The Mayagüez Incident, the disastrous epilogue of the Vietnam War

The Vietnam War ended for the US on January 27, 1973 with the signing of the Paris Agreement, by which it withdrew from the conflict, abandoning its ally in the South, definitively defeated at the end of April 1975.

But Washington would still get one last grain that year, when everything was over, and what can be considered the last and last battle, an unnecessary and somewhat absurd epilogue. It was on May 12 and is known as the incident of Mayaguez.

The SS Mayaguez It was a cargo ship launched in 1944 and belonging to the company Sea-Land Service Inc. that sailed under the American flag for the Southeast Asian heading to Sattahip, Thailand.

Cambodian boats approaching the Mayagüez/Photo: public domain in Wikimedia Commons

Passing near Koh Poulo Wai, an island belonging to Cambodiaspeedboats from this country intercepted it on behalf of the Khmer Rouge, firing before the bow to force it to stop. When he did not do so, there were more shots and Captain Charles T. Miller sent out an SOS before giving in and ordering the machines to stop.

The ship was approached on the grounds that it was in Cambodian waters, but the US did not recognize the jurisdiction of twelve nautical miles that defended Cambodia and thus the story that had occurred seven years earlier with the USS Pueblo, a spy ship captured by North Korea, was repeated.

But the fall of Saigon just three weeks earlier, the American withdrawal from Cambodia, and the loss of USS Pueblo there were too many negative episodes for the image of the country and, aware of the matter, Gerald Fordhe was determined to take forceful measures.

Because his radar was not working, the Mayaguez was authorized to remain anchored on the island under Khmer Rouge surveillance while Kissinger requested the chinese intercession -who refused to get involved- before what Ford defined as an act of piracy.

President Ford with his crisis cabinet/Photo: public domain on Wikimedia Commons

Several US and UK P-3 Orions took off from the Philippines and Thailand to the site, as did the aircraft carrier USS Coral Sea and two destroyers were diverting their course in that direction. It also mobilized the marines stationed in the bases of the region.

Diplomacy aside, the basic idea was to prevent the ship from being transferred to the mainland cambodia, authorizing the use of weapons for it. It should be noted that the incident was more symbolic than material, because although seventy-seven of the containers that the ship was transporting contained military equipment from the embassy in Saigon (another hundred and seven were routine merchandise and ninety were empty), the Khmer Rouge they didn’t bother to inspect them.

The planes located the Mayaguez on May 13. The shots of the Khmer Rouge did not reach them but their commander, Sa Mean, ordered the captain to raise anchor and head northwest following his boats until Koh Tanganother island closer to Cambodia, where the sailors landed.

The soldiers killed in the accident/Photo: public domain on Wikimedia Commons

The convoy was intercepted by two Phantom Americans who fired in front of the bow to stop the march and who shortly after were joined by other planes, preventing it from continuing to move.

Throughout the following days, units of the US Navy sent ad hoc. The recovery of Mayaguez was commissioned to III MAF (Marine Amphibious Force), reinforced by the 3rd Marine Division from Okinawa. They had to be loaded onto helicopters, from which seventy-five volunteers from the 56th Security Police Squadron they would jump onto the deck of the ship, counting on air support.

Unfortunately, in the test exercises one of the helicopters crashed All five of his crew members and eighteen soldiers died, which, combined with the information that the ship’s containers would not support the weight of the helicopters and that rappelling meant exposing himself to Khmer marksmen, led Ford to postpone the operation until the army units brought the marines to the place.

Two downed helicopters on the east beach/Photo: public domain on Wikimedia Commons

Since the air force prevented the Cambodian ships from approaching, Sa Mean loaded the American crew onto a fishing boat on May 14 for transfer from Koh Tang to kampong som, a city located already on the Cambodian mainland coast. But the Phantom and the F-111s unleashed a strong curtain of fire that forced the fishing boat to turn around.

Given the circumstances, the president authorized the sinking of the boats and again gave the green light to the rescue operation. The problem was now pinpoint the crewwhich was scattered among the Mayaguez, Koh Tang and Kampong Som, as the fishing boat eventually made it to land. So it was not enough to recover the ship; more difficult targets would have to be attacked as well.

The dawn of May 15 was set to start the operation with six hundred marines. Koh Tang presented the problem of its leafiness, which only allowed landing in two beaches: one, to the west, would be used for a diversionary attack with two helicopters while the other, to the east and larger, would be the main target, as it was believed that captives were being kept there, and five helicopters were assigned to it. Both forces would then unite to be evacuated. There would be naval and air support but Ford vetoed the use of B-52 bombers as excessive.

