“The crisis and botched rescue served as a farcical footnote to America’s decade-long misadventure in Indo China.”
CHARLES McMAHON AND DARWIN LEE JUDGE lay claim to a most unfortunate place in the history books: The two were the last American servicemen killed in the Vietnam War.
Both died in a rocket attack on the morning of April 29, 1975 while manning a perimeter near Saigon’s main airport. The deaths occurred just one day before the last American personnel were airlifted from the besieged South Vietnamese capital.
McMahon, age 21, and Judge, 19, had arrived in country only recently as part of Operation Frequent Wind, the massive U.S. evacuation effort that brought the curtain down on America’s war in Vietnam. Ironically, the bodies of the two soldiers were forgotten in the frantic final minutes of the withdrawal. It was only through the diplomatic efforts of Senator Ted Kennedy that their remains were repatriated the following year.
While McMahon and Judge were the final Americans to die in Vietnam, they would not be the last casualties the U.S. would sustain in the whole of South East Asia. Several more deaths followed just two weeks later in a bizarre and largely forgotten one-day battle against radical Khmer Rouge guerrillas in neighbouring Cambodia. The epic firefight was the climax of a tense four-day standoff following the illegal seizure of a U.S. cargo ship and her civilian crew by communist forces in the Gulf of Siam. The crisis and eventual botched rescue, known as the Mayaguez Affair, served as a farcical footnote to America’s decade-long misadventure in Indo China.
The incident began on May 12, 1975, as the American merchant ship SS Mayaguez passed near Cambodian territorial waters on its way from Hong Kong to Thailand.
Shortly after 2 p.m. local time, the ship’s 64-year-old skipper, Charles T. Miller, observed a lone Khmer Rouge speedboat approaching from the starboard. The small craft opened fire and the gunmen ordered the ship to stop. Miller complied and cut his engines, but not before signalling by radio that he was about to be boarded. Within minutes, communist guerrillas were swarming the Mayaguez’s deck and had arrested the crew of 40. The captors ordered the Americans to steam for nearby Koh Tang Island, a five-kilometer sliver of jungle off the southern coast of Cambodia.
A Rescue Plan
The White House immediately condemned the seizure and began working diplomatic channels to secure the release of the ship and crew. Unfortunately, the U.S. had no direct contact with the new regime in Cambodia. Washington had only just evacuated its embassy in Phnom Penh amid the recent Khmer Rouge take-over of the country and America refused to recognize the hard-core communist regime.
The crisis couldn’t have come at a worse time for the post-Watergate administration of Gerald Ford. America was still reeling from its humiliating defeat in South East Asia. With his nation’s international prestige in still tatters, the new president opted for an overwhelming show of military force to free the captives and help restore the United States’ reputation abroad.
Barely 24 hours after the seizure of the Mayaguez, a strike team of 600 marines was assembling in Thailand. There they linked up with 19 HH-53 and CH-53 heavy transport helicopters along with a USAF security detail and awaited orders. Two American destroyers and the carrier USS Coral Sea were also diverted to the waters off Cambodia, while navy and air force warplanes converged on the region to monitor the situation. Meanwhile, the Pentagon was working up plans for a daring two-pronged rescue operation. The mission called for a small team to secure the Mayaguez while a more substantial force would assault the Khmer Rouge compound on Koh Tang Island and liberate the captives believed to be held there. The operation was set to kick off at daybreak on May 15.
Almost immediately, the American plans began to unravel. Even before the combat team had fully assembled, one of the copters (call sign Knife 13) suffered a mechanical failure and crashed at a staging area killing 23 soldiers and crew. The accident was a grim harbinger of what was to come.
From Bad to Worse
The American rescue kicked off shortly after 6 a.m. on May 15. That’s when eight choppers touched down on the beaches of Koh Tang and started offloading 100 marines. Mission planners expected the ground force to quickly subdue the dozen or so guerrillas on the island and then secure the hostages with minimal loss of life. Instead the troops were met by an army of heavily armed, battle-hardened Khmer Rouge veterans. Worse there were nearly ten times as many of enemy troops as was expected. Three of the U.S. choppers were destroyed outright in the opening minutes of the action; another four were damaged while withdrawing to safety.
As the morning wore on, the communists blanketed the American landing zones with heavy machine gun, RPG and mortar fire, leaving the Marines pinned down. Having lost the initiative, the U.S. troops found themselves divided between two besieged LZs and fighting for their very lives. Worse, air support from Navy planes failed to arrive – the pilots were reportedly unable to even locate the small island.
As the battle on Koh Tang raged, an armed boarding party from the destroyer USS Harold E Holt sped alongside the anchored Mayaguez. The team stormed the vessel without incident only to find it completely empty. And that wasn’t the only surprise of the morning.
Almost at the exact moment, Khmer Rouge officials announced in a radio broadcast from Phnom Penh that the regime had released the entire crew of the Mayaguez. More shocking was the fact that the captives weren’t even on Koh Tang, where the Marines had only just landed. They had been secretly transferred to the mainland more than 30 miles (50 km) away sometime in the previous two days. It was an astonishing failure of American intelligence.
Unable to confirm this unexpected revelation, Washington ordered the Marines to continue with their futile assault on the island stronghold.
By mid-morning the Mayaguez crew, already en route to their vessel aboard a neutral Thai fishing boat, was located by an American destroyer. The mission now effectively complete, U.S. commanders called for the immediate withdrawal of the Marines still in action on Koh Tang. Their evacuation proved most difficult.
Rescuing the Rescuers
Pinned down by withering fire for the past six hours and with casualties mounting, it was the assault team on Koh Tang that now needed saving. With their landing zones almost completely overrun by communist guerrillas, an additional 100 U.S. marines were hurriedly dropped into action to shore up the American positions. By the afternoon, air support was finally being brought to bear on the enemy too. A-7 Corsairs and F-Phantoms from the Coral Sea supported the ground team with rockets and cannon fire while five C-130s, each carrying a 15,000-pound BLU-82 “Daisy Cutter” bomb, arrived on station and began pounding the interior of the island.
By dusk, the fighting had ebbed enough for a fresh formation of helicopters to start taking the combined force of 200 Marines off Koh Tang. Shortly after 8 p.m. local time, the recovery operation was completed. In all, 15 American soldiers had been killed and more than 40 were wounded — a staggering butcher’s bill. Cambodian casualties were pegged at somewhere between one and two-dozen. To add insult to injury, the U.S. dead had to be abandoned on the island amid the rushed evacuation. Worse, three live Marines were mistakenly left behind. An ad hoc rescue mission was organized, but it was called off by military brass. The Khmer Rouge reportedly later executed all three captives.
To the American public, the bungled mission was a regrettable end to the United States’ long and messy involvement in South East Asia. The debacle also prompted considerable soul-searching within the U.S. military on how to revamp the nation’s special operations capability. The need for change was further underscored just five years later with the doomed mission to rescue American hostages in Iran, a debacle known as Operation Eagle Claw. Those events ultimately led to the formation of the U.S. Special Operations Command.
Fittingly, the 18 servicemen lost in the fight for the Mayaguez are the last names engraved on the Vietnam Veterans’ Memorial in Washington, D.C. Efforts were made during the 1990s and early 2000s to recover the dead left behind that day and bury them stateside. Five still remain unaccounted for.
(ORIGINALLY POSTED MARCH 26, 2014)