Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - A tragedy of errors: the Mayaguez Incident remembered

A tragedy of errors: the Mayaguez Incident remembered

A tragedy of errors: the Mayaguez Incident remembered

Twenty-five years ago today, the American container ship Mayaguez was

intercepted 60 kilometers off the Cambodian coast by Khmer Rouge naval forces

and its crew taken hostage. Four days later, 41 American soldiers and an untold

number of Cambodians were dead as a result of a bungled rescue attempt on the

island Koh Tang and an intensive American bombardment of Sihanoukville port and

nearby Ream naval base. Phelim Kyne and Chea Sotheacheath look

back at the Mayaguez Incident - the tragic final act of United States military

involvement in Southeast Asia.

AT 2:20pm on May 12, 1975, an

otherwise routine voyage to Sattahip, Thailand, by the Sealand container ship

Mayaguez was brought to a halt by a pair of Khmer Rouge naval patrol boats and

their heavily-armed crews.

The skeletal remains of an American helicopter retrieved

from the surf around Koh Tang by US MIA teams in 1995

Accused of violating Cambodian territorial

waters, the ship and its 39 member crew were diverted toward the Cambodian

island of Koh Tang.

Coming just 12 days after America's humiliating

retreat from Vietnam, the hostage-taking became the focus of US government

efforts to salvage a superpower reputation perceived tarnished by the recent

twin Communist victories in Cambodia and Vietnam.

"The National Security

Council was convened and [then-US Secretary of State] Kissinger argued that much

more was at stake than the seizure of an American ship ... [that] American

credibility was more involved than ever," William Shawcross wrote of the

incident in his book Sideshow. "Throughout the crisis the Secretary insisted

that for domestic and international reasons, and particularly to impress the

North Koreans, the United States must use force."

Although the Mayaguez

crew was transferred by fishing boat to the port of Sihanoukville on the

afternoon of May 13, American military intelligence believed at least half of

the crew remained on Koh Tang, and plans were laid for a rescue attempt by

American Marines based in Thailand.

The plans went askew horrifyingly


A stretch of beach on Koh Tang where two of three US helicopters were shot down on the morning of May 15, 1975

The Khmer Rouge boat carrying the Mayaguez crew to Sihanoukville

was repeatedly strafed and tear-gassed by American planes unsuccessfully seeking

to force the ship back to Koh Tang. A group of the Mayaguez crew later

unsuccessfully sued the government for chronic health problems incurred as a

result of those aerial attacks.

On the evening of May 14, 23 US Marines

became the Mayaguez Incident's first deaths after their helicopter crashed en

route from Nakhon Phanom Royal Thai Airbase to the operation's departure point

of U Tapao air base. A US government memorial unveiled in Phnom Penh in 1995 by

visiting Senator John McCain makes no mention of those men.

At dawn on

May 15, 170 Marines in eight Knife and Jolly Green Giant helicopters approached

Koh Tang in the first stage of a rescue attempt in which little or no resistance

was expected from what American military intelligence had described as an

opposition force of 35-to-40 KR "irregulars".

Instead they entered a

firestorm orchestrated by a well-armed and well-dug-in platoon of

battle-hardened KR, veterans of the April 17 "liberation" of Phnom Penh, who

assailed the invaders with their newly acquired American guns and ammunition

confiscated from losing Lon Nol forces.

Within minutes three helicopters

had been shot down and for the next 24 hours US forces fought for their lives in

a battle that eventually killed 16 KR combatants and an additional 18 Americans,

their remains the focus of intensive searches by US government MIA teams on Koh

Tang that continue to this day.

In a bitter irony unknown to the Marines

on Koh Tang until after their harrowing extraction to the US aircraft carrier

Coral Sea on the morning of May 16, the crew of the Mayaguez had been freed on

to a Thai fishing boat several hours before the attack commenced.


10:08am of May 15, while US helicopter gunships perforated with KR small arms

fire struggled to land reinforcements and evacuate wounded Marines from Koh

Tang, the crew of the Mayaguez was picked up by the US navy.

