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.