BETWEEN May 12-15 1975, the final act of official American military involvement
in Indochina unfolded when the American container ship SS Mayaguez was intercepted
100 kilometers off the Cambodian coast by Khmer Rouge naval forces and its crew taken
hostage. A bungled rescue attempt on the island of Koh Tang resulted in the deaths
of 41 American personnel and an untold number of Cambodian casualties hours after
the American hostages had been safely released by their Khmer Rouge captors. Former
US air force pilot-turned-author RALPH WETTERHAHN is interviewed via e-mail
by PHELIM KYNE about his analysis of the Mayaguez Incident and the battle
of Koh Tang in his new book, "The Last Battle".
Author and former US Air Force pilot Ralph Wetterhahn.
Q: Why did this book need to be written ?
A: The Mayaguez Incident can arguably be [described as] the most significant action
of the Vietnam War, if for no other reason than its short life span allows close
inspection. There have been two other books on the subject. The Four Days of Mayaguez,
by Roy Rowan (1975), covers the experiences of the Mayaguez crew and what was released
at that time by the Ford administration regarding the diplomacy.
A Very Short War, by John Guilmartin (1995) was a scholarly work about the 14-hour
battle at Koh Tang. Neither book tried to explain the entire episode. The Last Battle
merges the aspects of those books but includes the Khmer Rouge side of the story
and what I consider a most important part of the event - the fate of three Marines
who were inadvertently left behind; the last three American casualties of the war.
In the process of merging all of these factors one can see a metaphor for the whole
Southeast Asian conflict.
Q: What sources were you able to access for this book that the authors of the
previous two books about Mayaguez weren't able to?
A: I had the ability to review the formerly Top Secret minutes of the National Security
Council meetings that took place in Washington during the incident. These were released
in 1999, and I examined them at the Gerald R. Ford Library in Michigan. I also interviewed
numerous former Khmer Rouge veterans of the Koh Tang battle with the help of my Cambodian
interpreter Noma Sarvong and examined the debriefing reports of other witnesses maintained
at the Joint Task Force headquarters in Hawaii.
Q: The best-known account of the Mayaguez Incident is in the back of William Shawcross'
"Sideshow", in which the Mayaguez Incident is painted as a wasteful, punitive
and aggressive venture that resulted in significant loss of life and property damage
in Ream and Kompong Som from post-operation US air attacks How does Shawcross's account
stand up in the light of your own investigations?
A: One might easily draw that conclusion, but there were more things at issue than
"punitive and aggressive" actions against Cambodia. Whether those issues
were worth the loss of life and property is left to the reader to decide. My personal
conclusion is that the attacks on the mainland were indeed punitive.
Q: Initial US news reports of the Mayaguez/Koh Tang operation described the action
as a victory. Why was the press and the public so willing to accept this explanation
in light of the appalling - and arguably needless - loss of American lives in the
A: The Mayaguez Incident cannot be viewed in isolation. There were political as well
as military goals involved. The United States' image had taken a beating from the
embarrassing collapse of South Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia the previous month. Ford
needed a victory to send a message about US resolve. Freedom of the seas is an important
international issue. The administration saw an opportunity to demonstrate a willingness
to stand up for that right. At that time, North Korean leader Kim Il Sung with his
aim to unify Korea had been encouraged by the Southeast Asia outcome. His troops
were building tunnels under the DMZ. For what purpose? Ford wanted the North Koreans
to know we would fight if they initiated a second war against South Korea. In order
for the US actions in the case of the Mayaguez Incident to appear resolute and successful,
the negative aspects of the operation were suppressed.
Q: The most haunting aspect of the Koh Tang operation has been the fate of the
long-rumored and until recently, the officially long-denied existence of the "lost
machine-gun team", three US marines who were inadvertently left behind on the
island during the evacuation and later hunted down and executed by the Khmer Rouge.
What have your investigations revealed about the fate of these men?
A: From several interviews conducted by the Joint Task Force for Full Accounting
(the US military's MIA search organization), personal interviews with former KR and
physical evidence at burial sites, it is not in doubt that some Americans survived
[on Koh Tang after the withdrawal]. One was captured and killed quite soon after
the May 15 battle. Two others survived for seven to 10 days before being captured.
These two were taken to the mainland and executed about two weeks later according
to the testimony.
Q: American Koh Tang veterans have described being ordered to prepare to effect
a rescue of the three abandoned marines, but the order was promptly rescinded. Why
were those men left to die on Koh Tang?
A: Indeed, the men aboard the ships [after being evacuated] were told to prepare
to return to the island. In the rescue business, however, one thing above all is
required: you must have some indication the missing are alive. If the men were dead,
the effort would be pointless. If already captured, the US side would almost certainly
lose more men in a rescue attempt than would be recovered. In the Koh Tang instance,
the three marines had no radio. The only way to determine if they were still alive
and evading was to see some visual sign of that. None was observed. Add to that the
fact that all but three of the rescue helicopters were temporarily out of action
due to battle damage and you discover your options are limited indeed.
The Thais were incensed over the previous use of these assets from their country
and riots were occurring outside the embassy in Bangkok. Was the US to begin another
operation from Thailand? Finally, the international political issues were to be considered
as well. In order to keep a proper face on the outcome, issues like leaving men behind
on the wrongly attacked island were not things the leadership on the US side wanted
Q: Christopher Hitchens in Vanity Fair has recently singled out Kissinger's management
of the Mayaguez Incident as part of his justification for Kissinger's liability for
prosecution for war crimes. How did Kissinger and Ford perceive Mayaguez, how realistic
were their impressions, and does Hitchens have a point?
A: Christopher Hitchens made some valid points, but he got his facts a bit off in
a few places. He counted the casualties lost in the helicopter crash in Thailand
twice. He claimed the missing Marines were not listed on the Vietnam Memorial Wall
when they are indeed listed there. The fact remains however, that Ford (and Kissinger)
had priorities beyond the mere rescuing of a ship's crew. One should examine those
priorities and decide whether they rightly should come before any concern for Cambodia
per se. We'll never really know if the Mayaguez Incident was the key to preventing
a second Korean War in that time frame. All we do know is no war occurred there.
Did Ford and Kissinger do their best in the case of the Mayaguez? Again, I entreat
you to read the account and decide for yourself. Since both Christopher Hitchens
from the Liberal left and Senator John McCain from the Conservative right and Pulitzer
prize-winning journalist Sydney Schanberg have endorsed The Last Battle, I am encouraged
by the thought that I may have treated the material even-handedly. My own personal
observation regarding Henry Kissinger is that he has remarkable experience and an
extensive body of knowledge to work with - or intimidate with - yet his application
of those assets often leaves much to be desired. He is an intelligent man who is
not very smart.
Q: What lessons can be learnt from the Mayaguez Incident?
A: Many of the lessons that should have been learned have not. The improvement in
our communications has serious drawbacks. It allows decisions that would normally
be made at low levels to be pushed to the top simply because it can be done so quickly.
In the process, plans get changed, targeting gets changed, times-on-target get changed,
and the whole process actually starts to break down. The people at the top have too
many other things to attend to besides a crisis that is happening half a world away.
So they decide on a course of action based on "sound bites". This is a
lesson for those in charge, both military leaders and politicians - for anyone who
would deign to send servicemen into harm's way.
Another lesson that should be learned is that at some point, the sacrifice of good
men should be made public when the need for secrecy no longer exists. I was disappointed
in the amount of stonewalling I got from so many quarters some 20-25 years after
the battle when I was trying to set the record straight.