Mayaguez

Crisis in Command

One could refer to this incident as the last episode of the Vietnam War, but doing so would only present half the picture.  Cambodia was also involved — and Laos — and China, and the Soviet Union.  We could probably call it a Southeast Asian War or the Third Indochina War.  But no matter what one chooses to call it, by mid-May 1975, the American people were gut-wrenchingly tired of Southeast Asia.

In over 25 years of direct or indirect combat operations, the American people gave up 58,000 of their sons, daughters, brothers, sisters, husbands, wives, fathers, and mothers.  Seventy-five thousand Americans sustained severe wounds; of those, more than 23,000 were permanently disabled, including five thousand who lost limbs and over a thousand multiple amputees.

Beyond this, the United States government squandered the nation’s wealth — with untold billions spent shoring up French Imperialism, bribing Vietnamese officials, bombing North Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. In the final analysis, the United States of America walked away from the entire episode with nothing to show for its mind-numbing costs.  Not one presidential administration, from Harry S. Truman to Gerald Ford, had any intention of winning that war.

The Trigger

SS Mayaguez

In the middle of May 1975, just weeks after the fall of Saigon, the Khmer Rouge (Cambodian Reds) “coast guard” seized a United States flagged ship named SS Mayaguez.  Following Phnom Penh’s fall on 17 April, the communists moved to control Cambodia, including its offshore islands.  Khmer Rouge and (north) Vietnamese forces clashed over territory claimed by both countries.  Operating in defense of Cambodian territory, the Khmer navy/coast guard instituted coastal patrolling to prevent Vietnamese incursions — and because of their belief that the CIA used merchant shipping to conduct intelligence-gathering operations along coastal areas.[1]

Within this tense environment, the Khmer navy captured seven Thai fishing boats on 2 May and charged them with territorial violations.  They also pursued a South Korean freighter on 4 May.  On 7 May, the Khmer navy seized a Panamanian-flagged ship near the island of Poulo Wai and questioned its crew for more than 36 hours.  Five days later, the Khmer navy fired on a Swedish vessel in the same area.  On that same day, the Khmer Rouge dispatched a company-sized unit to occupy Poulo Wai.  None of the merchant ships operating off the coast of Cambodia knew about this transfer.

Cambodia asserted its sovereignty twelve nautical miles outward from the shoreline of its mainland and all claimed islands — and had done so since 1969.[2]  In 1975, Poulo Wai Island was a potential site for oil exploration, explaining Cambodia’s sensitivity to foreign trespass.  The US had no interest in Poulo Wai other than suppressing what it believed to be a base for Cambodian pirates’ operations. 

On 12 May, the US container ship SS Mayaguez (owned by Sea-Land, Inc.[3]) transited near Poulo Wai en route from Hong Kong to Sattahip, Thailand.  At 1418, a Khmer navy swift boat approached Mayaguez and fired a shot across her bow.  Seven Khmer Rouge seamen boarded Mayaguez and ordered the captain to proceed to Poulo Wai.  The ship transmitted a mayday, which was picked up by an Australian vessel.  Mayaguez was carrying 107 cargo containers, 77 of which were US government and military cargo — including material from the United States Embassy in Saigon.

SS Mayaguez’ SOS call prompted notification to the US Embassy Jakarta, which transmitted the information to the National Military Command Center in Washington.  The National Security staff notified President Ford of the incident the next morning (Washington time).  Secretary of State and National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger urged Secretary of Defense James R. Schlesinger to direct the Commander-in-Chief, Pacific Command, Admiral Noel Gayler, to launch a reconnaissance aircraft to locate Mayaguez — but even before any analysis of photographs, Kissinger and Deputy National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft had already decided that the crisis deserved a decisive response.  In the wake of the United States’ recent withdrawal from Cambodia and Vietnam, both Kissinger and Scowcroft believed that the US’s reputation was at stake.[4]  Presidential advisors also wanted to avoid another USS Pueblo incident.[5]  President Ford directed Kissinger to petition China for its help in releasing the Mayaguez.

