Gerald Ford: Mayaguez Incident

Gerald Ford: Mayaguez Incident

Watch this historical clip of President Ford as he makes a television statement announcing that the crew men of the SS Maya Guez have been rescued from Cambodian forces. Tom Brokaw reports that it was a very exciting and popular move for President Ford.


The Mayaguez Incident, Ford and Kissinger Lied. Now the Truth is Coming Out

SS Mayaguez Photo: US Air Force

(Feb. 27, 2021) — Howard Zinn made many statements that ring true of the past and seemed to foretell the future. One thing he said rings true and has since the beginning of time: ” I suppose the most revolutionary act one can engage in is….to tell the truth …”

Forgotten by many, unknown to the majority…Ghosts of the Sky, the men of the USAF 56th Special Operations Wing, among them the 56 SPS, highly-trained members sent on what would be their final mission. They made the ultimate sacrifice in a CH53 helicopter 21 SOS helo, call sign “Knife 1-3,” May 13, 1975.

The 18 specially-trained Dash 1 SP’s were originally briefed to be tasked with the rescue mission of the American cargo ship SS Mayaguez, hidden in the name of “Foreign relations” and carrying a secret cargo. Details of the ship’s origins, its contents on board, accounting of total casualties and American service members left behind remained shrouded in political secrecy. Inaccurate service records and inconsistent details involving the crash of “Knife 1-3″ raise doubt as to the results of the crash investigation. A new investigation into the cause of the crash and an official USAF Collateral Crash Report, in stark contrast to other Federal records, was never produced and must be initiated. Declassified documentation has also revealed a very different side to President Ford’s deeming of the mission as a ‘SUCCESS” after the last Marine exited Koh Tang Island.

But the last Marine did not leave that island. Three young Marines watched the US helos disappear from sight as they were left to fare for their own on the island. Three U.S. Marines went missing: Marine Pvt. Danny Marshall, Marine Pvt. 1st Class Gary Hall and Marine Lance Cpl. Joseph Hargrove. Following orders from the upper command and the White House, the military said they disobeyed orders and likely died in the firefight, but the brutal war that started with a lie ended with one as well. This is not the first time that Kissinger would advise a President to sacrifice American lives in cover-ups. Nixon was so advised by Kissinger in a 1971 cover-up of a JTF raid into Cambodia tabbed Operation Red Rock. Interestingly enough, the raid was originated out of NKP, the same base from which Knife 1-3 departed.

Additional questions now have surfaced as to the fate of the 23 military members deemed immediately KIA on K1-3 consisting of 18 Air Force Security Police and 5 USAF crew members. Official communications listed possible survivors in a highly hostile area near the Thai/Laotian border. One has to earnestly ask if 23 lives were lost, whether to death or capture, all in the name of patriotism to secure protection of government assets, some of which were hidden from US citizens and possibly even violated federal and international law. The Knife 1-3/Mayaguez incident ripped away lives but also paved the way for the creation of the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), which provides a curtain of black for all operations and funding attached to it.

The last photo taken of the Mayaguez airmen, public domain, US Air Force photo

Human beings are not machines, and however powerful the pressure to conform, they sometimes are so moved by what they see as injustice that they dare to declare independence. In that historical possibility lies hope. ” H Zinn

KIA
Knife 01-3
1/Lt James G KAYS, FR, (pilot)
1/Lt.,_Laurence FROEHLICH, FR, (copilot)
TSgt Jackie ll. GLENN, FR, (passenger)
SSgt Gerald A. COYLE, FR, (passenger)
SSgt Faleagafulu ILAOA, FR, (passenger)
SSgt George E. McMULLEN, III, FR, (flight mechanic)
Sgt Jimmy P. BLACK, FR, (passenger)
Sgt Bobby G. COLLUMS, FR., (passenger)
Sgt Thomas D. DWYER, FR, (passenger)
Sgt Bob W. FORD, FR, (passenger)
Sgt Gerald W. FRITZ, FR, (passenger)
Sgt Darrell L. HAMLIN, FR, (passenger)
Sgt Gregory L. HANKAMER, FR, (passenger)
Sgt David A. HIGGS, FR, (passenger)
Sgt Michael D. LANE, FR, (passenger)
Sgt William R. McKELVEY, FR, (passenger)
Sgt Paul J. RABER, FR, (crew chief)
Sgt Robert W. ROSS, FR, (passenger)
A1C Dennis W. LONDON, FR, (passenger)
A1C Robert P. MATHIAS, FR, (passenger)
A1C Tommy R. NEALIS, FR, (passenger)
A1C Robert P. WELDON, FR, (flight mechanic)
Amn Edgar G. MORAN, II, FR, (passenger)

Source: http://veteranstruthnetwork.com/index.php/2017/07/24/the-mayaguez-incident-ford-and-kissinger-lied-now-the-truth-is-coming-out/ (website now offline)

Editor’s Note: For more information on the SS Mayaguez Incident, see:


Gerald R. Ford

Introduction He said it himself: "I`m a Ford, not a Lincoln." Gerald R. Ford`s candor and honesty were why he was admired during his 25 years in Congress. From 1965 to 1973, Ford was the House minority leader. When Ford took the presidential oath of office on August 9, 1974, he declared:

The Ford cabinet. Ford inherited the Nixon Cabinet. Gradually, he selected a cabinet of his own. It is interesting to note that the hand-picked Nixon cabinet turnover was much more extensive during the Nixon administration than for the inherited Ford cabinet. Pardoning Nixon. As president, Ford tried to calm earlier controversies by granting former president Nixon a full pardon. Eight months after taking office, on September 8, 1974, Ford announced that Nixon would be pardoned for all crimes he might have committed during his presidency, thereby ending any threat of prosecution. An immediate outcry from across the nation was of a Nixon-Ford "deal." Accusations of a Nixon deal with Ford for clemency were bantered about, but the uproar soon faded.

Ford`s domestic agenda. In public policy, Ford followed the course of action Nixon had set, despite opposition and numerous confrontations with the Democratically controlled Congress. His first goal was to curb inflation, which led to a 12 percent unemployment rate, and the most serious recession since The Great Depression. A tax cut, coupled with higher unemployment benefits, led to a modest recovery. He vetoed a number of non-military appropriations bills that would have further increased the already heavy budgetary deficit. Ford continued as he had in his congressional days to view himself as "a moderate in domestic affairs, a conservative in fiscal affairs, and an internationalist in foreign affairs." A major goal was to help business operate more freely by reducing corporate taxes and easing the controls exercised by regulatory agencies. "We . declared our independence 200 years ago, and we are not about to lose it now to paper shufflers and computers," he said. The paper shufflers referred to were the entrenched Washington, D.C. bureaucrats that Nixon had attempted to reorganize during his own presidency The president acted to curb the trend toward government intervention and spending, e.g. Welfare and Affirmative Action, as a means of solving the problems of American society and the economy. He imposed measures to curb inflation. In the long run, he believed, that shift would mean a better life for all Americans. During his first 14 months as president he vetoed 39 measures. His vetoes were usually sustained, but there was still no end to economic difficulties. Other issues President Ford dealt with are as follows:

Ford`s foreign policy. The main issues during the Ford presidency were:

