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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Digging up and reburying a painful past

Digging up and reburying a painful past

K OH TANG - The last chapter of America's tragic involvement in the Vietnam War took

place on this pristine, tropical island, although the book on what happened here

still hasn't been closed. However, unlike the Alamo, "the Mayaguez" is

one incident many Americans would like to forget.

But with pressures in the U.S. for a full accounting of those lost during the war,

the U.S. military was back on Koh Tang from Oct 25 to Nov 18, sifting through the

sandy pages of history in the hopes of finding some remains of the 18 young soldiers

who died here two long decades ago.

It was on May 15, l975 - just weeks after the "fall of Saigon" - when U.S.

Marines in CH-53 helicopters flew in low out of the rising sun at 5:30am to attack

the island in the hopes of rescuing the crew of the American container ship Mayaguez,

which had been detained by the Khmer Rouge three days earlier.

Unbeknownst to the invasion force and to then President Gerald Ford who ordered the

assault, the crew had been moved the day before to Sihanoukville and from there to

Koh Rong Sam Lem where they spent the night. The Mayaguez was left anchored just

to the north of Koh Tang, its diesel engines shut down and devoid of life.

Even worse - and the cause of the tragedy on the island - U.S. intelligence had underestimated

the size of the Khmer Rouge forces on Koh Tang. From the moment the helicopters hovered

above the beach attempting to land they came under a storm of gunfire from well-entrenched

troops.

One helicopter, code-named KNIFE-31, was hit immediately and crashed into the water

about 100 feet from the beach; a second, KNIFE-23, was hit right beside it, but managed

to ditch on the beach where its tail was shot off; a third, KNIFE-21, was able to

drop its soldiers off, but got hit on departure and crashed into the sea a mile offshore.

Of the eight helicopters involved in the initial assault, all but one was damaged

or lost. More than 225 Marines were on the island at the height of the battle and

when the final troops were extracted 14 hours after the initial landing the casualty

count was 50 Marines wounded and 18 either dead or missing.

That was 20 years ago.

When the USS Brunswick steamed into Cambodian waters four weeks ago on Oct 28 - the

first time the U.S. Navy had been in Cambodian territory since the Mayaguez Incident

- most of the officers and crew on board were too young to have served in Vietnam.

And when the G.I.s "hit the beaches" at Koh Tang to begin looking for the

remains of U.S. servicemen they were wearing Hard Rock Cafe-Hanoi T-shirts and cutoff

jeans, with liberal doses of sun block rather than flak jackets, fatigues and assorted

weaponry.

The search on the island, like all the efforts being conducted in Indochina, was

coordinated by the U.S. Army's Joint Task Force-Full Accounting (JTF). However, unlike

most other digs in the region, the one at Koh Tang was conducted underwater - hence

the arrival of the USS Brunswick which carries crews of divers and an assortment

of underwater salvage gear.

The focus was on KNIFE-31, which was carrying 26 people when it crashed into the

sea under a hail of bullets: 13 survived and swam out to sea where they were rescued;

the other 13 were believed to have died in the intense fire that consumed the craft

after its fuel tank was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade.

The details of the crash, according to Col. Roger King, JTF's Public Affairs Officer,

come from interviews of Cambodians who were on Koh Tang during the attack and as

well as first-hand reports from the American side.

"Ten to 20 Cambodians have been interviewed," said King.

"We didn't ask them if they were former or current Khmer Rouge."

The U.S. search team dug up 11,000 cubic feet of sand in and around the KNIFE-31

crash site over an 11-day period. They are confident that some of the remains found

will enable them to identify specific individuals who died there.

"This is our first successful underwater recovery," said Col. King.

Recovery team leader Capt. John Collie said: "We're very pleased with what we've

found," listing nine restored teeth, 13 unrestored teeth, 139 possible human

bones, and 122 personal aritfacts among the remains gleaned from the sand.

The team has been meticulous in its work, sifting each bucketfull of debris through

a wire mesh screen set up on the beach. Said Collie: "The size of my fingernail

or smaller is our standard" for artifacts examined.

"My hat's off to the Navy," said King. "Everything I've asked for

they've been able to do."

Of the other five soldiers who died that day in '75, one died out at sea and the

other four are believed to have died on the island although exact details are not

available. A U.S. search team visited the island to dig on land two years ago and

also visited Koh Tang in August this year, according to Major Chavez, the U.S. Embassy

Defence Attache.

Using evidence proivided by Cambodian witnesses who said they "buried bodies

between two trees" excavations were done in several areas without success. Chavez

also says that they had evidence that one wounded Marine was captured and "survived

for two weeks."

One could speculate that one or more of the Marines who died on the beaches might

have been killed by U.S. firepower. At around noon on the day of the attack a C-130

hercules aircraft dropped a BLU82, which at the time was the biggest non-nuclear

explosive in the U.S. arsenal. Known as "Cluster Bombs", these 15,000-pound

devices, among other purposes, were used to clear landing zones for helicopters.

A 200 x 150 meter swath of almost treeless beach front remains on Koh Tang as testimony

to the effect of this weapon.

Major Chavez said that its "not likely" that this was the case as photo

reconaissance showed several bodies on the other side of the island where the Marines

had also come ashore.

In any event, the Cambodian chapter of the Mayaguez saga is about to come to a definitive

end, at least as far as the authorities are concerned.

On Dec 4 the remains found on Koh Tang will be handed over to U.S. authorities by

Foreign Minister Ung Huot at a ceremony at Pochentong. JTF Commander General Viale

will be on hand for the occasion, as will U.S. embassy officials.

Six containers drapped in American flags will then be loaded on a U.S. aircraft for

shipment to Hawaii where an exhaustive series of tests will be conducted to try and

determine if indivdual veterans can be identified.

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