Mon, May 15, 2000 - Page 10 News List

War veterans explain how a simple plan went horribly wrong for the US

"I still remember feeling the heat from the burning chopper next to us.? I remember the flash and watching our tail section fold away from the chopper.? I remember seeing my fellow Marines' bodies floating into the beach?and others swimming to open sea.? Yes sir, hell is an understatement."

-- Larry Barnett, former US Marine and survivor of the second of three US helicopters shot down over Koh Tang on May 15, 1975.

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

Mao Run, platoon commander of Khmer Rouge forces on Koh Tang island during the US Marine assault on May 15, 1975.

At the pre-dawn briefing for the US Marines detailed to conduct the rescue attempt of the Mayaguez crew, 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 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."

Instead, what ensued was a near-textbook exemplar of a military disaster: inexperienced troops with inaccurate intelligence pitted against a seasoned enemy on its home turf.

"Very few of 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 survivor Larry Barnett.? "I guess a fair general term to describe our company was `greenhorns.'"

As they skimmed over the Pacific toward their fateful encounter with the Khmer Rouge on Koh Tang, the Marines were comforted by military intelligence reports of the light resistance, if any, they would encounter upon arrival.????

"We were told to expect the operation to be easy and with a quick withdrawal," Clark said.? "We were told not to `lock and load' our weapons until told to do so because combat was not expected."

Clark admits to 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.?I saw an aircraft 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."

Both Clark and Barnett describe themselves and their fellow Marines as victims of?a severe failure of military intelligence regarding 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," he said.

Barnett is even more explicit in where to lay blame for what befell the Koh Tang operation.

"The intelligence that [the US military] had on the island was good ... but it did not make its way into the proper hands," Barnett explained.? "Our company commander and company gunnery sergeant received a photo of the island's gun emplacements and bunkers the night before [the assault] ... but elected not to tell the troops for fear of making us more nervous than we already were."

Surprise and dismay over the events of May 15, 1975 were shared by Mao Run, platoon commander of the KR forces on Koh Tang.? Dispatched to the island the week before in advance of an expected Vietnamese invasion, a landing by US Marines was the last thing on his mind.

"I met those men [from the Mayageuz] and we were friendly and kind to them ... I had no idea they would be the cause of fighting between Cambodia and America," the disabled veteran explained from his rural village in southern Cambodia.? "I think the Americans attacked us out of revenge because they had lost the war and they used [the Mayageuz Incident] as an excuse."

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