Ford acted energetically to re-assert U.S. ability and prestige following the collapse of Cambodia and the humiliating Fall of Saigon in South Vietnam. On May 12, 1975, the American Merchant Marine ship, S.S. Mayaguez, with 39 crewmen aboard, was captured in international waters by Cambodian gunboats. The ship was retrieved and all crewmen were saved, but at the cost of 41 American servicemen`s lives. Detente with the with the Soviet Union under leader Leonid Brezhnev continued. U.S.-Soviet relations were marked by on-going arms negotiations. They worked to enhance the SALT II treaty¹ to set new limitations on nuclear weapons (which failed to pass in Congress), the Helsinki agreements on human rights principles and East European national boundaries, trade negotiations, and the symbolic Apollo-Soyuz joint manned space flight. Ford`s personal diplomacy was highlighted by trips to Japan and China, a 10-day European tour, and co-sponsorship of the first international economic summit meeting. In addition, he received numerous foreign heads of state at the White House, many of whom came in observance of the U.S. Bicentennial in 1976. Preventing a new war between the intractable Arab-Israeli opponents of the Middle East remained a major objective. "Shuttle diplomacy" in the Middle East seemed to yield hopeful results. By providing more aid to both Israel² and Egypt, the Ford administration helped to persuade the two countries to accept an interim truce agreement — which did not last. President Ford won the Republican nomination for the presidency in 1976, but lost the election to his Democratic opponent, former governor Jimmy Carter of Georgia, who was a Washington "outsider." On Inauguration Day, President-elect Carter began his acceptance speech by saying, "For myself and for our nation, I want to thank my predecessor for all he has done to heal our land." Electing Carter, however, may have been a signal from voters that they still suspected a deal for Ford to pardon President Nixon. Arab oil power was predominant on the geo-political scene at that time. The Organization of Oil Exporting Countries (OPEC) Oil Embargo of 1973-1974³ had upset the balance of power and the national economies of Europe and America, which in turn increased inflation for years afterward. Post-presidential activities Since his term in office, Ford has been active and has served on numerous corporate boards. He also created the Gerald R. Ford Library in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and the Gerald R. Ford Award for Distinguished Reporting on the Presidency. The highly regarded Betty Ford Center, established in 1982 by the former First Lady, has treated women and men suffering from chemical dependency. The center has always saved 50 percent of its space for women and 50 percent for men. Today the Betty Ford Center offers programs for the entire family system affected by addiction. For more information, go to The Betty Ford Center.

¹SALT II was still in negotiations under the Jimmy Carter administration. President Ronald Reagan scrapped SALT II and began renegotiation on the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, which remained in effect until President George W. Bush announced American withdrawal from the treaty in December 2001.

² Established in 1948, Israel has received, since its inception, approximately $13 billion per annum from the United States. As of 1997, the total estimated cost to U.S. taxpayers was nearly $135 billion. In large part, due to the influences of the pro-Israeli lobby, American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) in Washington, D.C. and various American Christian denominations.

³ On October 6, 1973, the Jewish holy day of Yom Kippur, Egyptian forces attacked Israel from across the Suez Canal, while at the same time Syrian troops flooded the Golan Heights in a surprise offensive. After early losses, Israeli counterattacks quickly pushed into Syrian territory in the north, as troops outflanked the Egyptian army in the south. Israel, with help from the U.S., succeeded in reversing the Arab gains and a cease-fire was concluded in November. But on October 17, OPEC struck back against the West by imposing an oil embargo on the U.S., while increasing prices by 70 percent to America`s Western European allies.


The Mayaguez Incident: Final Battle of the Vietnam War

US troops responding to the Mayaguez incident. Wikimedia Commons.

In the early morning of May 13, US patrol planes passed over Poulo Wai, dropping flares to cut through the darkness. Immediately, Cambodian anti-aircraft guns on the island opened fire on the planes. But it was too late, the pilots had spotted the Mayaguez. Knowing that US Marines were probably on their way, the Cambodians ordered Captain Miller to start his ship and sail to another island, Koh Tang. Then the Mayaguez was forced to follow several Cambodian swift boats toward the north of the island. A few hours later, the scream of jet engines cut through the air.

The US airforce had once again spotted the Mayaguez. Fighter planes began to circle the ships and fire their guns at the water in front of the swift boats. The message was clear: if you try to move the Mayaguez again, you die. A plan was drafted to drop US soldiers onto the decks of the ship by helicopter. But on the way, one of the helicopters crashed, tragically killing the men on board. The call was made to hold off the rescue until they had a better idea of how to rescue the crew safely. Meanwhile, the Cambodians were attempting to move the crew to the mainland city of Kampong Som on fishing boats.

The idea was that the US planes would be less likely to try to stop them on the smaller boats. But once again, fighter planes descended on the ships and fired into the water. After a low pass, one of the fighter crews radioed back to tell the officers that they had spotted the crew on the fishing boat. The attacks were called off because of the danger of hitting the crew, and the fishing boats reached the city around 10 AM. But the local commander, afraid of provoking an American attack on the city, refused to take the crew.

The crew was once again moved, this time to the island of Koh Rong Sanloem. The Americans, however, were still convinced that the crew was on Koh Tang. And on May 15, US Marines invaded the island as another force stormed the Mayaguez itself. The Marines had expected light resistance, but the island turned out to have an equal force of Khmer Rouge soldiers armed with anti-aircraft guns and RPGs. An intense firefight erupted on the island as US soldiers fired tear gas canisters onto the Mayaguez and boarded the ship.

The crew of one of the crashed helicopters. National Museum of the USAF.

During the attack, an RPG round struck one of the US helicopters. It crashed in a ball of fire, killing several military personnel. That was when the Cambodians decided things had gone too far. They immediately issued a statement saying that they had never intended to hold the crew for long and would be releasing them. The crew was returned to a US Navy ship after signing a statement that they had not been mistreated. By that night, all the US military elements were withdrawn from the region. Officially, it was the final battle of the Vietnam war, giving the US one last chance to pull a victory out of a defeat.


Today in History – May 12, 1975 – The Mayaguez incident

12 May 1975 – After South Vietnam fell to communist forces, the U.S. was again involved in combat in Southeast Asia. In May 1975, the Cambodian Khmer Rouge navy seized the American cargo ship SS Mayaguez and its crew of 39 in international waters.

President Gerald Ford acted decisively to rescue the crew. The Mayaguez was anchored at Koh Tang Island near the Cambodian coast, and military planners believed the crew was on the island. Air Force gunships sank three Cambodian patrol boats to prevent them from taking the Mayaguez’s crew from Koh Tang to the mainland. Soon after, Marines boarded the Mayaguez and found it abandoned.

Near Disaster
Marines landed on Koh Tang in Air Force helicopters to rescue the crew, but incomplete intelligence made the operation a near disaster. Expecting only light opposition, the USAF helicopters instead faced heavy fire from a large force. The Cambodians shot down four helicopters, damaged five more, and killed 14 Americans. More U.S. troops and aircraft urgently moved to reinforce the 131 Marines and five USAF aircrew trapped on Koh Tang.

As the assault unfolded, the Mayaguez crew appeared in a small boat, and were rescued unharmed. President Ford halted offensive action, and the operation shifted from assault to rescuing the trapped Marines.

Determined Rescue
Another 100 Marines moved into Koh Tang to reinforce and extract the trapped Marines. Coordinated USAF support by attack aircraft, forward air controllers, rescue helicopters, and gunships pounded Cambodian targets while the Americans on the ground fought hard to maintain their positions.

Only three USAF helicopters were left to extract more than 200 troops. They tried time and again, braving fierce, accurate fire, but were repeatedly driven off. Finally, they reached the beach and recovered 129 Marines in multiple trips, landing them quickly on Navy ships and returning to the island for more. On the last trip to the beach, USAF pararescueman Tech. Sgt. Wayne Fisk left his helicopter to find two missing Marines still laying down covering fire. He led them to the helicopter, and the 14-hour rescue ended as the aircraft left under fire.


