations and excavations were carried out and on three occasions Cambodian authorities handed over remains believed to be those of U.S. servicemen.
“In 1995, U.S. and Cambodian specialists conducted an underwater recovery of the helicopter crash site where they located remains, personal effects and aircraft debris associated with the loss,” the statement says. “Between 2000 and 2004, all of the missing service members from this helicopter, except Benedett, were accounted-for.”
Scientists confirmed Daniel Benedett’s remains using “circumstantial evidence and DNA process of elimination to account for his remains,” it says.
On May 12, 1975, the Mayaguez had strayed close to Koh Wai and was stopped and seized by Khmer Rouge forces, apparently on alert as ownership of the island was contested by Vietnam.
According to journalist Elizabeth Becker’s book, “When the War Was Over,” the Khmer Rouge leadership later claimed they were unaware of the seizure and that they ordered the ship’s release promptly after hearing the news on Voice of America radio.
But after a 24-hour warning from the administration of then-President Gerald Ford was not headed, the U.S. landed marines on Koh Tang to seize the ship, which had been taken there.
“Those marines encountered heavy opposition from Khmer Rouge dug deep into the island in preparation for a Vietnamese attack,” the book says.
Soon after the assault began, the Khmer Rouge released the crew of the Mayaguez, who had been taken to the mainland. But fighting continued on Koh Tang and the U.S. mounted a bombing attack on coastal military targets, in theory to provide cover for the escape of the marines, according to the book.
“When the fighting was over, thirty-eight American servicemen lost their lives to save thirty-nine crew members of the Mayaguez, and most of them died after the crew had been released.” Ms. Becker wrote.
“Those dead veterans were counted as the last American casualties in the U.S. war in Indochina.”