President Ford and Kissinger drafted a press release to the American public stating that the seizure of a US-flagged ship was an act of piracy.  Technically, it was no such thing.  Meanwhile, Secretary Schlesinger ordered the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) to locate the ship and undertake measures to prevent its movement to the Cambodian mainland.  Kissinger sent a terse note to the Chinese Liaison Office in Washington demanding the “immediate release” of the ship and its crew.  The Chinese liaison office refused to accept the message, however — apparently, the Chinese were not in the mood for accepting demands from a country recently defeated by a nation of rice farmers.

In compliance with Schlesinger’s instructions, the Pacific command launched aerial reconnaissance missions from the Philippines and Thailand and diverted the USS Coral Sea from its course en route to Australia.  Pacific Command also dispatched a guided-missile destroyer with escort toward Mayaguez’s last known location.  Admiral Gayler also issued a warning order to the III Marine Expeditionary Force (III MEF), placing them on standby.  III MEF passed the mission through the 3rd Marine Division to the 9th Marine Regiment on Okinawa and to the 1st Battalion, 4th Marines (1/4) at Subic Bay, Philippine Islands.  As a rapid reaction company from 1/4 assembled at Cubi Point Naval Air Station for possible airlift to Thailand, a Battalion Landing Team (BLT) from the 9th Marines began its pre-deployment procedures on Okinawa.

On 13 May, an Orion aircraft identified a significant radar return near Poulo Wai and dropped flares on the suspected location of Mayaguez.  Young Khmer Rouge sailors, believing that they were under attack, opened fire.  Both photo-reconnaissance aircraft, already low on fuel, withdrew.  Replacement aircraft also received gunfire from Khmer ground forces.

Within a few hours after seizing the ship, the Khmer navy officials ordered the master of the Mayaguez, Captain Miller, to get underway.  He was instructed to follow a swift boat toward the Northeast.  Orion aircraft continued to track the ship’s movement.  Admiral Gayler ordered the Commanding General, 7th US Air Force, Lieutenant General John J. Burns, USAF, to assume operational control over US military recovery efforts.  Burns marshaled rotary-wing aircraft for a possible air assault mission.

A flight of two F-111’s marked the ship’s position, which was then nearing Koh Tang Island.  Soon after, F-4 Phantoms arrived and began firing into the water ahead of Mayaguez, indicating to Captain Miller that he was to halt.  It was then that the Khmer naval commander ordered the ship’s crew into two fishing boats for transfer to Koh Tang Island.

Meanwhile, the Navy’s flotilla — Coral Sea, Holt, and Wilson — signaled that they would not arrive on station until 15 May.  None of these ships carried a Marine landing force.  USS Hancock (CVA-19), with a small contingent of Marines, would not arrive until 16 May, and USS Okinawa (LPH-3), with a BLT, would not arrive until 18 May.

On Okinawa, III MAF assigned the Special Landing Force (Task Force 79.9) to recover Mayaguez.  Company D, 1/4 was designated as the unit that would actually take Mayaguez, but General Burns wanted a more significant force.  Ultimately, the 3rdMarDiv assigned BLT 2/9 as its air assault force.  The battalion flew to Thailand on the morning of 14 May.  Only a few of the 1,100 officers and NCOs of 2/9 had any combat experience.

Seventh US Air Force earmarked nineteen of its helicopters to participate in the air assault.  Nine of these were HH-53C (Jolly Green) aircraft, and ten were CH-53s.  The HH-bird was capable of aerial refueling; the CH-53 was not.  Meanwhile, General Burns developed a plan to re-take Mayaguez with an assault force from the 56th Security Police Squadron.  He intended to drop 75 SPS volunteers on the containers aboard the ship on 14 May.