Martin Jablonski and the SS Mayaguez

The international drama known as the “Mayaguez Incident” tested the resolve of our nation and our military in trying times. Drawn into the fray were two men who hailed from Grand Rapids. One took the reins and made the tough decisions from the highest office in the land, while the other entered harm’s way to implement the military response. Afterwards, both drew honors for their leadership and heroism.

Khmer Rouge forces from Cambodia seized the American container ship SS Mayaguez and its crew in the Gulf of Siam on May 12, 1975. American reconnaissance planes quickly located the ship and followed its movements to the island of Koh Tang. Several U.S. Navy ships made sail for the gulf. Squadrons of HH-53 Jolly Green and CH-53 Knife helicopters readied themselves in Thailand to transport marines to rescue the ship and its crew. The swift military mobilization resulted from the White House response.

Grand Rapids native President Gerald R. Ford saw the need to act decisively at a time when potential hostile nations perceived a weakness in American military prowess - stemming from the hasty evacuation of American forces from Vietnam and Cambodia the previous month. Administration and Pentagon officials sought to avoid another USS Pueblo incident and recognized that swift military action would prevent rogue nations from bullying America.

The military response included a Marine assault on the island of Koh Tang. The attack involved thousands of military personnel - from the top brass at the Pentagon to enlisted men in the field – connected through sophisticated communication networks. Among the few who participated in the actual operation against the well-entrenched Khmer Rouge forces on the island was Grand Rapids native Staff Sergeant Martin Jablonski, serving as flight mechanic on one of the Jolly Greens used to transport the marines.

Jablonski’s helicopter, Jolly Green 42, flew marines in on the second wave of the assault on May 15. The helicopters encountered fierce resistance from the entrenched enemy. Several choppers went down and marines fought desperately to maintain a beachhead. Jablonski later recalled, “on the island, mortar shells had exploded all around the aircraft and shrapnel had severed an electrical wire bundle located two feet from where I was positioned… I had been lucky.” During the intense firefight, Jolly 42’s auxiliary fuel tanks were ruptured, but they did not explode. The pilot and the crew of the helicopter kept her flying after successfully delivering the contingent of Marines to the island. They then made it safely to Thailand despite the damage. Overall, the fourteen-hours of combat netted the ship and its entire crew. The heavy casualties suffered by the small strike force added a few final scars to the legacy of Vietnam.

President Ford was praised for taking the decisive action needed to end the crisis. He extended his admiration to those who took part in the rescue through a live broadcast to the nation: "I wish to express my deep appreciation and that of the entire Nation to the units and the men who participated in these operations for their valor and for their sacrifice." The United States Air Force awarded Martin Jablonski the Distinguished Flying Cross for "courageous action aided in the recovery of the SS Mayaguez and its crew."

Martin Jablonski passed away on Easter Sunday, April 8, 2007, after a protracted illness. His siblings, Pamela and Tim Jablonski, donated his citation, medal, and unit plaque to the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum in his memory and for all those who serve.


What We Learned: from the Mayaguez Incident

U.S. military prestige was at an ebb in 1975. Its war in Vietnam had ended in defeat, and the Khmer Rouge had taken Phnom Penh and extended Cambodia’s territorial waters to 90 miles from shore.

On May 12, Washington learned Khmer Rouge gunboats had seized the U.S.-registered container ship Mayaguez. A reconnaissance plane soon located Mayaguez near Koh Tang, an island some 40 miles off the Cambodian coast. President Gerald Ford declared the seizure an act of piracy and resolved to recover the ship and crew. Even as the United States demanded the crew’s immediate release, U.S. fighters sank several Cambodian gunboats involved in the Mayaguez seizure.

Ford approved a Marine assault at dawn on May 15. The Marines pulled 1,000 men from Okinawa and 100 from the Philippines for the operation. The objectives were to take both Mayaguez and Koh Tang. The Navy rushed the carrier Coral Sea, destroyer escort Harold E. Holt and guided-missile destroyer Henry B. Wilson to the area, but decided not to “soften” Koh Tang with a preinvasion bombardment since the civilian mariners were thought to be ashore.

Only 235 Marines were tapped for the initial assault, as early estimates suggested the island held no more than 20 Cambodian irregulars. On May 12, Defense Intelligence Agency analysts concluded the enemy actually comprised 150 to 200 heavily armed Khmer Rouge fighters, but that information wasn’t relayed to the Marines. Eleven helicopters were allocated for the assault three to transport a 60-man boarding team to Holt, while the other eight would carry the 175-man assault team to Koh Tang.

On May 15, as the assault team approached Koh Tang, heavy fire downed or disabled five of the eight helicopters, each with about 25 Marines aboard. Ninety minutes later, Holt came alongside Mayaguez with the boarding team, which found the ship empty. At about the same time, Washington heard the Khmer Rouge intended to release Mayaguez, but since there was no mention of the crew, the fighting continued.

About 65 hours after the initial seizure, Wilson picked up Mayaguez’s crew from a fishing boat the Cambodians had set adrift. When Ford heard that, just past midnight, he suspended all offensive operations. But a Marine extraction team was already en route. The crews of four Air Force helicopters braved heavy fire to lift the assault team to Coral Sea.

The operation left 18 U.S. military personnel dead and 50 wounded (with another 23 airmen dead in a related helicopter crash in Thailand). Shamefully, three Marines were left behind, all presumed captured and executed. For Ford, the mission was a public success. For the military, it was both a triumph and a sad denouement to Vietnam.

■ Communicate—up and down the chain. Local U.S. commanders had better communications with Washington than with forces on Koh Tang.

■ Consider the options, including diplomacy. A cordon around Koh Tang might have forced the Cambodians’ hand or allowed a more effective assault.

■ Early recon counts. Too much time passed before Thailand-based search aircraft located Mayaguez.

■ Bad intel kills people. Assault planners believed the risks were acceptable only because they relied on inaccurate enemy strength estimates.

■ It can always get worse. The U.S. delayed warning other merchant ships, even though Cambodia was seizing vessels in its extended territorial waters.

■ Soften the landing. The Navy didn’t bombard the island because it thought the crew was ashore—more bad intel.

■ Do the deadly math. The rescue team recovered all 40 Mayaguez crewmen— but at a cost of 44 lives.

Originally published in the September 2010 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.


The War’s Final Firefight – the Mayaguez Incident

Could it get any worse? Two weeks earlier, April 29, 1975, Saigon had fallen to the North Vietnamese—just a couple of weeks after the Khmer Rouge took Cambodia’s capital, Phnom Penh. Flying F-4D Phantoms out of Korat Royal Thai Air Force Base in Thailand, I had helped destroy anti-aircraft artillery and surface-to-air missile sites during the Saigon evacuation, and provided combat support for the evacuation of Phnom Penh. As events played out in Southeast Asia, America was on the run. It seemed the proverbial dominoes were indeed falling and, we wondered, would Thailand’s capital, Bangkok, be next?

Rumors travel at warp speed on a small base like Korat, and on May 12 a wild one about an American ship hijacked in the Gulf of Thailand was spreading around the squadron dinner table. This one, however, was all too true. At 2:20 p.m. local time that day, about 300 miles to our south, a machine gunner on a Khmer gunboat had fired a few rounds across the bow of a U.S.-flagged container ship, SS Mayaguez, triggering what would be a fittingly tragic and costly final firefight in what had been a tragic and costly war for the United States.

At Korat we reacted bitterly. Were we about to taste yet another defeat in Southeast Asia? Would this be another Pueblo incident? We were energized—and mad as hell.