Mao Ran, KR platoon commander on Koh Tang

during the US assault of May 15, 1975


wrote in Sideshow that President Ford was quick to describe the Mayaguez mission

as a success in that "...it did not only ignite confidence in the White House

... it had an electrifying reaction as far as the American people were

concerned. It was a spark that set off a whole new sense of confidence for them,


Calculating the costs of the battle - 41 American dead in return

for the safe return of 39 merchant seamen and the loss of life and property of

Cambodians unaware of their position in American foreign and domestic policy

objectives - Shawcross is unequivocal in suggesting that the Mayaguez Incident

left little to celebrate for either side.

"In the attacks on

[Sihanoukville] the railroad yard, the port, the oil refinery and the airfield

were virtually destroyed," he writes. "At Ream naval base, 364 buildings were

flattened. Nine Cambodian vessels were sunk at sea. In order to rescue the

Marines on Koh Tang, the island was heavily bombarded ... [ignoring] ... the

August 1973 ban on bombing Indochina as well as the 1973 War Powers Act. The

principal purposes of the bombing seem to have been to punish the Cambodians and

to reassert a concept of American bellicosity which the collapse of Phnom Penh

and Saigon was seen to have damaged."

AT the pre-dawn briefing for US

Marines chosen to participate in the rescue attempt of the Mayaguez crew

mistakenly believed to be held by Khmer Rouge forces on the island of Koh Tang,

the planned operation seemed deceptively straightforward.

"Our group's

mission was to land on the beach, link up with the other groups and move toward

the middle of the island [where] we were to link up and surround a compound

believed to hold the captured Mayaguez crew," explained Dale L Clark, a Marine

Lance Corporal fire team leader during the Koh Tang assault. "My group had two

US Army interpreters that spoke fluent Cambodian [who] were equipped with

bullhorns and tasked with influencing [the Khmer Rouge] in giving up the crew

without a fight."

The battle for Koh Tang had all the necessary

ingredients for a military disaster: inexperienced soldiers facing a seasoned

enemy on its home turf and faulty intelligence assessments of the nature of the


"Very few within our company had any previous combat

experience ... lots of the guys were fresh out of boot-camp or like myself had

just been in about a year," recalled Koh Tang Marine survivor Larry Barnett. "I

guess a fair general term to describe our company was 'greenhorns'."


they skimmed over the Gulf of Thailand in helicopters toward their fateful

encounter with the KR on Koh Tang, both Barnett and Clark were comforted by

military intelligence reports of the light resistance they would encounter upon

arrival on the island.

"The most we were told to expect was sniper fire

...we were led to believe that the operation would be relatively easy," Barnett


"We were led to expect the operation to be easy and with a

quick withdrawal," Clark added. "We were told not to 'lock and load' our weapons

until told to do so because combat was not expected."

An American scholar

and former military officer who has researched and written extensively about the

Koh Tang operation says that the Marines had been inaccurately informed to

expect a KR militia force of between 20 and 40 men based on the estimate of a

former Lon Nol navy officer familiar with the island's garrison before the

communist takeover.

"My estimate ... distilled from CIA and DIA estimates

and adjusted in light of the Marines impressions of the action was that the KR

had approximately 200 people on the island, reinforced with heavy machineguns,

possibly mortars and recoilless rifles," he told the Post. "Supporting my logic,

an intercepted KR message from the island after the battle indicated that the KR

garrison had suffered 55 men killed and 70 wounded."

Clark admits going

into "mild shock" by the intensity of the KR resistance to the Marine landing on

Koh Tang.

"I could not believe what I saw ... the KR opened up on the

first four helicopters that attempted to land on the west beach and then on the

east beach.

"I saw an antiaircraft gun emplacement near the edge of the

island. I also saw a lot of smoke coming from a tree line we flew over ... from

rifles being fired at the helicopters. I remember hugging the bottom of the

helicopter as we began evasive maneuvers to get out of the kill zone. I looked

up and saw fuel spraying all over the inside of the front of the helicopter. I

could not believe what I was seeing."

Clark and Barnett were victims of

what both men concede was a severe failure of intelligence about the strength of

the force facing them on Koh Tang.

"Being told not to expect resistance

and having the opposite experience ... tells me it was an intelligence

disaster," Clark said of the operation. "Years later after I conducted some

minor research, I discovered that several branches of the military had an

accurate assessment of the KR on Koh Tang ... the information was never passed

on to the US Marine Corps."