En route to Cambodia’s Southeast coastal region, one of the CH-53s (call sign Knife 13) crashed, killing all on board (18 police and five crewmen).  President Ford subsequently canceled General Burns’ plan because, beyond the loss of one aircraft and 23 men, these large helicopters were too heavy to land on shipping containers.  Instead, President Ford decided to await the arrival of the Navy and Marines.  However, President Ford ordered Burns to stop any Cambodian boats moving between Koh Tang and the mainland.

Early on 14 May, at Koh Tang, the Khmer navy loaded the Mayaguez crew onto a fishing vessel and, with an escort of two swift boats, headed toward the mainland at Kampong Som.  Air Force F-4s, A-7s, and an AC-130 gunship sunk one fast boat and convinced another to turn back.  Orbiting pilots reported the presence of 30 to 40 Caucasians on the fishing boat.  One senior pilot opined that he might be able to shoot the rudder off the fishing boat to stop its progress.

By this time, communicators had established a link between the White House situation room, the Pacific Command in Hawaii, and General Burns’ headquarters at Nakhon Phanom.  General Burns relayed the pilot’s idea for shooting off the fishing boat’s rudder to the White House, which NSC staffers immediately denied.  Ford decided that if anything, the Air Force should only drop tear gas onto the fishing boat but gave the go-ahead to sink all patrol boats.

Acting JCS Chairman, U. S. Air Force General David C. Jones, provided the NSC staff with a range of military options.  One major complication for the rescue operation was that no one knew for certain the Mayaguez crewmen’s location.  There was a long list of things the forward area commander didn’t know.

The NSC decided to proceed with a Marine assault to retake Mayaguez with a simultaneous attack by Air Force and Navy assets on Koh Tang and against Khmer naval vessels.

The Air Force’s tear gas assault did not affect the fishing boat, and it proceeded to Kampong Som.  Upon arrival, the ranking Khmer area commander wisely refused to allow the boat to dock; he anticipated a massive retaliatory attack by American aircraft.  The redirected fishing boat proceeded to Koh Rang Sanloem undetected by orbiting aircraft.

Marines from Delta Company 1/4 arrived in Thailand during the early-morning hours of 14 May; insofar as the American high command knew, the Cambodians detained crew members at Kampong Som, so higher authority canceled the planned assault on Mayaguez.  Delta Company Marines did what they always do … they waited for someone higher on the totem pole to make up their minds.  Meanwhile, Marines from BLT 2/9 began arriving at U-Tapao, Thailand.

That afternoon, President Ford ordered General Burns to proceed with a simultaneous assault on Koh Tang and Mayaguez; the assault would begin at sunrise on 15 May.  Since the Americans had no information about Koh Tang, the 2/9 Commanding Officer, Lieutenant Colonel Randall W. Austin, and his operations officer boarded a Beechcraft U-21 to conduct aerial reconnaissance of the island.

The problem with Colonel Austin’s aerial reconnaissance was that he could not get close enough to the island to see anything worthwhile without compromising the upcoming assault.  All Colonel Austin could tell about Koh Tang for sure was that heavy jungle foliage covered the island and that there were only three (potential) landing zones for an air assault.  He found two of these on the northern section of the island, which he designated East Beach and West Beach, and another beach located center of the island’s eastern shore.  The center beach was too narrow for vertical assault operations.

From photographs taken by reconnaissance flights, the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) estimated an enemy footprint of between 150-200 Khmer Rouge with heavy weapons.  Colonel Austin never received this information; he proceeded with his planning on the generally held assumption that only a small number of Khmer navy irregulars were on the island.

Austin planned a two-company air assault, assigning the mission to Company E and Company G (Echo and Golf) 2/9.  They would fly to Koh Tang aboard three USAF CH-53s and three USAF HH-53Cs to seize and hold Koh Tang.  Two additional helicopters would make a diversionary thrust toward West Beach; the main assault would occur at East Beach.  From that East Beach, Austin planned to proceed to a small compound believed to be the location of Mayaguez’s crewmen.  Flight time from U-Tapao to Koh Tang was two hours.