After duty hours, the squadron’s pilots and weapon system operators trickled into the operations building, where we learned that the Khmer Communists had hijacked the container ship Mayaguez in international waters eight nautical miles from Poulo Wai, an atoll claimed by Khmer Communists and the Provisional Revolutionary Government of South Vietnam. We also learned that President Gerald Ford was demanding the release of the ship and its 40-man crew. Being the nearest airborne firepower to the action, if a game was to be played, we wanted in on it.

At 2 p.m. the next day, two F-111A aircraft on an unarmed training mission from Korat spotted Mayaguez off Koh Tang Island. Four armed A-7Ds from the 3rd Tactical Fighter Squadron at Korat launched 45 minutes later to replace the F-111s and surveil Mayaguez. When the ship started to move, the A-7s fired rockets and 20mm Vulcan Gatling gun rounds across its bow, halting Mayaguez’s passage.

The Joint Chiefs of Staff ordered 24-hour surveillance, and AC-130A/H Spectre gunships from the 16th Special Operations Squadron at Korat, equipped with infrared and low-light level television, began orbiting above the island and Mayaguez. Washington also ordered, “Halt any boat movement to the mainland.” Typically, we would try to turn or stop the vessels, and if they would not comply, we would ultimately seek clearance to destroy them.

At 3:30 a.m. on May 14, one of the Spectres received heavy .50- caliber and 40mm fire from a Khmer patrol boat near Koh Tang. It returned fire with 53 rounds of 40mm, forcing the boat to run aground.

At dawn the crisis escalated when four Khmer gunboats left Koh Tang for the Cambodian mainland. Spectre 51, on the scene, was directed to fire across the boats’ bows and prevent them from reaching the coast. The gunship’s 40mm and 105mm howitzer managed to turn three of the boats back. Flights of F-111As, F-4Ds and A-7Ds attacked in front of the remaining boat with 2,000-pound bombs, 2.75-inch rockets and riot control gas, but it refused to turn around.

A flight of four A-7Ds used 20mm cannons to try to disable the gunboat’s engines, but while the stern was set ablaze, the strafing didn’t kill the engines. The A-7Ds were then directed to sink the boat, which Lt. Col. Don Robotoy and his wingman did.

A few minutes later, at about 7:15 a.m., a different kind of boat— a wooden 40-foot Thai fishing craft, Sinvari—was observed leaving the island for the Cambodian mainland with several Caucasians, thought to be Mayaguez crew members, onboard. On my way from Korat in my Phantom, I was among the flight of A-7Ds and F-4Ds tasked with turning the fishing boat back.

We tried for four hours to force the boat back to Koh Tang. Frustratingly, several of us were unable to fire rockets in front of the boat because our F-4s had not been properly armed on the ground prior to takeoff. The only other armament on board was an SUU-23 centerline pod carrying a Vulcan Gatling gun. Adding insult to injury, when I selected the gun station, the centerline armament circuit breakers popped, leaving me without any weaponry. Enraged, I thought, “I’ve got a screwed up jet, just like this screwed up war.” The only thing left for me to do was drop low and try to get a good look at the boat.

I rolled my F-4 on its left wing in front of Sinvari and could clearly see people lining each side of the curved, upward-sloping bow. They appeared to be Caucasians, doubled over in the schoolhouse air-raid position with their hands protecting their heads. As a few of them looked up at me, I felt profoundly helpless. Low on fuel, we left Sinvari after about 30 minutes on target. Two A-7s watched it enter the port of Kompong Som and dock at about 10:15.

After we landed at Korat, our intelligence personnel told us Sinvari made it to the mainland and that the Mayaguez crew was now most likely in prison there. Mayaguez Captain Charles T. Miller would later tell the Honolulu Star Bulletin: “You have to give our pilots a lot of credit. They can hit the eye of a needle. They did everything possible to get [the fishing boat] to turn around. It was clear that they saw we were in the boat. Two jets flew 70 feet above us…the Thais turned back once, but Cambodian guards put guns to their heads.”

I will always regret not photographing Sinvari and the captive crew with the 35mm camera I carried in my cockpit map case. I was too angry about flying a toothless Phantom to think of photography. If the entire crew had been accounted for at that point, perhaps the bloody battle that was about to ensue might have been avoided.

Because of conflicting intelligence reports, it was believed that some of the crew were still being held on Koh Tang Island. As a result, President Ford ordered simultaneous attacks on Mayaguez and on Koh Tang. At dawn on May 15, 11 Air Force helicopters—CH-53s and HH-53s—left from U Tapao in southern Thailand and approached Koh Tang from the northwest.

The Sikorsky CH-53 “Knife” and HH-53 “Jolly Green” were not ordinary helicopters. Much larger than Vietnam’s ubiquitous UH-1 “Huey,” they were armor plated and equipped with 7.62mm rapid firing miniguns. Both were rescue helicopters, with guns in the waist positions, but the HH-53 was air refuelable, had 450-gallon foam-filled tip tanks (self-sealing in case of damage) and had an additional minigun in the tail. Much more survivable than most choppers, the rescue helicopters would be taken to their limits on Koh Tang.

Three choppers separated and unloaded a reinforced 57-man platoon from the 1st Battalion, 4th Marines onto the destroyer escort Harold E. Holt, which had sped to the scene. Their mission would be to board and secure Mayaguez. As Holt slowly moved alongside Mayaguez, an A-7 dropped tear gas on the merchant ship. Gasmasked Marines then executed a hostile ship-to-ship assault at 7:25 a.m., only to find the ship deserted.

The other eight helicopters, with 170 Marines of the 2nd Battalion, 9th Marines aboard, continued on to Koh Tang, an irregularly shaped island with its northern end resembling a slingshot. Between the forks lay a U-shaped beach that would become the eastern, or primary landing zone (LZ). The western LZ would be situated across the neck of land.

The helos split as they approached the northern end of the island for a two-pronged assault. There was anti-aircraft artillery on the island, and it appeared to be heavily defended because the survival of the ship’s crew took precedence, there had been no naval bombardment to soften up the defenses. Knifes 21 and 22 reached the western LZ first with no initial resistance. As Knife 21 pilot Lt. Col. John Denham touched down on the beach, his Marines began to stream out the back ramp. Just as they did, concealed Khmer forces let loose with automatic weapons, rockets and mortars. Holding steady for the Marines to scramble down the ramp, one of Denham’s two engines was severely damaged by enemy fire. With Knife 22 laying down suppressive fire with its miniguns, Knife 21’s crewmen jettisoned everything they could. The damaged CH-53 skipped across the waves, taking on water as Denham fought to keep it airborne for nearly a mile before it ditched in the sea.

At the eastern LZ, the choppers also made it in without resistance, but as the two helos hovered to off-load Marines, a murderous crossfire erupted. Knife 23, piloted by 1st Lt. John Shramm, began taking punishing hits to its rotor system. As he looked to his left, he saw Knife 31, piloted by Major Howard Corson, burst into flames from the intense enemy barrage and fall to the beach. Shramm wrestled his own wounded CH-53 to the beach as the tail section tore off. Miraculously, no one was killed in the crash landing, and the 20 Marines aboard scrambled to the tree line for cover.

Meanwhile Major Corson’s stricken chopper took hit after hit from heavy machine gun rounds and rockets. Sergeant Randy Hoffmaster returned fire with the waist minigun while the co-pilot, 2nd Lt. Richard Vandegeer, fired an M-16 from his window. A grenade round slammed into the cockpit, killing Vandegeer. Although seriously injured, Major Corson somehow managed to maintain enough control to settle the aircraft down in the water. Wounded and dazed, he stared down at his feet—nothing remained of the cockpit and the instrument panel that had been in front of him. Shouts from a crew member finally brought him to his senses while more flames engulfed the cockpit. A badly burned Marine tried to unharness the limp body of Vandegeer but, under heavy fire, he was finally forced to abandon the attempt.

