Seven US Marines and a Khmer Rouge veteran return to the site of America’s botched last battle of the Vietnam War
US Marine Fred Morris was only a few days out of boot camp when he landed on the Cambodian island of Koh Tang in the early hours of May 15, 1975, with a faulty M16 assault rifle, two magazine clips, and an expectation that the mission he was embarking on would be a “cakewalk” operation against 20 to 40 “fishermen-militia”.
The goal was to rescue the 39 crew members of the SS Mayaguez, an American civilian cargo ship captured by the Khmer Rouge three days earlier in international waters, whose crew was believed to be held on the island.
But the largely inexperienced US forces were met by more than 60 well-armed, battle-hardened Khmer Rouge fighters – veterans of the fall of Phnom Penh a month earlier.
Of about 200 US troops involved in the battle, 18 were killed or went missing during the 14-hour assault on the island, while a separate 23 men died in a helicopter accident en route to Koh Tang.
Because the clash at Koh Tang is considered the last battle of the Vietnam War by the US, the names of those men who died are the last ones etched into the stone of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington DC.
To mark the 40th anniversary of the operation, Fred Morris and six of his fellow combatants travelled back to Koh Tang on Tuesday to commemorate the fallen – and meet an old enemy.
Now in their 50s and 60s, the men were ferried from Sihanoukville to Koh Tang in a high-speed ferry.
Upon arrival on the windswept island, a dedication ceremony was held for two new plaques commemorating the dead.
Speaking at the ceremony, Marine Platoon Commander Clark Hale told of the rescue mission’s botching. Hale, who was 27 at the time, recalled being known as the “old man” of a unit where the average age was 19.
“When they called in my battalion, the 2nd Marine battalion, we had not been trained yet. We did not know what to expect of each other, I did not know what to expect of my men”, he said.
“We were just surprised by everything.”
Politics and poor intelligence quickly led to disaster.
With the US reeling from communist victories in Vietnam and Cambodia, President Gerald Ford let the assault go ahead despite a Khmer Rouge radio message saying the crew was to be released.
It would later transpire that the fighters had been good to their word: the Mayaguez crew had been released before most of the fighting on Koh Tang took place.
As the crew stepped onto a Thai fishing vessel at 7:15am, US Marines were fighting an enemy far superior in size and strength to anything they had expected.
The man who capitalised the most on these failures was Em Son, the Khmer Rouge commander of Koh Tang, who was present at the dedication ceremony.
Sitting on a red plastic chair, Em Son was surrounded by five of his former enemies who listened attentively as he began to speak.
The other two veterans stood away from the scene, preferring not to get too close to a man who had so lethally stood his ground.
Em Son, who lost a leg to a mine in 1992, took no notice.
The tough yet ageing commander sat upright and solemnly explained the events leading up to the fight, describing how he fired the first shot of the battle at a navy ship lying not far from the island.
But a far more emotionally charged point for the veterans was Em Son’s description of the three marines left alive on the island after it was evacuated on the night of May 15.
Em Son said the first soldier was found a couple days after the battle, after food supplies began mysteriously depleting across the island.
“The [Khmer Rouge] men were accusing each other of taking the food,” he said with a smirk.
Son said he shot and killed Lance Corporal Joseph Hargrove after he tried to run away.
“It was a long time ago. It is over now,” he said, when asked about the operation.
“We didn’t have time for feelings over life or death, because we were the ones holding the still-smoking guns.”
After the dedication ceremony, the veterans split up to revisit the beaches they had once assaulted – West Beach and East Beach, two-moon shaped slivers of sand on opposite sides of the heavily forested island’s northern tip.
As he trudged up a hill trail in the thick brush of the tropical island, US Marine Larry Barnett described how his helicopter, codenamed Knife-23, landed on East Beach to withering machine gun and rocket-propelled grenade fire.
“Even before we got on the beach, a round hit us in the fuel tank,” he said.
“You feel the heat – a big bright orange glow.”
As Barnett’s helicopter neared the beach, a Khmer Rouge machine gun nest on a rocky outcrop shot its tail off.
The chopper crash-landed on the beach, with half its hot frame lying in the water and the other half on the sand.
Barnett and his men ran to the treeline and held the perimeter, but every time a helicopter came in to relieve the beleaguered marines, the Khmer Rouge emplacements “lit up like a Christmas tree”.
Even after the US forces had dropped a 15,000-pound (6,800 kilograms) “Daisy Cutter” bomb on the island – the world’s most powerful non-nuclear weapon at the time – the Khmer Rouge strategy of constantly regrouping and focusing its fire on vulnerable American helicopters held fast.
“The Americans have their own type of war. The Khmer Rouge was famous for jungle warfare – attack quickly, withdraw quickly,” Son said.
Even after hours of aerial bombardment, the Khmer Rouge showed no let up in firing on the helicopters evacuating the exhausted Marines, Barnett said.
“[They] held that chopper in front of the rocks and got everyone on – it was cut up like a piece of Swiss cheese,” Barnett recalled.
His helicopter was able to limp away to safety without crashing down like the one he had arrived in.
But not everyone got back. The three Marines left behind in the chaos of the evacuation continue to haunt the memory of the veterans.
Their abandonment, although accidental, is unthinkable in the tightly knit US Marine Corps subculture, whose unofficial motto is “leave no man behind”.
Joseph Hargrove was executed by Em Son in the days following the battle and buried on Koh Tang, while the other two men were captured shortly afterwards and sent to Sihanoukville, where they were held in a cramped cell on a hilltop pagoda then beaten to death.
What made the abandonment of the Marines especially difficult was that no assault was made to rescue the men, due partly to the inherent danger of mounting another operation.
Some of the veterans also chalk the decision up to the highest echelons of the White House, with President Ford wanting to turn the spotlight on the successful release of the crew as opposed to the failed and likely unnecessary operation on Koh Tang.
Veteran Gale Rogers said that after the battle was over and the troops were back on base, little was done to take action.
“We just kind of went back to training… when you’re young and stupid, you just do what’s told,” he said as he stood on East Beach.
“We left Hargrove [on Koh Tang] on his birthday,” he noted sadly.
The remains of those who perished, and particularly those of Hargrove, have been the subject of controversy between the families of the deceased and the task force assigned to retrieve them.
After about 20 excavations over two decades, none of the three bodies of the men who went missing while still alive have been officially identified by the US government.
The 13 bodies left on the island in the disarray of the final evacuation were only brought back and buried in the US in 2013.
The lack of updates to the families about the status of their loved ones’ remains, which officials say is a strategy adopted to avoid creating false hope, has created fertile ground for various theories.
Cary Turner, Joseph Hargrove’s cousin, came on the trip to Koh Tang, and has made it his mission to “bring Joseph home”, as he puts it in his thick North Carolina accent.
Turner believes that Joseph’s remains could have already been discovered but have not been handed over to the family due to political meddling.
“They don’t want this thing revived,” he said.
Regardless of the painful memories, those who came back to the island on Tuesday, and attended a flag-raising ceremony at the US Embassy on Friday, said it was worth the trip.
“Sometimes in order to defeat those demons, you gotta come back on their turf,” Larry Barnett said.