Fifty-seven Marines from Delta Company 1/4, including a detachment of Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) technicians, a team of volunteers from the Military Sealift Command, and a Cambodian linguist, were transferred by helicopter to USS Holt, from which they would re-take Mayaguez.

Acting JCS Chairman Jones briefed President Ford and the NSC Staff on the operation plan.  Jones wanted to incorporate B-52s from Guam in bombing Kampong Som and the Ream Naval Base, but the president believed the B-52s were “excessive” and limited aerial bombing to carrier-based aircraft.  With that modification, President Ford approved the operation and gave the go-ahead.

None of the Mayaguez crewmen were at Koh Tang.  Moreover, island defenses included around 150 Khmer defenders.  These troops had not been placed on Koh Tang to counter an American assault but rather to prevent a Vietnamese takeover of the island.  The island’s commander had set up two heavy machine gun emplacements on East Beach with interlocking fires and well-developed defensive positions every twenty or so meters behind a sand berm.  The commander also set up one heavy machine gun at West Beach and armed those defenders with RPGs, 75-mm recoilless rifles, and mortars.

Meanwhile, the senior Khmer commander at Rong Sang Lem interviewed Captain Miller.  Miller was asked to contact the American military and persuade them to call off their anticipated attack; the Cambodian did not want an engagement with the Americans.  Miller told this commander that if he could return to the ship, restart her engines, it may be possible to contact his company in Bangkok, and they, in turn, could communicate with the US military.  The Cambodian military commander decided to return Captain Miller and nine of his crew to the ship the following day.

The operation to retake Mayaguez occurred the next morning, beginning at about 0600.  Delta Company Marines successfully conducted one of the few hostile ship-to-ship boarding operations since the American Civil War; the ship was secure within an hour.

On to Koh Tang

At about the same time, eight USAF helicopters approached the Koh Tang landing zones.  At West Beach, the first helicopter section (two aircraft) to arrive received heavy machine gunfire.  The aircraft with call-sign Knife 21 safely offloaded its Marines, but enemy fire destroyed one of its engines.  After disembarking the Marines, Knife 21 struggled into the air only to ditch two miles offshore.  Inbound Knife 22 also received damage while in-flight, forcing it to withdraw with Marines still on board — including the Gulf Company commander.

Thirty minutes later, CH-53s approached East Beach and encountered intense automatic weapons and RPG fire.  Knife 31 was hit by two RPGs, causing it to crash in a ball of fire fifty meters offshore.  The aircraft’s co-pilot, five Marines, and two Navy corpsmen were killed in the crash; another Marine drowned while swimming away from the wreck. Three additional Marines were killed by Khmer automatic weapons while trying to reach the shoreline.  Ten surviving Marines and three USAF crewmen were forced to swim for two hours before being rescued from the sea.  Among the surviving Marines was the battalion’s forward air controller, who used a USAF survival radio to call in A-7 strikes against the enemy position — doing so until the radio’s batteries failed.

An RPG hit Knife 23, which blew off the aircraft’s tail section, causing it to crash land on East Beach.  Twenty Marines and five aircraft crewmen safely exited the aircraft and set up a hasty defensive perimeter.  Knife 23’s co-pilot used his survival radio to direct airstrikes.  This group remained cut off for twelve hours.

Knife 32, inbound to East Beach, was hit by an RPG and aborted its landing.  After dumping his fuel, the pilot proceeded to rescue three of Knife 21’s crewmen.  The remaining inbound helicopters were diverted from East Beach to West Beach and landed their Marines; an AC-130 gunship, call-sign Specter, was called in to suppress Cambodian defensive fires.  Knife 32, Jolly 41, and Jolly 42 eventually landed 81 Marines on West Beach.  Gulf Company’s executive officer assumed command; Jolly 43 landed 29 Marines a half-mile further southwest.