Four men were shot and killed or drowned near the burning wreckage of Knife 31. A fifth, stunned and wounded, stumbled his way nearly 100 yards to the tail ramp of Knife 23 before he was cut down. In all, 13 men aboard Knife 31 were killed. Thirteen survivors, including Major Corson, were picked up at sea after using the Knife 31 wreckage as a shield, then swimming into the surf to escape.

Among the survivors was Marine Lieutenant Terry Tonkin, a forward air controller (FAC). While swimming away from the beach on his back, and with enemy bullets sending up geysers all around him, Tonkin used Major Corson’s small survival radio to call in airstrikes. At the same time, 1st Lt. John Lucas, co-pilot of Knife 23, was on his survival radio calling in airstrikes against the enemy positions that had his group pinned down in the tree line running along the eastern beach.

Three of eight initial assault helicopters were down, two on the beach of the eastern landing zone, one a mile at sea. Battle damage forced a fourth helicopter down once back inside Thailand, and two more were severely damaged. An hour into the assault, only 54 Americans were on Koh Tang—about one-third of the number planned—and they were split into two groups. The day’s battle was just getting started.

Three A-7D Corsairs circled overhead and observed the CH-53s taking hits. Armed with 20mm cannons, they quickly rolled in and raked Khmer gun emplacements, silencing several. Repeatedly, the A-7s flew low over the island, trying to attract enemy fire and locate their positions. After each A-7 pass, Khmer troops, later believed to number about 85, resumed their fusillade against the Americans on the island.

Their situation was deteriorating fast. Scattered in tree lines along the eastern and western LZs, the Americans were at times no more than 20 meters from enemy positions. They desperately needed more Marine firepower. The 25 Americans trapped on the eastern beach from the two shot-down CH-53s were in the worst situation. Recognizing this, the Khmers used them as bait to lure more helicopters into the crossfire.

Several attempts were made to rescue the trapped Americans. According to an official report for General Louis L. Wilson, commander of Pacific Air Forces, shortly after 8 a.m. 1st Lt. Charles Greer, pilot of Jolly 13, took heavy fire all the way into the landing zone near the wreckage of Knife 23. With rounds smashing into his chopper, Greer touched down on the beach while his crew raked the shoreline with their miniguns. Although in sight of the rescue helicopter, the Americans were pinned down. Jolly 13 remained in its exposed position, taking punishing hits from heavy automatic weapons. Fires broke out in the Jolly’s flare case and another in its auxiliary fuel tank. Greer thought his would be the third helicopter to litter the eastern beach. With no hope of recovering the men at the tree line and his helicopter engulfed in flames, Greer pulled back from the landing zone and nursed his chopper, peppered with 35 holes, severe rotor blade damage, and fuel, oil and hydraulic leaks, back to the Thai mainland.

Meanwhile on the western beach, between 6:30 and 9:30 a.m., Jollys 42 and 43 successfully inserted their Marines after repeated attempts and heavy enemy resistance. Five Air Force personnel and 109 Marines were now deposited on Koh Tang Island.

Jolly 41, piloted by 1st Lt. Thomas D. Cooper Jr., made two attempts to land at the western beach with his Marines, but was driven back by intense enemy fire, including .50- caliber machine gun rounds that hit the right fuel tank and ramp area. For an hour, Cooper made two more landing attempts, only to be pummeled by heavy fire and mortar attacks.

While Cooper made his third aerial refueling, a Spectre gunship hammered Khmer positions near the western beach with 20mm and 40mm cannon and 105mm howitzer rounds, reducing one fortified emplacement to rubble. This allowed Cooper to make his fifth attempt at the western beach. While mortar rounds walked toward them, 10 Marines managed to get out of the back of Cooper’s aircraft before one of the rounds landed only 10 feet from the tail rotor, forcing Cooper to abort and lift off with five Marines still aboard.

As he returned to hover for the last Marines to deplane, a mortar round passed through the rotor blades and exploded only 20 feet away, blowing a hole in the aircraft’s belly. The HH-53 withdrew for the last time with its five Marines and returned to its staging base in Thailand. Severe damage prevented its use for the remainder of the operation.

Meanwhile, around 7 that morning, the entire Mayaguez crew was released from captivity on the mainland and put back aboard Sinvari for transport back to Mayaguez, this time under a white flag and without Khmer escorts. At 10:05 a.m., as Lieutenant Cooper was making his valiant attempts to insert his Marines on Koh Tang, the Mayaguez crew, safe and unharmed, was picked up by the destroyer USS Henry B. Wilson and soon transferred back to Mayaguez.

Suddenly and without explanation, the hostage crisis was over. There was jubilation at the White House, but a fierce day of fighting was still to come as the challenge shifted to getting the Americans on Koh Tang disengaged and evacuated. Before that could happen, more Marines were needed to stabilize the situation, and air insertion was the only option. The 131 Marines and five airmen were now in three groups. Those on the western side of the island were split 82 in one group and 29 south of their position on the same beach. The other 25 were isolated across the neck of the island near the eastern beach. Just five choppers were left to carry nearly 100 more Marines in for the assault and then to extract them all. After the battle started, two additional choppers were repaired and added to the effort.

Lieutenant Robert Rikitis, pilot of Knife 52, was low on fuel as he tried to insert his Marines one last time on the eastern beach. His aircraft immediately took hits, and what little fuel he had began leaking. He aborted and returned to his staging base. The four remaining helos successfully delivered Marines on the western beach under continuous automatic weapons and 60mm mortar fire. Severely wounded Marines were evacuated on each return trip.

By shortly after noon, reinforcements were complete, with more than 200 Americans on the island, nearly all concentrated on the western side. Faced with such fierce enemy resistance, ground commanders decided not to push across the island’s neck to link up with the 25 pinned down on the eastern beach. They would have to be extracted by helicopter and that would not be possible until Khmer resistance was reduced, if not obliterated.

With one HH-53 miraculously repaired and added to the effort, four helos now remained to complete the extraction. Nightfall was only two hours away when two OV-10A “Nail” FACs began their watchful orbit overhead.

Back at Korat, I was excited and a little apprehensive when my squadron commander, Lt. Col. Phil Offill, called me into the command center and told me to pick my flight members for a four-ship flight and let him know the ordnance for the mission. I reviewed the squadron flight schedule and chose from aircrew available. We were needed sooner than expected. In mid-afternoon, our premission briefing was interrupted with an urgent call to get airborne as soon as we could.

After air-refueling over the Gulf of Thailand, our four F-4Ds, call sign “Bucktail,” flew east to Koh Tang. Around 4:30, we checked in with “Cricket,” an EC-130 serving as the Airborne Battlefield Command and Control aircraft orbiting the island.

“Cricket, Bucktail, four fox-fours with you, 68 miles northwest of the island.”

“Bucktail, proceed inbound pronto, I’ve got work for you with Nail 68.”

As the island came into view, I visualized the air power stacked overhead to make an extraction possible. Looking vertically, an OV-10A Bronco, “Nail 68,” was lowest with another, “Nail 47,” above him. We were next in the stack with Cricket, the EC-130, above us, and above them was a flight of four C-130s with 15,000- pound bombs waiting to clear jungle undergrowth for landing zones. Just departing Koh Tang was “Coach” flight, which had dropped eight 2,000-pound MK-84 bombs on the island.

Our F-4s had the only weapons suitable for use in close support of our forces engaged with the enemy. We checked in with the higher forward air controller, Nail 47.

“Bucktail, Nail 47, go ahead with your line-up.”

“Roger, all four F-4s have 20mm, numbers one and three have LAU-3 rockets, two and four have MK-82s [500-pound bombs].”