According to American estimates, there were no more than twenty or thirty Khmer on the island. The truth is that, since the fall of Saigon, there were a hundred that were used to raise some considerable defenseswith heavy machine guns on each beach, several grenade launchers and even a cannon, all arranged so that they could shoot each other for support.

They also dug trenches and built ammunition bunkers. Another American information error was that of the shed where the crew of the ship were supposed to be staying. Mayaguezbecause in reality they had all been transferred to Kampong Som.

At dawn the assault on the ship began by launching tear gas, followed by their boarding by mask-clad Marines. They met with no opposition because the ship was empty, although the Khmer planned to send the captain and nine sailors that morning to start the engines so they could negotiate by radio. It was already too late for that.

The fishing boat that transported the sailors/Image: public domain on Wikimedia Commons

Simultaneously, eight helicopters they landed on the beaches of Koh Tang amid heavy fire that left three of them out of action and four damaged, necessitating covering fire from a gunboat. However, most of the marines They managed to land and take positions, although with significant casualties.

Curiously that same morning hu nimCambodian Minister of Information and Propaganda, announced that they had no intention of retaining the Mayaguez nor his crew. The Khmers loaded the sailors onto another fishing boat to return them to their ship.

But Washington’s response was that it would continue the rescue operation and sent the destroyer USS Wilson a intercept the Cambodian vessel (which had actually been captured from the Vietnamese) thinking it would be a gunboat. Since it was not, there was no need to fight and the sailors were transferred to the Wilsonalthough the US government press release omitted that detail.

Everything seemed to be going well: the people rescued and the ship recovered; just missing get the marines out of Koh Tang. The next step was to start the bombing raids on Kampong Som, which destroyed the port, fuel depots and the airfield. That part of the operation was then terminated to focus on the island.

It was not so simple and forced land reinforcementsas well as having the destroyer intervene against a Cambodian light submarine that was causing quite a few problems.

The battle lasted all day and at nightfall they proceeded to the evacuationwhich was difficult because it had to be done in the dark and under heavy enemy attack.

The evacuation of Koh Tang/Photo: public domain on Wikimedia Commons

Everything ended in a couple of hours, but at the price of leaving behind the bodies of several fallen (which did not recover until the late 1990s) and, what was worse, three soldiers that they had been isolated and whose absence no one noticed until they were all safe in the boats.

This forced them to return to rescue them. There were discussions about whether to carry out an operation or negotiate with the Khmer. At daylight, the destroyer toured the insular coastline explaining to the enemy that they were only looking for stragglers; the Khmer did not respond or fire but as there was no sign of the three missing either, they were considered missing in action or deceased.

The fact is that one of them was still alive and two days later he killed a Khmer before being captured and shot. A week later they captured the other two and also they executed thembarbarically not only because they did it with a grenade launcher but also because it was done in cold blood, in a pagoda in Kampong Som.

USA registered thirty-two dead and fifty wounded, not counting the considerable material losses; Khmer casualties are estimated at around fifteen or twenty deaths on the island, ignoring figures in other places. Despite this, and as often happens, public opinion was favorable to the action and the Ford executive emerged strengthened.

It was not the same in Congress, which expressed its irritation over the none received from the government, nor in Thailand, where an anti-American wave was unleashed for having used the U-Tupao base ignoring the denial of the corresponding Thai permit.

The crew of the Mayaguez He also sued his shipping company accusing the captain of navigating in Cambodian waters, receiving large compensation; Paradoxically, they always claimed that the Khmer Rouge had treated them well, in contrast to the soldiers.


The Mayaguez Incident: Near Disaster at Koh Tang (Major Mark J. Toal)/The Press and the Ford Presidency (Mark J. Rozell)/Warrior Elite. 31 Heroic Special-Ops Missions from the Raid on Son Tay to the Killing of Osama Bin Laden (Nigel Cawthorne)/Use of Force. War and Neutrality Peace Treaties (Rudolf Bernhardt)/Abandon Ship: Interagency Decisionmaking during the Mayaguez Incident (Richard Hughes at National Defense University Press)/Wikipedia / A Very Short War: The Mayaguez and the Battle of Koh Tang (John F. Guilmartin Jr.).