By 0700, 109 Marines and five USAF crewmen were on Koh Tang, but in three isolated beach areas, each in close contact with Khmer Rouge defenders.  Marines on the northern end of West Beach attempted to link up with Colonel Austin’s command element but were beaten back by overwhelming enemy fire.  Lance Corporal Ashton Loney lost his life in this attempt.  Although isolated, the Marines could employ their 81-mm mortars for fire support, and communicators set up a makeshift radio net for directing air support operations.

An effort to extract the Marines on East Beach failed when Jolly 13 received severe damage in the attempt; with fuel lines ruptured, the aircraft flew to Rayong, Thailand.  Of the eight birds assaulting Koh Tang, enemy fire destroyed three and damaged five birds sufficiently to remove them from further operations.  Because only three helicopters of the assault force remained operational, two aircraft initially assigned to sea and rescue operations, Knife 51 and Knife 52, became part of the airlift element.  These five birds picked up the second wave of the Marine assault force and headed back toward Koh Tang.  Enemy fire damaged the fuel lines of Knife 52, which had to abort its landing; Knife 41 and Jolly 43 likewise aborted their landings and remained in a holding pattern offshore.

Meanwhile, Cambodia’s press minister announced that the crew of Mayaguez would be released and went further to explain why the ship had been “detained” in the first place.  The White House then engaged the Cambodian government in a war of press releases.  President Ford immediately took credit for the release of Mayaguez crew members when their release had nothing to do with Ford.  Meanwhile, the president ordered airstrikes to continue until the successful withdrawal of the assault force.

Acting JCS Chairman Jones determined that since the Mayaguez’s crew had been returned to US control, there was no reason to reinforce the Marines at Koh Tang.  The JCS notified all American forces to “ceasefire” and withdraw.  General Burns ordered the return of Austin’s second wave, but Austin convinced him that reinforcements were needed to prevent the Khmer Rouge from overrunning the Marine positions.  Austin ordered an additional one hundred additional Marines ashore.  At that point, there were 225 Americans on Koh Tang, 205 Marines on West Beach, and 20 Marines and five airmen at East Beach.

By 1400, enemy fire at West Beach had diminished substantially; the Khmer defenders’ main force had moved back from the shoreline with a minimal force remaining to keep pressure on the Marines.  Colonel Austin contacted the airborne command post for permission to push across the northern end of the Island to link up with the isolated Marines at East Beach.  He was advised to hold until another helicopter extraction attempt was made.  Jolly 11 and Jolly 43 made their attempt at 1415 but were repulsed by heavy fire.  Jolly 43 was forced to land aboard the Coral Sea.  Jolly 43’s pilot reported that he had received fire from one of the swift boats partially sunk the previous day. A-7’s soon arrived to destroy the boat.

At 1610, a USAF OV-10, call-sign Nail 68, arrived to take over air support functions above Koh Tang.  The arrival of Nail 68 was the first time the Marines had dedicated overhead fire support direction.  At 1700, the Khmer Rouge commander moved his men back to a previously established ammo dump.  Thus, resupplied with ammunition, the Khmer Rouge could re-engage the Marines.  At 1815, Jolly 11, though sustaining battle damage, was able to extract the Marines and airmen from East Beach.  Once the bird was clear, a C-130 dropped a daisy-cutter 15,000-pound bomb on the area of East Beach.  The bomb’s massive shockwave extended over the Marines at West Beach.  Colonel Austin directed that no more such bombs be employed, as they endangered his Marines.

In the darkness of the night, Knife 51, Jolly 43 (hastily repaired), Jolly 44 (brought online from a repair facility at Nakhom Phanom) began extracting the Marines from West Beach.  Knife 51 extracted forty-one Marines and flew them to the Coral Sea.  Jolly 43 extracted fifty-four Marines.  As Jolly 44 picked up forty-four Marines, the 66 remaining Marines came under intensive Khmer fire and were in danger of being overrun. 

The flight time to Coral Sea was around thirty minutes; to shorten the extraction time, First Lieutenant Robert Blough, USAF, delivered his Marines to USS Holt, which in a moonless night was a difficult maneuver.  Once the Marines had been offloaded, Blough returned to Koh Tang and picked up an additional thirty-four Marines.  Lieutenant Blough, whose aircraft began experiencing mechanical issues, flew the Marines to Coral Sea.