“Bucktail, green ’em up [arm weapons].”

“Bucktail, this is Nail 68, I’ll take over now. Do you see me over the north end of the island?”

“OK, FAC is in to mark, where my rocket goes will be the target.”

“Bucktail is tally-ho, the target is the hooches.”

“Affirmative, you’re restricted to a run-in heading to the southeast only. There are friendlies just to the northwest. Can you put your rockets where I just put that rocket?”

“Bucktail, affirmative. How many do you want?”

“Let’s try two pods on the first pass. Knife two-dash-three, [the survivors of Knife 23, the downed CH-53 in the tree line] keep your heads down please. Bucktail, you’re cleared hot.”

“Bucktail’s in hot, FAC in sight.”

I pressed in close, working the gun sight precisely to the target, trimming the heavy jet to feel light as a feather and then unleashing the rockets. With that, 152 rockets tipped with white phosphorus that would burn through anything in their path slammed into the heart of the enemy encampment area.

As I came off target, I remembered my best friend in high school who was a 19-year-old Marine killed near Quang Tri, South Vietnam, on July 22, 1966. His name and the date he died were on my Zippo lighter. I felt for it through my flight suit pocket and said to myself, “This mission was for you, Tim Davies.”

Nail 68’s enthusiasm was obvious, “That’s it, my friends, that’s it!” Bucktail 2 and 4 then followed up with a dozen 500-pound bombs.

Khmer Communist forces were hit hard but continued strong resistance as our choppers cycled to and from the island into the evening. “Although all three helicopters [Knife 51, Jollys 11 and 12] raked the shoreline with minigun and submachine gun fire, Jolly 11 took ground fire from all quadrants, some less than 50 meters away,” Captain Thomas Des Brisay said in his official report on the operation, when describing the last extraction effort on the eastern beach. “The Marines began an orderly withdrawal from the tree line, stopping every few feet to fire their weapons. Enemy resistance was almost fanatical.”

At one point, Captain Brisay said that as they realized the Marines were escaping from their grasp, “Cambodian soldiers stormed the helicopter and reached hand-grenade range. Just as one of them started to throw his grenade the whole group was cut down by minigun and rifle fire.”

Air Force pararescuemen poured M-16 fire at Khmer forces as they pulled wounded Marines aboard the CH-53. From defensive positions on the beach around the big chopper, other Marines returned fire through a pall of smoke.

A Nail forward air controller buzzed overhead in an OV-10A Bronco, rolled in on enemy gun positions and unleashed white-hot, “Willie Pete” 2.75-inch rockets. Higher up, a circling AC-130A Spectre gunship pounded enemy positions with a continuous barrage of 20mm and 40mm cannon fire. First Lieutenant Richard C. Brims’ CH-53, Knife 51, ripped a minigun fury along a treelined beach of the western landing zone.

The scene was surreal as the sun dipped, casting a peaceful, redorange glow while tracers criss-crossed the dusky sky, and pulsing corridors of fire swept the darkening jungle. The extraction efforts continued into the darkness, with the hooches that were still burning from our rockets, serving as a navigation beacon for the rescue helicopters. On the ground, the din of whirling rotor blades, automatic weapons fire and exploding mortar and cannon rounds drowned out even the loudest commands. The air reeked of spent cordite, jet exhaust and salt spray.

Now, as the last 27 Marines were fighting their way aboard Knife 51 in the dusk, Air Force Tech. Sgt. Wayne Fisk ran through intense fire in a half-crouch across the beach to a tree line to make sure no one was left behind. He spotted two young Marines laying down suppressive fire, unaware the helicopter was about to depart. Fisk got their attention and the three sprinted for the CH-53 and clambered up the ramp as it lifted off.

Only hours later, with Marines scattered on several different ships, was it found that three Marines of an M-60 machine gun crew, Pfc Gary Hall, Lance Cpl. Joseph Hargrove and Private Danny Marshall, had possibly been left behind alive. Further rescue efforts were deemed too dangerous to pursue. It was later confirmed that the three Marines were subsequently captured, tortured and executed by the Khmer Rouge.

Fourteen hours of intense combat was over. Soon, a deathly shroud fell over Koh Tang Island. Mayaguez had steamed off, underway to Thailand once again, and the western landing zone was dark except for the eerie wink of an abandoned strobe light on the beach, marking the site of the last firefight of the last battle of America’s long and bitter Vietnam War.

Ric Hunter retired as an Air Force colonel with 3,800 hours in high performance T-38, F-4 and F-15 aircraft, and three Top Gun Awards in the F-15 Eagle.

Originally published in the August 2010 issue of Vietnam. To subscribe, click here.


Gerald Ford: Mayaguez Incident - HISTORY

Martin Jablonski and the SS Mayaguez (2011.75.1-3)

The international drama known as the &ldquoMayaguez Incident&rdquo tested the resolve of our nation and our military in trying times. Drawn into the fray were two men who hailed from Grand Rapids. One took the reins and made the tough decisions from the highest office in the land, while the other entered harm&rsquos way to implement the military response. Afterwards, both drew honors for their leadership and heroism.

Khmer Rouge forces from Cambodia seized the American container ship SS Mayaguez and its crew in the Gulf of Siam on May 12, 1975. American reconnaissance planes quickly located the ship and followed its movements to the island of Koh Tang. Several U.S. Navy ships made sail for the gulf. Squadrons of HH-53 Jolly Green and CH-53 Knife helicopters readied themselves in Thailand to transport marines to rescue the ship and its crew. The swift military mobilization resulted from the White House response.

Grand Rapids native President Gerald R. Ford saw the need to act decisively at a time when potential hostile nations perceived a weakness in American military prowess - stemming from the hasty evacuation of American forces from Vietnam and Cambodia the previous month. Administration and Pentagon officials sought to avoid another USS Pueblo incident and recognized that swift military action would prevent rogue nations from bullying America.

The military response included a Marine assault on the island of Koh Tang. The attack involved thousands of military personnel - from the top brass at the Pentagon to enlisted men in the field &ndash connected through sophisticated communication networks. Among the few who participated in the actual operation against the well-entrenched Khmer Rouge forces on the island was Grand Rapids native Staff Sergeant Martin Jablonski, serving as flight mechanic on one of the Jolly Greens used to transport the marines.

Jablonski&rsquos helicopter, Jolly Green 42, flew marines in on the second wave of the assault on May 15. The helicopters encountered fierce resistance from the entrenched enemy. Several choppers went down and marines fought desperately to maintain a beachhead. Jablonski later recalled, &ldquoon the island, mortar shells had exploded all around the aircraft and shrapnel had severed an electrical wire bundle located two feet from where I was positioned&hellip I had been lucky.&rdquo During the intense firefight, Jolly 42&rsquos auxiliary fuel tanks were ruptured, but they did not explode. The pilot and the crew of the helicopter kept her flying after successfully delivering the contingent of Marines to the island. They then made it safely to Thailand despite the damage. Overall, the fourteen-hours of combat netted the ship and its entire crew. The heavy casualties suffered by the small strike force added a few final scars to the legacy of Vietnam.

President Ford was praised for taking the decisive action needed to end the crisis. He extended his admiration to those who took part in the rescue through a live broadcast to the nation: &ldquoI wish to express my deep appreciation and that of the entire Nation to the units and the men who participated in these operations for their valor and for their sacrifice.&rdquo The United States Air Force awarded Martin Jablonski the Distinguished Flying Cross for &ldquocourageous action aided in the recovery of the SS Mayaguez and its crew.&rdquo

Martin Jablonski passed away on Easter Sunday, April 8, 2007, after a protracted illness. His siblings, Pamela and Tim Jablonski, donated his citation, medal, and unit plaque to the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum in his memory and for all those who serve.


