The Mayaguez incident was the first major foreign policy crisis of United States President Gerald R. Ford.
The crisis began on May 12, 1975, when the Cambodian navy seized the American merchant ship SS Mayaguez in international waters.
The incident ended on May 15 when U.S. Navy and Marines raided the Cambodian island Koh Tang and recovered the Mayaguez. During the operation 38 servicemen were killed but all 40 of the Mayaguez's crew were retured safely.
Time Magazine Cover: Mayaguez Incident - May. 26, 1975
When U.S. troops were pulled out of Southeast Asia in early 1975, Vietnamese communist troops began capturing one city after another, with Hue, Da Nang and Ban Me Thuot in March, Xuan Loc in April, and Saigon on April 30. In Cambodia, communist Khmer Rouge had captured the capital city of Phnom Penh on April 17. The last Americans were evacuated from Saigon during "Option IV", with U.S. Ambassador Martin departing on April 29. The war, according to President Ford, "was finished."
2nd Lt.Richard VandeGeer, assigned to the 21st Special Ops Squadron at NKP, had participated in the evacuation of Saigon, where helicopter pilots were required to fly from the decks of the 7th fleet carriers stationed some 500 miles offshore, fly over armed enemy-held territory, collect American and allied personnel and return to the carriers via the same hazardous route, heavily loaded with passengers. VandeGeer wrote to a friend "We pulled out close to 2,000 people. We couldn't pull out any more because it was beyond human endurance to go any more..."
At 2:14 p.m. on May 12, the U.S. merchant ship MAYAGUEZ was seized by the Khmer Rouge in the Gulf of Siam about 60 miles from the Cambodian coastline and 8 miles from the Poulo Wai. The ship, owned by Sea-Land Corporation, was en route to Sattahip, Thailand from Hong-Kong, carrying a non-arms cargo for military bases in Thailand.
Capt.Charles T.Miller, a veteran of more than 40 years at sea, was on the bridge. He had steered the ship within the boundaries of international waters, but the Cambodians had recently claimed territorial waters 90 miles from the coast of Cambodia. The 40 seamen aboard were taken prisoner.
President Ford ordered the aircraft carrier USS CORAL SEA, the guided missile destroyer USS HENRY B.WILSON and the USS HOLT to the area of seizure. By night, a U.S. reconnaissance aircraft located the MAYAGUEZ at anchor off Pou lo Wal Island. Plans were made to rescue the crew. A battalion landing team of 1100 Marines was ordered flown from bases in Okinawa and the Philippines to assemble at Utapao,Thailand in preparation for the assault.
The first casualties of the effort to free the MAYAGUEZ are recorded on May 13 when a helicopter carrying Air Force security team personnel crashed en route to Utapao, killing all 23 aboard.
Early in the morning of May 13, the MAYAGUEZ was ordered to head for Koh Tang Island. Its crew was loaded aboard a Thai fishing boat and was taken first to Koh Tang, then to the mainland city of Kompong Song, then to Rong Sam Lem Island. U.S.intelligence had observed a cove with considerable activity on the Island of Koh Tang, a small 4.5 mile long island about 35 miles off the coast of Cambodia southwest of the city of Sihanoukvulle (Kampong Saom), and believed that some of the crew might be held there. They also knew of the Thai fishing boat, and had observed what appeared to be caucasians aboard it, but it could not be determined if some of all of the crew was aboard.
The USS HOLT was ordered to move the Mayaguez...or incapacitate it by blasting the propellar off, or to sink it. Marines were to land on the island and rescue any of the crew. Navy jets from the USS CORAL SEA were to make 4 strikes on military installments on the Cambodian mainland.
On May 15, the first wave of 179 Marines headed for the island aboard 8 Air Force "Jolly Green Giant" helicopters. 3 Air Force helicopters unloaded Marines from the 1st Battalion, 4th Marines onto the landing pad of the USS HOLT and then headed back to Utapao to pick up the second wave of Marines. Planes dropped tear gas on the MAYAGUEZ, and the USS HOLT pulled up along side the vessel and the Marines stormed aboard. The MAYAGUEZ was deserted.
The USS Holt towing the SS Mayaguez to safety.
Simultaneously, the Marines of the 2/9 were making their landings on two other areas of the island. The eastern landing zone was on the cove side where the Cambodian compound was located. The western landing zone was a narrow split of beach about 500 feet behind the compound on the other side of the island. The Marines hoped to surround the compound.
As the first troops began to unload on both beaches, the Cambodians opened fire. On the western beach, one helicopter was hit and flew off crippled to ditch in the ocean about 1 mile away. The pilot had just disembarked his passengers, and was rescued at sea.
Meanwhile, the eastern landing zone had become a disaster. The first two heliopters landing were met by enemy fire. Ground Commander,(now) Col.Randall W.Austin had been told to expect between 20 and 40 Khmer Rouge soldiers on the island. Instead, between 150 and 200 were encountered. Lt.John Schramm's helicopter tore apart and crashed into the surf after the rotor system was hit. All aboard made a dash for the tree line on the beach.