At 2000, Knife 51 landed and began loading Marines in the dark.  The only light available came from the muzzle flashes of enemy weapons.  Captain Davis and Gunnery Sergeant McNemar began combing the beach, looking for stragglers.  USAF Technical Sergeant Wayne Fisk stood on the ramp of his aircraft as two additional Marines appeared from the brush.  Fisk asked Davis if all his Marines were accounted for; Davis replied in the affirmative.  Nevertheless, Fisk combed the beach one last time, looking for stragglers and finding none, Knife 51 launched for the Coral Sea.

Because of the intensive enemy fire and no way to communicate with the Khmer defenders, the bodies of Marines and airmen killed in action were left where they fell, including LCpl Loney at West Beach.

As the Air Force birds pulled Marines off the beach, the Marine’s defensive perimeter was contracted to facilitate force protection.  Lance Corporal John S. Standfast, the squad leader of the third squad, third platoon, Echo Company, provided cover for Gulf Company during its withdrawal; Standfast directed the pullback of his own men.  As his men contracted, he and platoon guide Sergeant Anderson continually checked to account for all hands.  Before boarding his extraction helicopter, the Echo Company commander, Captain Mike Stahl, informed Captain Davis from Gulf Company that all his men were inside the perimeter.  Captain Stahl did not realize that three Marines of one of his machine gun teams had set up a firing position behind a rocky outcrop beyond the perimeter’s right flank.

As Knife 51 lifted off, Marines began insisting that some of the men were missing.  Knife 51’s pilot, First Lieutenant Brims, radioed the FAC that he believed there were still Marines on the island.  Captain Davis assured the FAC that all Marines were off-island.  Two hours later, Captain Stahl discovered three of his Marines were missing: Lance Corporal Joe Hargrove, Private First Class Gary Hall, and Private Danny Marshall — the machine gun team — were missing.  Sergeant Anderson was the last to see these Marines alive when he ordered them back to the shrinking perimeter.

At 2020, USAF Staff Sergeant Robert Veilie at the airborne command post received a radio transmission from an unidentified American asking when the next helicopter was coming to pick them up.  Veilie authenticated the transmission and radioed to advise Holt that Marines were still on the island.  Holt instructed Veilie to pass the instruct the Marines to swim out to sea where they could be rescued.  The Marines declined because only one of the three Marines could swim.  Veilie advised the caller to take cover since airstrikes were scheduled at their likely position.  After acknowledging Veilie’s instructions, whomever Veilie talked to went off the air, and no more was heard from him.

Aboard Coral Sea, the Commander, Task Force 73, Rear Admiral Robert P. Coogan, met with Colonel Austin, Commander Coulter, who had just arrived from Subic Bay with a 14-man Seal Team, Captain Davis, and Gunnery Sergeant McNemar to discuss possible courses of action.  Admiral Coogan suggested that Coulter take the Wilson’s gig ashore at first light with a white flag to see if he could recover the remains of those killed in action and any possible stragglers.  Coulter was cool to the idea; he preferred taking his men ashore for a nighttime reconnaissance.  Coogan refused this notion; his orders from COMSEVENTHFLT were to cease hostilities — and he had no confirmation that these “missing” men were still alive.  Despite Wilson’s efforts to spot Marines between East Beach and West Beach, which included cruising offshore and loudspeaker announcements in English and Cambodian, there was no indication that the three Marines were still alive.  Moreover, Coogan was certain more lives would be lost during any forced rescue attempt.

On 16 May, Hargrove, Hall, and Marshall were declared “missing in action.” On 21 July 1976, all three Marines were reported Killed in Action, bodies not recovered.

Except — they weren’t.

