Monday, November 7, 2016

The "Mayaguez Incident" (May 1975)


Saigon. The following day, the South Vietnamese government of President Thieu surrendered to the Viet Cong, and that long regrettable war was over.

Earlier in that same month, US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger was quoted in the Washington Post as saying: "The U.S. must carry out some act somewhere in the world which shows its determination to continue to be a world power

The US had been humiliated in its first decisive military defeat. And that's why, in May 1975, the "Mayaguez Incident" became a huge news item; proof that Americans were back from their defeat and on top again. The military operation that "rescued" the crew of the Mayaguez; well, that was the proof. Except, the story spun as propaganda was not quite true.

So, what actually happened?

The Mayaguez was an American cargo ship that had sailed from South Vietnam in mid-May 1975 en route to Thailand. As it passed an island which belonged to Cambodia (a country the US had bombed during the Vietnam war, it was stopped by the Cambodians, whose government had recently fallen to the Khmer Rouge. The ship was forced into an island port, and the crew was place on a fishing boat and moved to the Cambodian mainland. The crew was questioned about spying, but at no time were any of them mistreated, and they later said they were treated respectfully and courteously. The Cambodians, convinced that the ship was not spying, released the crew and put them on a fishing boat headed for an American fleet. That was about 6:15 P.M. [all times are EDT] on Wednesday, May 14. At 7 P.M, Phnom Penh radio, which is heard in Bangkok, announced the release of the Mayaguez crew. That transmission was intercepted by the CIA station in Bangkok and translated.

There is little doubt that the Americans in knew of the crew's release. Nevertheless, the Marine assault ordered by President Gerald Ford on Koh Tang Island (where the Mayaguez crew had been held before being taken by ship to the Cambodian mainland) was not halted That assault was a disaster. Four of 11 helicopters transporting the Marines (CH-53s) were shot down, five more were disabled. 12 Marines were killed in the initial assault, from gunfire and drowning, and one-third of the Marine landing force (65 out of 200) were soon dead or wounded (which, by the way, exceeds the casualty rate in the Marine invasion of Iwo Jima). 23 more were killed in a helicopter crash (which was quickly hushed up) in Thailand during the evacuation of Koh Tang Island.

Final toll: 41 US Marines dead. 15 killed in action; 3 MIA and presumed dead, 23 killed in an evacuation helicopter crash. 50 wounded. And they "rescued" no one.

The Mayaguez assault on Koh Tang was the last official battle of the Vietnam War. The names of the Americans killed, as well as those of three U.S. Marines who were left behind on the island of Koh Tang after the battle and were subsequently executed by the Khmer Rouge, are the final names on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. 

President Ford actually went on U.S. national television to announce the heroic recovery of the Mayaguez and the rescue of its crew, but he conveniently forgot to mention the fact that the crew had in fact been released voluntarily by the Khmer Rouge.

The 1975 Mayaguez Incident was a fiasco for the US military. But that's not at all the way you heard it, is it?