One CH-53 helicopter was flown by U.S.Air Force Major Howard Corson and 2Lt.Richard VandeGeer and carrying 23 U.S.Marines and 2 U.S.Navy Corpsman, all from the 2nd Battalion,9th Marines. As the helicopter approached the island, it was caught in a cross fire and hit by a rocket. The severely damaged helicopter crashed into the sea just off the coast of the island and exploded. To avoid enemy fire, survivors were forced to swim out to sea for rescue. Twelve aboard, including Major Corson, were rescued. Those missing from the helicopter were 2Lt.Richard VandeGeer, PFC Daniel Benedett, PFC Lynn Blessing, PFC Walter Boyd, Lcpl.Gregory Copenhaver, Lcpl.Andres Garcia, PFC Antonio Sandoval, PFC Kelton Turner...all U.S.Marines. Also missing were HM1 Bernard Gause Jr. and HM Ronald Manning, both U.S.Navy Corpsman.
Other helicopters were more successful in landing their passengers. One CH53A, however was not. SSgt.Elwood Rumbaugh's aircraft was near the coastline when it was shot down. Rumbaugh is the only missing man from the aircraft. The passengers were safely extracted. (It is not known whether the passengers went down with the aircraft or whether they were rescued from the island.)
By midmorning, when the Cambodians on the mainland began receiving reports of the assault, they ordered the crew of the MAYAGUEZ on a Thai boat, and then left. The MAYAGUEZ crew was recovered by the USS Wilson before the second wave of Marines was deployed, but the second wave was ordered to attack anyway.
Late in the afternoon, the assault force had consolidated its position on the western landng zone and the eastern landing zone was evacuated at 6:00 p.m. By the end of the 14-hour operation, most of the Marines were extracted from the island safely, with 50 wounded. Lcpl.Ashton Loney had been killed when he stepped on mine.
Protecting the perimeter during the final evacuation was the machine squad of PFC Gary Hall, Lcpl.Joseph Hargrove and Pvt.Danny Marshall. They had run out of ammunition and were ordered to evacuate on the last helicopter. It was their last contact. Maj.McNemar and Maj.James Davis made a final sweep of the beach before boarding the helicopter and were unable to locate them. They were declared Missing in Action. In 1998 a former Khmer medical officer and eyewitness to the battle aftermath claimed to have seen four (4) American prisoners taken off the island to the mainland. The Joint Task Force for Full Accounting can only speculate as to who the fourth prisoner could have been.
The 18 men missing from the MAYAGUEZ incident are listed among the missing from the Vietnam war. although authorities believe that there are perhaps hundreds of American prisoners still alive in Southeast Asia from the war, most are pessimistic about the fates of those captured by the Khmer Rouge.
In 1988, the communist government of Kampuchea (Cambodia) announced that it wished to return the remains of several dozen Americans to the United States. (In fact, the number was higher than the official number of Americans missing in Cambodia.) Because the U.S. does not officially recognize the Cambodian goverment, it has refused to respond directly to the Cambodians regarding the remains. Cambodia, wishing a direct acknowledgment from the U.S. Government, still holds the remains.
UPDATE! - October 2000
01 OCT 00: From DPMO - MIA SERVICEMEN IDENTIFIED FROM MAYAGUEZ INCIDENT Nine servicemen missing in action from the Vietnam War have been accounted for and their remains returned to their families for burial in the United States. They are identified as Lcpl.Gregory S.Copenhaver, Lcpl.Andres Garcia, Pfc.Walter Boyd,PFC Lynn Blessing,PFC Antonio Sandoval, PFC Kelton R. Turner, all U.S.Marines. Also accounted-for is HN Ronald J. Manning and HM1 Bernard Gause, both Navy Corpsmen and 2Lt. Richard VandeGeer USAF. On May 12, 1975, Khmer Rouge gunboats captured the SS Mayaguez in the Gulf of Thailand approximately 60 nautical miles off the coast of Cambodia. The vessel was taken to Koh [island] Tang. Alerted to the capture, U.S. Navy and Air Force aircraft began surveillance flights around the island. After efforts to secure the release of the ship and its crew failed, U.S. military forces were ordered to undertake a rescue mission. Three days after the Mayaguez seizure, six Air Force helicopters were dispatched to the island. One of the helicopters came under heavy enemy fire as it approached the eastern beach of the island. The aircraft crashed into the surf with 26 men on board. Half were rescued at sea, leaving 13 unaccounted-for. The United States, Cambodian and Vietnamese government efforts to resolve the cases of these unaccounted-for servicemen was massive. Between 1991-99, U.S. and Cambodian investigators conducted seven joint investigations, led by the Joint Task Force-Full Accounting. Additionally, on three occasions Cambodian authorities unilaterally turned over remains believed to be those of American servicemen. In October and November 1995, U.S. and Cambodian specialists conducted an underwater recovery of the helicopter crash site where they located numerous remains, personal effects and aircraft debris associated with the loss. The USS Brunswick, a Navy salvage vessel, enabled the specialists to conduct their excavation off shore. In addition to the support provided by the Cambodian government, the Socialist Republic of Vietnam also interviewed two Vietnamese informants in Ho Chi Minh City who turned over remains that were later positively identified. Analysis of the remains and other evidence was made by the U.S. Army Central Identification Laboratory Hawaii, which also conducted all the remains recovery operations. The CILHI made extensive use of mitochondrial DNA as one of the forensic identification tools to establish the identity of these men.