Fighting the Khmer Rouge: The US Invasion of Koh Tang and the Mayaguez Incident.
Above Photo: USS Harold E. Holt effects a hostile ship-to-ship boarding on the Mayaguez (Ron Quinlin, kohtang.com)
In what is bizarrely called in the US, ‘the last major conflict of the Vietnam War’ but which really had nothing much to do with it, the Mayaguez incident pitted US forces against Khmer Rouge soldiers in a poorly-planned island invasion and a desperate battle.
I deal with the Mayaguez incident in my novel BACK, detailing the inordinate pride the Khmer Rouge took in having ‘beaten’ the US in their own “American War”, but the story is of course more involved than that.
In May 1975, a month after the Khmer Rouge took control of Cambodia, a US-registered cargo ship called the Mayaguez was stopped and boarded by the Khmer Rouge navy in international waters in the Gulf of Thailand. The Khmer Rouge claimed this part of the sea as their own.
Under Khmer Rouge control, the Mayaguez was sailed to the Cambodian island of Koh Tang, 35 miles off the coast of Sihanoukville, where the crew were taken off the ship, and it was believed by the US that they’d been taken onto Koh Tang island itself.
Rescue plans were drawn up and five HH-53 Jolly Greens and seven CH-53 Knife helicopters were ordered to U-Tapao airfield in Thailand, which was to be used as a base for the mission, although on the way to U-Tapao one helicopter crashed, killing twenty-three occupants and crew.
Meanwhile the Khmer Rouge had loaded the Mayaguez crew onto a fishing boat to take them to the port of Kampong Som (modern-day Sihanoukville) on the mainland. Two navy boats escorting the fishing boat were sunk by US planes who then saw Caucasians on the fishing boat.
With little intelligence to go on, and believing some crew members were still on the Mayaguez, some were on Koh Tang and some on the fishing boat, it was decided that US Marines would storm the island and the Mayaguez simultaneously, while mainland Cambodia was bombed.
The fishing boat with the Mayaguez crew on board reached Sihanoukville and was then lost to US planes, as it sailed to a nearby naval base.
Meanwhile US marines had arrived at U-Tapao from the Philippines, ready to launch an attack on the island and on the Mayaguez, and hasty US reconnaissance was carried out over Koh Tang, where it was decided to drop 600 Marines by helicopter on East and West Beach, in two waves.
Intelligence about heavy anti-aircraft fire and the likely real concentration of Khmer Rouge on Koh Tang and the presence of gunboats was somehow not taken into account and the assault went ahead in the belief there may have only been thirty of forty Khmer Rouge soldiers on Koh Tang.
In fact there were over 100 of them, and they were battle-hardened, well-dug in and armed with heavy machine guns, RPGs, at least one recoilless rifle and mortars. The island had also recently been heavily fortified against the threat of attack by Vietnam, who were disputing ownership of, and invading, islands off the coast of Cambodia at that time.
Meanwhile, back on the mainland, the Khmer Rouge wanted to stop attacks by US planes and had agreed to let the captain return to the Mayaguez the following morning, so they could make contact with US forces.
Unfortunately, early the next day, the US attacked.
First the Mayaguez was carpeted with tear gas and boarded by the US Navy, in a rare, hostile ship-to-ship boarding. It was quickly discovered that the ship was empty.
Early that morning helicopters carrying Marines for the combat assault on Koh Tang also set off from U-Tapao. They ran into heavy automatic weapons, anti-aircraft and rocket-propelled grenade fire, resulting in deaths and aircraft losses.
So intense was the resistance on Koh Tang that of the eight helicopters used in the first troop-drop, only three remained intact. Three had been destroyed and four had been so badly damaged they couldn’t fly again that day.
With two other choppers, that meant there were only five helicopters to proceed with the second troop-drop on Koh Tang.
Meanwhile the Khmer Rouge had agreed to release and return the crew to the Mayaguez, having made them sign statements that they hadn’t been mistreated.
On hearing the crew had been released, the Joint Chiefs of Staff then called off the assault by Marines in the second wave, who were already on their way to Koh Tang, leaving the Marines still on the island to fight it out against the Khmer Rouge, who had obviously not received a similar ‘stop fighting’ memo from their side.
It took a desperate Lt. Col Austin on the ground on Koh Tang to persuade his superiors to land the reinforcements, fearing his men would be annihilated if they weren’t. A Forward Air Controller then arrived, in an OV-10 Bronco, who began directing effective firepower onto the Khmer Rouge units, immediately relieving pressure on the Marines.
Rescue attempts were launched to take the pinned-down Marines off Koh Tang, but the helicopters were being beaten back by heavy fire from the Khmer Rouge.
During the rescue attempts a 15,000lb Daisy Cutter, the biggest munition in the US’s arsenal, was dropped on the island, causing a massive explosion and sending a tremendous shock wave around the island.
Helicopter rescue operations continued into the night, supported by naval gunfire from US ships and devastating fire from AC-130 gunships. The Marines by then were coming under intense attack by the Khmer Rouge.
Finally, at 8pm, and because of some brave and skilful helicopter pilots landing under the cover of darkness on Koh Tang, the last Marines were taken off the beach, but in the confusion of the night evacuation, three men were left behind, who were subsequently declared Missing in Action.
It was estimated that the Khmer Rouge had lost 25 men on Koh Tang, and more men killed on shot-up and bombed navy boats, while the US lost 15 service personnel with three MIA, who were subsequently captured and killed. A number of bodies of US KIAs were left on the island.
In a grim reminder of the horrors of the Khmer Rouge, it was reported that two of the surviving Americans were taken by boat to the mainland and then driven to a temple above Sihanoukville where they were stripped to their underwear and shackled.
A week later, both Americans were beaten to death with a B-40 rocket launcher.
Recently it was announced by JPAC (the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command) that they intend to return to Koh Tang to search for the remaining MIAs, including Lance Corporal Ashton Loney, who was killed in an ambush during the battle, and whose body was left wrapped in a poncho on the beach during the night-time evacuation.
For more information on the Mayaguez Incident and the Koh Tang battle visit the website www.kohtang.com, whose administrators kindly permitted me to use their photographs in this article.
See the trailer for our new film, M.I.A. A Greater Evil. Set in the jungles of Laos and Vietnam, the film deals with the possible fate of US servicemen left behind after the US pulled out of the Vietnam War.
For POWs left behind in Laos, see:
© Peter Alan Lloyd
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