Leave No Man Behind: The Truth About the Mayaguez Incident

The last casualties of the final battle of the Vietnam War were 3 Marines left behind on Cambodia’s Koh Tang Island.

U.S. Marines run from the GH53 helicopter that landed them on Koh Tang Island 30 miles off Cambodia in rescue of U.S. merchant ship Mayaguez (May 15, 1975).

In his new book When the Center Held, Donald Rumsfeld calls the “successful handling” of the Mayaguez Incident, the last battle of the Vietnam War, “a turning point” for President Gerald Ford because it forced him “to demonstrate his command at a time of international crisis.” Not all share this rosy and revisionist view of the disastrous and unnecessary search and rescue operation that left 41 American servicemen dead.

Foremost among the skeptics is Mayaguez survivor and decorated Marine Scout Sniper Fofo Tuitele whose conspicuous and overlooked heroism during the battle is now the subject of a congressional investigation. “We lost 41 and saved 40. What kind of trade is that? That’s what bothers me still,” said Tuitele. “It didn’t have to happen like that. It all sounded good on paper, but it was a disaster.”

Rumsfeld goes on to make a Freudian slip and erroneously claim that only three Americans died during the operation (41 American servicemen died). Is he referring to the three Marines — Joseph Hargrove, Gary Hall, and Danny Marshall — who were left behind and survived for days before they were captured and killed?

Former U.S. Marine Larry Barnett holds photos of, from the left, Lance Cpl. Joseph Hargrove, Pfc Gary Hall, and Pvt Danny Marshall, inside his home in Urbana, Ohio (Feb. 7, 2001). AP Photo by Al Behrman.

Two weeks after the fall of Saigon, on May 12, 1975, a Khmer Rouge patrol boat seized the U.S. merchant ship SS Mayaguez and its crew in Cambodian waters. President Ford, goaded by Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, believed that the ship’s seizure provided an opportunity for the United States “to prove that others will be worse off if they tackle us, and not that they can return to the status quo. It is not enough to get the ship’s release.” One Pentagon official told Newsweek at the time, “Henry Kissinger was determined to give the Khmer Rouge a bloody nose.”

Three days later, eight helicopters carrying almost 200 Marines left Utapao, Thailand for Cambodia’s Koh Tang Island, where they believed the ship’s crew was being held. Minutes before the first helicopters landed, Ford received word that the Cambodians had released the ship and its crew. “The President and his chief of staff exchanged whoops of joy,” wrote Newsweek at the time, “Henry Kissinger beaming ear to ear, the lot of them celebrating what seemed in that taut midnight to be a famous victory.”

By the time the announcement was translated into English and verified, however, the rescue mission was underway for the young Marines who had not completed training, much less been in combat. The only points wide enough for the American helicopters to land were the small beaches on the east and west sides of Koh Tang Island’s northern tip. When Khmer Rouge commander Em Som heard the distant thump of helicopter blades, he roused his men and sent them to their battle stations, where they locked and loaded antiaircraft guns, large machine guns, rocket propelled grenades, small arms, and waited for the Americans’ arrival in fortified bunkers.

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Al Bailey (far right) on Koh Tang Island, Cambodia May 15, 1975. Photo credit: James Davis/Koh Tang Beach Club.

Nineteen-year-old Marine Al Bailey was in the first Air Force helicopter that landed on the west beach. The Khmer Rouge held their fire until the chopper was less than 100 feet off the ground, when suddenly Bailey saw the tree line light up as gunfire began to rip through the HH 53’s fuselage. Although the Marines were able to offload, the helicopter was so badly shot up that it took off and crashed a mile offshore. The second Bailey stepped onto the beach, black clad soldiers were shooting at him from less than 50 meters away. In fact, the first dead man Bailey ever saw was the Cambodian soldier he shot in the chest.

Things were not going any better on the east beach, where two helicopters had already been shot down by the Cambodians. “I shot from the distance of about 30 meters from my bunker to the helicopter,” said Em Som. “I aimed for the head and hit the tail. The helicopter was so low that we hit it, it fell to the ground without much damage.”

The Marines on the west beach were undergoing a Khmer Rouge trial-by-fire and were running out of ammunition. When a helicopter filled with reinforcements managed to land. Bailey felt an immediate sense of relief when his senior NCO, Fofo “Sergeant T” Tuitele walked down the ramp like a comic book superhero. “He stepped out of the helicopter and was like, ‘Let me get this shit under control.’ It was a walk in the park to him, he was ready to conduct business.”

The six-foot-two, 250 pound Samoan was a highly respected scout sniper who had been training these “boot” Marines on Okinawa when they were assigned this mission. Born and raised in American Samoa, Fofomaitulagi Tulifua Tuitele, better known as “Fofo,” moved to Hawaii at age 10 and joined the Marines at 18. Tuitele went to Vietnam for the first time in 1967 and during his second tour in 1968, received a bronze star and Purple Heart for saving a friend whose foot had been blown off in a battle against the North Vietnamese. Although the soft-spoken Samoan treated his men well, “nobody and I mean nobody, ever challenged him,” said Bailey. “This man had killed a rack of Vietnamese, you could see it in his demeanor and the way he carried himself.”

Tuitele first calmed the Marines on the west beach and spread them out into a defensive perimeter. He noticed an enemy machine gun position on a ridge at the north end of the beach that was raining down fire, making it impossible for helicopters to land. “I’m going to take care of this problem,” Tuitele said and disappeared into jungle. “Within 15 minutes the machine gun position was silenced,” wrote Al Bailey. “About another 20-25 minutes later, I heard more gun fire to my 11 o’clock position and then silence.”

When the Samoan emerged from the jungle, he was carrying two AK-47s, Cambodian cigarettes, and Ho Chi Minh sandals. “They’re having a garage sale on the other side of the island,” he joked. His commanding officer Dick Keith was checking their northern perimeter when he saw Tuitele carrying the AK-47s. “I asked him where he had been all morning,” wrote Keith, “to which he simply replied ‘Looking for some souvenirs, sir.’”

Fofo Tuitele with captured AK 47. Koh Tang Island, May 15, 1975. Photo: Fred Morris/Koh Tang Beach Club

When Marine Fred Morris watched Cambodian soldiers climb a huge tree overlooking their position, he pointed the tree out to Tuitele, who lifted an M60 machine gun off its stand and fired it from his hip. As he raked the palm tree with machine gun fire, men began to fall out of it. “I don’t know if they were already dead from being shot but if they were not the 70-90 feet fall had to of killed them,” wrote Morris. After things calmed down, Morris asked Tuitele if he was hurt because of the blood on his sleeve. “He just looked at his arm and said ‘it’s not mine,’ he didn’t elaborate.”

By noon, the Khmer Rouge forces were now running out of ammunition. “We couldn’t continue the fighting, because we had no bullets,” said Khmer Rouge soldier Mao Ran. “We retreated into the forest, while the Americans soldiers occupied our bunkers.” During the short break in the action, “Sergeant T” handed out AK47s, canteens, binoculars, rubber tire sandals, and Cambodian cigarettes “like he was Santa Claus.” “Most of us were 18 to 21-year-old young men, scared shitless, experiencing the throes of heavy combat for the first time. By just his presence, his calm demeanor,” wrote Bailey, “SSgt Fofo Tuitele buoyed us up past paralyzing fear.”