In 1999, the Khmer Rouge commander at Koh Tang Island approached the Joint Task Force for Full Accounting, who advertised that they were looking for additional information about Koh Tang’s event.  The man’s name was Em Son.  According to his memory, on the morning of 16 May, he ordered his men to search the West Beach for any remaining Americans.  Around a hundred meters into the search, one of the Khmer defenders was hit by M-16 fire.  The Cambodians fired mortars into the area and captured a wounded Marine.  Em Son’s description of the man matched that of Joseph Hargrove.  The Cambodians continued their search and located an abandoned M60 machine gun and other various equipment.  A few minutes later, the Khmer discovered the body of a black Marine, believed to be LCpl Loney.  They buried Loney and took their wounded prisoner to Em Son.  When the wounded Khmer soldier died, Em Son ordered Hargrove executed.

Em Son also testified that about a week later, he and his men noticed that their food stores were being disturbed.  On searching, they discovered boot prints in the soil.  They set up a night ambush and, on the third night of their vigil, they captured two Americans.  Em Son’s descriptions matched those of Gary Hall and Danny Marshall.  On instructions from Kampong Som, the two Americans were taken to the mainland and transferred to the Ti Near Pagoda, where they were stripped to their underwear and shackled.  A week later, on orders from Phnom Penh, each prisoner was beaten to death with, he said, a B-40 rocket launcher. Hall’s body was buried in a shallow grave near the beach; Marshall’s body was dumped into a nearby cove.

The next of kin of all three of these abandoned Marines received the Purple Heart Medal.  They weren’t the only casualties.  In total, forty-one Americans were killed in the rescue of Mayaguez — one more American serviceman killed than the whole crew saved in the operation.  These casualty numbers reflect the 23 SPS and aircrewmen who died in the helicopter crash, the 18 killed assaulting Koh Tang Island (which includes Hargrove, Hall, and Marshall), and eighty personnel wounded or injured during the operation. 

Sources:

  1.  Caro, R. A.  The Years of Lyndon Johnson: Means of Ascent. New York: Random House, 1991.
  2. Lamb, C. J.  The Mayaguez Crisis, Mission Command, and Civil-Military Relations.  Joint History Office, Office of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Washington, 2018.
  3. Rumsfeld, D.  When the Center Held: Gerald Ford and the Rescue of the American Presidency. New York: Free Press, 2018.
  4. Shafer, J. “The Honest Graft of Lady Bird Johnson: How she and Lyndon came by their millions.” Slate Magazine, 16 July 2007.

Endnotes:


[1] I have no evidence suggesting that this claim had any merit.  I will only observe that if it was true, it was very poor headwork inside the CIA and shipping company boardrooms if they agreed to conduct it.

[2] Cambodia had long claimed a twelve-mile territorial limit of adjacent seas.  Its national policy toward seizing, detaining, questioning maritime crews had been in effect since 1969.  Most countries since 1982 claim a twelve-mile territorial limit.  But in 1975, the United States (and many other countries) only recognized a three-mile territorial limit.

[3] A major shareholder in Land-Sea/Maersk was none other than the wife of President Lyndon B. Johnson, Lady Bird Johnson.  According to Robert A. Caro, the Pulitzer Prize winning biographer of President Johnson (The Years of Lyndon Johnson: Means of Ascent), Johnson used his political power and influence to build her fortune beginning in 1943.  “Johnson had worked at politics for years to achieve power; now he was working at politics to make money.”  According to award winning journalist Jack Shafer, “Under Texas law, Lyndon Johnson owned half of her profits.”  The truth of Johnson’s Indochina War may thus be revealed to us; he, as a sitting president, profited from the war through his wife ownership of stock in a company that became the primary shipper logistics and war materials to the Republic of Vietnam.

[4] America’s reputation was already a shamble since Harry S. Truman’s gross incompetence involved us in the easily avoided Korean War (which, as of this date, technically still continues) and laid the foundation for similar events in Indochina eleven years later.

