Mon, May 15, 2000 - Page 10 News List

A Tragedy of ErrorsThe Mayaguez Incident remembered

On May 12, 1975, the American container ship `Mayaguez' was intercepted and its crew taken hostage 60km off the Cambodian coast by naval units of the newly-victorious Khmer Rouge. Four days later, 41 American soldiers and an unknown number of Cambodians were dead in the aftermath of a bungled rescue attempt on the island of Koh Tang and an intensive bombardment of the coastal town of Sihanoukville. In this special report the `Taipei Times' looks back at the Mayaguez Incident, the final tragic act of American military involvement in Southeast Asia in the 1970s.

By Phelim Kyne and Chea Sotheacheath  /  TAIPEI TIMES CORRESPONDENT IN PHNOM PENH

The skeletal remains of a US Marine helicopter retrieved from the jungle surrounding Koh Tang by American MIA retrieval teams in 1995.

PHOTO: DAVID VAN DER VEEN

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.

"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.

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.

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.

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