The Marines dug in and prepared for a long night, when they learned that that helicopters were on the way to take them off of the island. Minutes later, heroic Air Force pilots and pararescuemen (PJs) packed each helicopter with twice the normal combat load and as they took off, the perimeter shrank. When the final chopper was ready to take off, the Marines on board told the Air Force crew that a three man machine gun team (Joseph Hargrove, Gary Hall, and Danny Marshall) covering their flank was still on the beach.

It was after 8:00 p.m. when the radio aboard the AC 130 Airborne Battlefield Command and Control Center came to life. Air Force Sergeant Robert Veile suspected that it was a Khmer Rouge ruse until he asked for the Marine authentication code and the man repeated it without missing a beat. “I was the last to talk to them,” Viele told Newsweek, “I had to tell them that nobody was coming back for them.”

As the night wore on, Marines, Air Force PJs, and Seals on nearby Navy ships planned to return to Koh Tang to search for the lost machine gun team. A SEAL team led by Tom Coulter was waiting for orders to launch a search and rescue mission. Vice Admiral R.T. Coogan told him that he wanted to wait until dawn. They would drop fliers on Koh Tang announcing their intention to recover the Americans’ dead and then send Coulter and his team in unarmed and under a white flag. In an act of defiance celebrated by SEALs to this day, Coulter refused the admiral’s “suicide mission.” Marines Lester “Gunny Mack” McNemar and Captain James Davis volunteered to return to the island the next day under a white flag. When the Admiral rejected even this — his original plan — tempers boiled over. Later that night USS Henry Holt commander Robert Paterson called Coulter into his quarters for a conference call with the White House. Although he does not remember who was on the call that canceled the rescue operation, Coulter remembers that “someone on the call had an accent.”

Memorial service for the servicemen killed and left behind during the Mayaguez Incident aboard the USS Coral Sea, May 16, 1975. Photo credit: Terry Brooks/Koh Tang Beach Club

The next morning, Khmer Rouge soldiers cautiously approached the beaches on Koh Tang, unsure that the Americans had left the island. Destroyer escort USS Wilson was patrolling just off the east and west beaches, looking for any signs of the lost machine gun team. “I didn’t see the Americans withdraw, I just saw helicopters coming and going. We didn’t know if they were reinforcing or withdrawing,” recalled Mao Ran. Once they were positive the Americans were gone, the Khmer Rouge soldiers walked the beach and were amazed by the equipment left behind: “We saw they had everything, including a tool for swimming and food. Some even had two guns,” he said. “We picked them up. At the helicopter crash site there were pistols and many other things that were left behind. The walkie talkie was still operating: ‘pip, pip.’”

Mao Ran also saw the bodies of dead Americans: “I didn’t count how many there were, but I remember dragging five or six bodies myself [to the water]. If we’d known the Americans would have come back some day to look for the bodies, we would have put all the bodies in one easy-to-find place.” Instead they tied the bodies to a row boat and towed them “deep into the sea…”

A few days later, a Cambodian soldier was carrying wooden poles near the water well when he saw a man lurking in the jungle. “Who are you?” he asked with irritation, “Why don’t you help me carry the wooden poles and are just trying to run away?” When the mysterious man ran for his life, the soldier put down his load, squatted next to the well to draw water, and noticed strange boot prints. “‘Brother, I saw someone drinking water and he went running into the forest when I called out at him,’” the soldier told Mao Ran. “The footprints didn’t belong to our men. It was the footprints belonging to the boots of the American soldiers.” The Khmer Rouge assembled a search party.

Although there are different accounts of who killed him and how he died, there is a firm consensus that by the end of the day, one of the Marines, probably Joseph Hargrove, was dead.

Peter Maguire with Mao Ran, a Khmer Rouge veteran of the Mayaguez Incident. Photo courtesy of Peter Maguire.

The Cambodian soldiers realized that each night someone was stealing the rice and fish from their cooking pot. “Our men complained, ‘We don’t know who has eaten the old rice,’” said Em Som, “but they didn’t know that the Americans had stolen their rice. The rice was missing every day.” After they found more boot prints on the trail to the kitchen, after the sun went down four Khmer Rouge soldiers hid on each side of the trail. At about 10 p.m. two Marines crept down the trail until armed men emerged from the bush and surrounded them. The Americans raised their hands and used the body language and drew pictures in the dirt to explain that they had been left behind. “We cooked rice in the night and let them eat,” said Em Som. “Now that they were in somebody’s hands they were worried. It would be the same for us.” The Khmer Rouge commander did not consider the exhausted abandoned soldiers a threat and did not even bother to tie them up.

The Cambodian soldiers on Koh Tang had no contact with their leaders because their radio had been destroyed. When a boat finally reached the island, Em Som informed Khmer Rouge naval commander Meas Muth of the captured Americans and was ordered to take the prisoners to the port of Kompong Som. Once they reached the port, the two Americans were put in a car and taken “to Mr. Meas Samouth’s [Meas Muth] place.”

“We saw the Americans die with our own eyes, but it was not my men who killed them,” said Em Som. “They were not shot. They were killed with a stick.”

Once Meas Muth was named as a war crimes suspect and charged (in absentia) by the UN’s Khmer Rouge war crimes court, Em Som and other Khmer Rouge soldiers from the Mayaguez Incident began to change their stories. However, today there is firm consensus among the leading Khmer Rouge researchers that the Ford administration left three living Marines behind on Koh Tang Island on May 15, 1975. No less of an authority than Rich Arant, a former U.S. Air Force human intelligence officer, Defense Intelligence Agency field investigator in Cambodia, and translator for the UN’s Khmer Rouge Tribunal believes that Marines were left behind: “Multiple first-hand witnesses from the Khmer Rouge 164th Naval Division have given detailed sworn testimony regarding the capture of U.S. military personnel on Tang Island, events surrounding their handling on the island and the Cambodian mainland by the Khmer Rouge chain of command, and their final disposition.”

“Based on the extensive evidence I have seen about the Mayaguez affair,” wrote Craig Etcheson, the dean of Khmer Rouge war crimes investigators, who has been conducting field research in Cambodia since the early 1990s and was the lead investigator for the UN’s court, “I am convinced that several U.S. Marines were captured alive on Koh Tang and later executed by the Khmer Rouge.”

Marine Ssgt. Fofo Tuitele in 2018. Photo by Peter Maguire.

Forty-three years after the Mayaguez Incident there is a renewed effort to get long overdue recognition for the veterans of the last battle of the Vietnam War. While the Marine, Air Force, and Navy officers were heavily decorated for the disastrous rescue mission, the unsung heroes, the enlisted Marines who prevented a much worse outcome, have not received the acknowledgement they deserve. Why were these veterans denied the Vietnam Service medal in 2016?

Only recently has the valor of Marine Fofo Tuitlele come to light. “Many more lives would have been lost for not the actions of SSgt Tuitele,” wrote Al Bailey. “His talent and experience were needed on that fateful day.” The effort to get the Samoan the recognition he deserves has been spearheaded by the enlisted Marines whose lives he saved. “I can tell you that what SSgt T directed us to do and how he re-supplied us did two things for me and I’m sure the others,” wrote Herrera. “We had a little more confidence and supplies to continue the fight. Without that I do not know if we would have survived.”

In May, American Samoan Congresswoman Aumua Amata Coleman Radewagen filed a DD-149 “Application for Correction of Military Record” and four letters from Marine eyewitnesses on Koh Tang Island. Al Bailey put it best, “Whatever courage I displayed that day, I drew from that courageous man.”

Prof. Peter Maguire is the founder and director of Fainting Robin Foundation and the author of Law and War: American History and International Law, Facing Death in Cambodia, and Thai Stick: Surfers, Scammers, and the Untold Story of the Marijuana Trade. He has taught the law and theory of war at Columbia University, Bard College, and the University of North Carolina Wilmington