Forty years on, lessons from the Mayaguez incident

Forty years ago yesterday, fanatical Communist forces of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia boarded an American container ship, the SS Mayaguez, which had apparently strayed into Cambodian territorial waters, and took its crew into custody.  The incident sent the U.S. government into crisis and sparked ferocious ground fighting in what has been termed the “last battle” of the Vietnam War.  Lessons for the present time abound.

Lesson #1: When your enemies no longer fear you, expect provocations.  Less than two weeks earlier, Saigon had fallen to the North Vietnamese in a horrifying rout of American prestige.  The newly triumphant Khmer Rouge neighbors had just emptied out the entire capital city of Phnom Penh by force into the “killing fields” of the countryside. 

Lesson #2: When deterrence fails and you are provoked, you must respond decisively or lose all hope of ending the crisis swiftly.  President Ford and the members of his NSC were highly conscious of the severe blow that the fall of Saigon represented to American prestige, and they acted immediately and with overwhelming force.

On May 14, the Khmer Rouge (KR) herded the Mayaguez crew onto a fishing boat escorted by two KR swift boats.  The three boats headed for the mainland.  Not knowing where the crew was, American warplanes strafed the swift boats, sinking one of them and forcing the others back to the island.  In the process, the pilots relayed that thirty to forty white men were on the fishing boat.

The NSC agreed to a joint rescue and recovery operation.  The Mayaguez, now held at anchor off the coastal island of Koh Tang, would be retaken, and her crew would be rescued from confinement on the island, where Washington assumed that the Americans had been taken.  The best intelligence available to the NSC was that the crew had been split up – some were on the ship, some on the island of Koh Tang, and some still on the fishing boat headed for the mainland. 

Which brings us to Lesson #3: Before you launch any military operation, make sure your intelligence is near-perfect.  In May 1975, it wasn’t.  None of the Mayaguez crew was anywhere on the island, or on the Mayaguez.  In fact, Koh Tang was fortified by an entire KR army company armed to the teeth with machine guns and RPGs. 

What had really happened is that Mayaguez Captain Miller and his crew had been taken to the mainland and interrogated briefly before being asked if they would use the Mayaguez radio, reach the U.S. military, and call off the American warplanes, which by now had already sunk three KR swift boats and killed numerous KR.  The captain agreed to do so, but darkness fell before the trip back to the Mayaguez could be made.

The Ford administration was not waiting.  At 6:13 the next morning, the USS Holt pulled up alongside the Mayaguez, and the Marines boarded it in force.  But the ship was empty.  The Holt towed the Mayaguez away.

This left the crew, which American intelligence wrongly held were on the island of Koh Tang.  At 6:30 am, eight CH-53 helicopters approached the East Beach and were assaulted by massive, dug-in machine gun and RPG fire as they attempted to offload 109-odd Marines.

Most of the helicopters were destroyed or damaged too severely to continue the operation.  In the chaos, the Marines were dropped in three beach areas isolated from each other.  A massive firefight ensued with heavy casualties taken on both sides.  The bodies of Marines and airmen were simply left where they fell.

Meanwhile, as ordered the night before by Phnom Penh, Captain Miller and his crew were being loaded onto another fishing boat to be returned to the Mayaguez after making a promise to call off the American planes.  The fishing boat was intercepted by the U.S. Navy, and the crew was rescued.  This news was immediately relayed to Washington.

There being no further need for a daylight assault on Koh Tang Island, orders were given to extract the two companies of Marines and airmen fighting on the beaches.  Under continuous fire, the force was eventually all airlifted out.

But three Marines, who had been assigned to cover the right flank of the perimeter during the evacuation, were left behind.  One was captured and immediately executed by the KR on the island.  The other two survived for a while before being ambushed, captured, and taken to the mainland, where they were stripped and shackled.  After a week, orders were given from Phnom Penh to murder them.  Each Marine was beaten to death with a B-40 rocket launcher.  Their bodies were dumped on a beach cove.

Had the U.S. not suffered such a recent massive blow in credibility during the fall of Saigon two weeks earlier, it is highly unlikely that the Khmer Rouge would have staged its stunt of pirating an American freighter.  Equally certain is that, absent the aggressive American response of sinking KR vessels and blocking the Mayaguez from movement, the KR would have held the ship and crew for ransom, espionage “trials,” or some other PR advantage.  But the sad irony is this: if the U.S. had even waited a single hour before launching its assault on Koh Tang for better intelligence on the location of the crew, the Iwo Jima-style beach assault, with all its loss of life, would never have happened – because it would have been unnecessary.

Christopher S. Carson is a lawyer and is formerly with the American Enterprise Institute.

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