War veterans and others gathered Monday at US Ambassador Kent Wiedemann’s home to remember the 41 Americans who lost their lives 25 years ago in the last American confrontation in Southeast Asia.
The rescue mission to save the crew of the Mayaguez, a merchant marine ship seized by the Khmer Rouge on May 12, 1975, came a month after the fall of Phnom Penh and less than two weeks after communists took control of Saigon.
The memorial service for those who gave their lives in an attempt to rescue the Mayaguez crew was held in front of a stone monument commemorating Americans who died in battle in Cambodia.
The names of the 18 Marines who went missing in the Mayaguez battle and another US soldier who was killed in Cambodia in 1971 are on the monument, which has been located at the ambassador’s home for the last five years.
The other 23 Americans who died as part of the attempted Mayaguez rescue operation were headed to Thailand when their helicopter crashed on May 13, 1975.
In the solemn ceremony that included the playing of “Taps” and the saying of prayers, a wreath stand was placed next to the stone memorial. A small US flag was put on top of the memorial.
“We remember and recognize their dedication, their courage,” said Carol Rodley, first secretary at the US Embassy.
Members of the US Veterans of Foreign Wars offices in Thailand and the Philippines came to Cambodia for the ceremony. Veterans of the Mayaguez battle were unable to attend, said Jerry Philbrook, chief warrant officer at the US Embassy.
After the humiliating US evacuation from Saigon, then-US president Gerald Ford felt it was important for America to not look like a helpless giant when the Khmer Rouge seized the Mayaguez. The incident was decribed as the toughest problem Ford faced during his term as US president.
More than 200 Marines came to Koh Tang on May 15, 1975, to rescue the Mayaguez crew, which had already been released by the Khmer Rouge the night before. The rescue team suffered heavy casualties.
Leon Vileo, commander of the District 7 VFW office in Thailand, said it seems that the Mayaguez battle has been forgotten, but the service Monday and the memorial brings it back.
Vileo, a veteran of the D-Day Normandy invasion in World War II, was in Thailand at the time of the Mayaguez incident, and said he remembers the frustration of those who fought in that battle.
“How it happened, why it started—there has never been a true explanation of that,” he said. “It should have never been fought at all.”
US MIA teams now make yearly visits to Cambodia to search for the remains of the 18 Marines who went missing in the Mayaguez incident.