Barnett is even more explicit in laying blame

for the contradictory information given to him and his men before the Koh Tang


"The intelligence that [the military] had on the island was good

... but did not make its way into the proper hands," Barnett said. "Our Company

Commander and Company Gunnery Sergeant received a photo of the island's gun

placements and bunkers the night before [the assault] ... but elected not to

tell the troops for fear of making us more nervous than we already


SURPRISE and dismay over the events of May 15, 1975, were felt

equally by the Khmer Rouge defenders of Koh Tang. Mao Ran, a 22-year-old platoon

commander, had arrived on Koh Tang a week earlier in advance of an expected

incursion of Vietnamese troops. The last thing he expected, he told the Post

from his village in rural Kampong Speu where he now serves as a Commune Chief,

was an assault by American troops.

"I met those men from the [Mayaguez]

and we were friendly and kind to them ... I had no idea they would be the cause

of fighting between Cambodia and America," he said. "I think [the Americans]

attacked us out of revenge because they had lost the war and they used the

[Mayaguez] as an excuse ... remember, the Americans didn't just bomb Koh Tang,

but also the port and airfield at [Sihanouk-ville] - it was just


Ran also challenges revised American estimates of the size of

the KR defending force on Koh Tang.

"We had 40 men in total on the

island, but only 20 men took part in most of the fighting," he insisted. "But we

had a lot of weapons from the liberation of Phnom Penh ... we used American M16s

and M30s to kill American troops."

While both Barnett and Clark are

skeptical about Ran's claims regarding the troop numbers under his command, they

expressed admiration for the ferocity with which they fought."

"I was so

scared and in danger, I had to defecate by pulling my trousers down while in a

prone position and firing my weapon at the same time," Clark said. "I was

expecting a KR [soldier] to come running out at me [from] the jungle. While KR

rounds were cracking over my head I felt a snake crawl over my left leg [but] I

was too terrified to stop firing to worry about the snake."

Ran, however,

was less than impressed by the fighting prowess of the US Marines he engaged on

Koh Tang.

"Those American soldiers were not professional like Khmer Rouge

fighters ... they spoke loudly and laughed and smoked so it was easy to pinpoint

their location and monitor their movements," he recalled. "Later [on the evening

of May 15] this behavior made it easy for us to launch a grenade attack against


In the air above Ran and his fellow KR defenders, American planes

and AC-130 Specter gunships subjected their positions to withering cover fire

that continued uninterrupted throughout the operation.

At the height of

the fighting KR positions were targeted with a 15,000 pound BLU-82 cluster bomb,

at the time the biggest non-nuclear weapon in the US arsenal, carving out a huge

crater still clearly visible on the island 25 years later.

"I think the

Americans must have thought that all of us were dead because they dropped so

many bombs and rockets on us from the air," Ran said. "That's why they flew so

low, almost treetop level, which made it much easier for us to shoot at


After the withdrawal of the last Marines from the island at dawn

on the morning of May 16, Ran and his fellow KR dragged the bodies of the dead

Marines to the water's edge and threw them in. "I didn't count how many there

were, but I remember dragging five or six bodies myself."

In a reference

to the efforts of US government Joint Task Force-Full Accounting MIA searches

which he has subsequently assisted in on Koh Tang, he joked: "If we'd known the

Americans would have come back some day to look for the bodies, we would have

put all the bodies in one easy-to-find place."

Ran justifies his obvious

lack of sympathy for the American losses on Koh Tang due to what he describes as

"many Cambodian deaths" that resulted from the operation.

"We lost six

men on the island, and another ten were killed when their boats were sunk

approaching Koh Tang," Ran said. "Many more people were killed by bombs in


Both Clark and Barnett admit to have agonized over the

years over their experiences on Koh Tang and express interest in some day

meeting Ran and other surviving Khmer Rouge from Koh Tang to discuss the

operation from both perspectives.

"I'd love to ask them the same

questions you asked me ... I would like to know what they were feeling at the

time," Clark said.

Ran, however, is clearly less enthusiastic about

rehashing the details of the Koh Tang battle with his former foes.


Tang] was just like a training exercise ... the real battle and the real victory

was the liberation of Phnom Penh on April 17," he said. "And people say now that

the Khmer Rouge killed one million people [between 1975-1979], but another

million people must have been killed in American B52 attacks on Cambodia ... I

saw whole villages destroyed by B-52s and I'll never forget that."


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