The otherwise routine voyage of the Sealand container ship Maya-guez to the Thai port of Sattahip was brought to an abrupt halt on the afternoon of May 12, 1975? by a pair of Khmer Rouge patrol boats and their heavily-armed crews.
Accused of violating Cambodian territorial waters, the ship and its 39 member crew were diverted toward the nearby island of Koh Tang.
Coming just 12 days after America's humiliating retreat from Vietnam, the hostage-taking became the focus of American government efforts to salvage a superpower reputation tarnished by the recent twin Communist victories in Cambodia and Vietnam.
PHOTO: DAVID VAN DER VEEN
"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," the British journalist William Shawcross wrote in his 1979 book Sideshow: Nixon, Kissinger and the Destruction of Cambodia. "Throughout the crisis the Secretary insisted that for domestic and international reasons, and particularly to impress the North Koreans, the US 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 that at least half the crew remained on Koh Tang and plans were laid for a rescue attempt by American Marines based in Thailand.
The plan went quickly wrong.
PHOTO: DAVID VAN DER VEEN
The KR vessel carrying the Mayageuz crew to Sihanoukville was repeatedly strafed and tear-gassed by American planes unsuccessfully seeking to force the craft back to Koh Tang.
A group of the Mayaguez crew later unsuccessfully tried suing the US government for chronic health problems incurred as a result of those aerial attacks.
On the evening of May 14, 23 US servicemen became the Mayaguez Incident's first fatalities after their helicopter crashed en route from Thailand's Nakhon Phanom airbase to the operation's departure point of U Tapao air base.
PHOTO: RALPH WETTERHAHN
A US government memorial unveiled in Phnom Penh in 1995 by visiting American 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 35-40 KR "irregulars."
Instead, they entered a firestorm orchestrated by a well-armed and well dug-in platoon of battle-hardened veterans of the April 17 "liberation" of Phnom Penh, who brought their newly-acquired American guns and ammunition confiscated from losing Lon Nol forces to bear on the invading force.
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 additional 18 American servicemen, their remains the focus of intensive searches by US government MIA retrieval teams on Koh Tang that continue to this day.
In a bitter irony unknown to the Marines on Koh Tang until after their harrowing escape back to the US aircraft carrier Coral Sea on the morning of May 16, the crew of the Mayageuz had been released by their captors onto a Thai fishing boat several hours before the attack had commenced.
At 10:08am on May 15, while US helicopter gunships perforated with small arms fire struggled to land reinforcements and evacuate wounded personnel from Koh Tang, the crew of the Mayaguez was picked up by the US navy in the Gulf of Thailand.
As Shawcross noted in Sideshow, US 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, too."
Calculating the costs of the battle -- 41 dead servicemen in return for the safe return of 39 American 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 his condemnation of Ford's upbeat assessment of the results of the Mayageuz Incident.
"In the attacks on [Sihanoukville] the railroad yard, the port, the oil refinery and the airfield were virtually destroyed. 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 purpose 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."
Even more disturbingly, the battalion commander of the Khmer Rouge forces on Koh Tang admitted during an interview with the Taipei Times last week that, contrary to long held Pentagon assertions to the contrary, American servicemen had been abandoned on Koh Tang during the confusion of their withdrawal.
"Ten days after the American soldiers left Koh Tang, a tree-cutting detail sighted a figure taking water from a well," Mao Run told the Taipei Times. "When they investigated, they found boot marks which we knew had to belong to an American soldier because our men only wore sandals."
According to Run, the abandoned American Marine was found and executed shortly after.
Run's admission 25 years after the fact adds credence to the belief held by many Marines who participated in the Koh Tang operation of a "lost machine-gun team" inadvertently left behind on the island.?
"We were told on the US Coral Sea that a machine-gun team was killed by the KR as we withdrew from the island, but years later I suspect that they were left behind," Koh Tang marine veteran Dale L. Clark told the Taipei Times. "I believe the US government knew the team was alive on the island because I heard and saw preparations made on the USS Coral Sea to return to the island, [but] no attempts were made to travel back to the island for their recovery ... I suspect the US government canceled the plans not wanting to have any more Marines killed during the recovery."
Lieutenant Colonel Franklin Childress, Public Affairs Officer of the Joint Task Force for Full Accounting for MIAs in Hawaii was unaware of Run's allegations, but assured the Taipei Times that MIA investigators were still pursuing rumors that US Marines had been left behind on Koh Tang.
"The case of the three-man machine-gun team is still under investigation," Childress said.? "There are still places to investigate and places to be excavated [for MIA remains on Koh Tang]."
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