( information gathered by the P.O.W. Network)
When U.S. troops were pulled out of Southeast Asia in early 1975, Vietnamese communist troops began capturing one city after another, with Hue, Da Nang and Ban Me Thuot in March, Xuan Loc in April, and finally on April 30, Saigon. In Cambodia, communist Khmer Rouge had captured the capital city of Phnom Penh on April 17. The last Americans were evacuated from Saigon during "Option IV", with U.S. Ambassador Martin departing on April 29. The war, according to President Ford, "was finished."
2Lt. Richard Van de Geer, assigned to the 21st Special Ops Squadron at NKP, had participated in the evacuation of Saigon, where helicopter pilots were required to fly from the decks of the 7th Fleet carriers stationed some 500 miles offshore, fly over armed enemy-held territory, collect American and allied personnel and return to the carriers via the same hazardous route, heavily loaded with passengers. Van de Geer wrote to a friend, "We pulled out close to 2,000 people. We couldn't pull out any more because it was beyond human endurance to go any more..."
At 11:21 a.m. on May 12, the U.S. merchant ship MAYAGUEZ was seized by the Khmer Rouge in the Gulf of Siam about 60 miles from the Cambodian coastline and eight miles from Poulo Wai island. The ship, owned by Sea-Land Corporation, was en route to Sattahip, Thailand from Hong Kong, carrying a non-arms cargo for military bases in Thailand.
Capt. Charles T. Miller, a veteran of more than 40 years at sea, was on the bridge. He had steered the ship within the boundaries of international waters, but the Cambodians had recently claimed territorial waters 90 miles from the coast of Cambodia. The thirty-nine seamen aboard were taken prisoner.
President Ford ordered the aircraft carrier USS CORAL SEA, the guided missile destroyer USS HENRY B. WILSON and the USS HOLT to the area of seizure. By night, a U.S. reconnaissance aircraft located the MAYAGUEZ at anchor off Poulo WaI island. Plans were made to rescue the crew. A battalion landing team of 1,100 Marines was ordered flown from bases in Okinawa and the Philippines to assemblE at Utapao, Thailand in preparation for the assault.
The first casualties of the effort to free the MAYAGUEZ are recorded on May 13 when a helicopter carrying Air Force security team personnel crashed en route to Utapao, killing all 23 aboard.
Early in the morning of May 13, the Mayaguez was ordered to head for Koh Tang island. Its crew was loaded aboard a Thai fishing boat and taken first to Koh Tang, then to the mainland city of Kompong Song, then to Rong San Lem island. U.S. intelligence had observed a cove with considerable activity on the island of Koh Tang, a small five-mile long island about 35 miles off the coast of Cambodia southwest of the city of Sihanoukville (Kampong Saom), and believed that some of the crew might be held there. They also knew of the Thai fishing boat, and had observed what appeared to be caucasians aboard it, but it could not be determined if some or all of the crew was aboard.
The USS HOLT was ordered to seize and secure the MAYAGUEZ, still anchored off Koh Tang. Marines were to land on the island and rescue any of the crew. Navy jets from the USS CORAL SEA were to make four strikes on military installments on the Cambodian mainland.
On May 15, the first wave of 179 Marines headed for the island aboard eight Air Force "Jolly Green Giant" helicopters. Three Air Force helicopters unloaded Marines from the 1st Battalion, 4th Marines onto the landing pad of the USS HOLT and then headed back to Utapao to pick up the second wave of Marines. Planes dropped tear gas on the MAYAGUEZ, and the USS HOLT pulled up along side the vessel and the Marines stormed aboard. The MAYAGUEZ was deserted.
Simultaneously, the Marines of the 2/9 were making their landings on two other areas of the island. The eastern landing zone was on the cove side where the Cambodian compound was located. The western landing zone was a narrow spit of beach about 500 feet behind the compound on the other side of the island. The Marines hoped to surround the compound.
As the first troops began to unload on both beaches, the Cambodians opened fire. On the western beach, one helicopter was hit and flew off crippled, to ditch in the ocean about 1 mile away. The pilot had just disembarked his passengers, and he was rescued at sea.
Meanwhile, the eastern landing zone had become a disaster. The first two helicopters landing were met by enemy fire. Ground commander, (now) Col. Randall W. Austin had been told to expect between 20 and 40 Khmer Rouge soldiers on the island. Instead, between 150 and 200 were encountered. First, Lt. John Shramm's helicopter tore apart and crashed into the surf after the rotor system was hit. All aboard made a dash for the tree line on the beach.
One CH53A helicopter was flown by U.S. Air Force Major Howard Corson and 2Lt. Richard Van de Geer and carrying 23 U.S. Marines and 2 U.S. Navy corpsmen, all from the 2nd Battalion, 9th Marines. As the helicopter approached the island, it was caught in a cross fire and hit by a rocket. The severely damaged helicopter crashed into the sea just off the coast of the island and exploded. To avoid enemy fire, survivors were forced to swim out to sea for rescue. Twelve aboard, including Maj. Corson, were rescued. Those missing from the helicopter were 2Lt. Richard Van de Geer, PFC Daniel A. Benedett, PFC Lynn Blessing, PFC Walter Boyd, Lcpl. Gregory S. Copenhaver, Lcpl. Andres Garcia, PFC James J. Jacques, PFC James R. Maxwell, PFC Richard W. Rivenburgh, PFC Antonio R. Sandoval, PFC Kelton R. Turner, all U.S. Marines. Also missing were HM1 Bernard Gause, Jr. and HM Ronald J. Manning, the two corpsmen.
Other helicopters were more successful in landing their passengers. One CH53A, however was not. SSgt. Elwood E. Rumbaugh's aircraft was near the coastline when it was shot down. Rumbaugh is the only missing man from the aircraft. The passengers were safely extracted. (It is not known whether the passengers went down with the aircraft or whether they were rescued from the island.)
By midmorning, when the Cambodians on the mainland began receiving reports of the assault, they ordered the crew of the MAYAGUEZ on a Thai boat, and then left. The MAYAGUEZ crew was recovered by the USS WILSON before the second wave of Marines was deployed, but the second wave was ordered to attack anyway.
Late in the afternoon, the assault force had consolidated its position on the western landing zone and the eastern landing zone was evacuated at 6:00 p.m. By the end of the 14-hour operation, most of the Marines were extracted from the island safely, with 50 wounded. Lcpl. Ashton Loney had been killed by enemy fire, but his body could not be recovered.
Protecting the perimeter during the final evacuation was the machine gun squad of PFC Gary L. Hall, Lcpl. Joseph N. Hargrove and Pvt. Danny G. Marshall. They had run out of ammunition and were ordered to evacuate on the last helicopter. It was their last contact. Maj. McNemar and Maj. James H. Davis made a final sweep of the beach before boarding the helicopter and were unable to locate them. They were declared Missing in Action.
The eighteen men missing from the MAYAGUEZ incident are listed among the missing from the Vietnam war. Although authorities believe that there are perhaps hundreds of American prisoners still alive in Southeast Asia from the war, most are pessimistic about the fates of those captured by the Khmer Rouge.
In 1988, the communist government of Kampuchea (Cambodia) announced that it wished to return the remains of several dozen Americans to the United States. (In fact, the number was higher than the official number of Americans missing in Cambodia.) Because the U.S. does not officially recognize the Cambodian government, it has refused to respond directly to the Cambodians regarding the remains. Cambodia, wishing a direct acknowledgment from the U.S. Government, still holds the remains.
graphic by Doug Kidd