[5] USS Pueblo (AGER-2), initially constructed for the US Army as a freight and supply ship during World War II, was transferred to the US Navy in April 1966 as a light cargo ship.  Her subsequent designation as an environmental research vessel was a cover for her real purpose, signals intelligence (known informally as a “Spy Ship”).  In early 1968, USS Pueblo engaged in surveilling Soviet naval activity off the Japanese coast and gathered electronic intelligence from North Korea.  Claiming that Pueblo was illegally operating in North Korean waters (North Korea at the time claimed 50 nautical miles of sovereign territory), North Korean gunboats fired upon Pueblo (killing one crewman), seized the ship, interned the crew as prisoners of war, mistreated the crew, tortured the ship’s commander, and demanded a written apology by the US government as a condition of releasing the crew.  The United States signed the admission, and the North Koreans released the crew in late 1968 but retained possession of the ship and all of its highly classified material (hardware and software).

The 8th Marines Go To Texas

There is so much myth surrounding the life and times of David Crockett that hardly anyone knows the truth about the man.  We know he was born in 1786 and gave up his life for Texas Independence on 6 March 1836.  He was 49-years old when he died — in those days, 49-years was a long time to live.  One of the stories about Crockett surrounds his political career.  He served in the Tennessee General Assembly between 1821-1823 and served as a member of the U. S. House of Representatives from 1827-1831 and 1833-1835.  When Crockett decided that he was done with politics, he allegedly told someone, “You can go to hell; I’m going to Texas.”  And he did.

Crockett went to Texas for the same reasons as other folks back then.  There was an adventurer in Crockett, the same as there was a sense of adventure in most people who migrated west.  The difference was that as a member of the US House, Crockett was fully aware of what was going on between the Texians and Mexico’s centrist government.  Most of the pioneers had no clue at all.  Crockett entered Texas with both eyes wide open.  He knew what he was getting himself into — and he believed that the Texas fight was one worth having.  Was he also looking to enrich himself in land?  Of course, he was.  There were no “commies” back then seeking to hold hands and sing kumbaya.  Taking a piece of scrub land and molding it into a profitable enterprise wasn’t for the faint of heart.   

What we also know to be a fact is that Texians, Texans, and Americans have never gotten along well with Mexicans.  There are no similarities between the two cultures, and while there are plenty of good arguments from both sides of any issue confronting Texians, Texans, and Americans, there was never any “earned trust” between these people.  This uneasy relationship continues to this very day; and today, as in 1915 (or at any other time in our history with Mexico), the association was often deadly.

There was always a good reason for revolution in Mexico.  The reasons are as valid today as they were in 1824, 1836, and in 1910.  Arguably, no one associated with government in Mexico ever developed compassion for their citizens.  Ever.  Mexican politicians who became the inheritors of Spanish America were always completely focused on enriching themselves;  building a vibrant nation and society was never a priority, and still isn’t.  As the descendants of Spanish Peninsulares and creoles, today’s politicians remain welded to an unwieldy class structure that makes one group of people forever better than the one just below their own.  One would think that after 500 years of this “caste” system, the people would throw it off and demand better from their government.  But — no. 

What caused the Mexican Revolution of 1910 was the increasing unpopularity of El Presidenté Jose de la Cruz Porfirio Diaz Mori.  He was known simply as Porfirio Diaz.  He’d served as President of Mexico for 31 years.  He served in office for so long because he observed the golden rule: whoever owns the gold, makes the rules.  Plus, it seems that Mexico’s founding fathers never quite got around to solving the question of presidential succession.

Not only did Mexico have a revolution in 1910, one that lasted for ten long, bloody years, Mexico also experienced a series of armed insurrections.  It was a time when every thug with a bandolier called himself general, and every army general commanding a platoon was a self-perpetuating thug.  The groups in armed conflict, and the men involved in these lawless shootouts, when listed altogether, remind one of the greater Chicago telephone directory.

In 1910, one might have imagined that things could not have ever gotten worse in Mexico.  They would have been wrong.  The situation in Mexico between 1910-1920 was so bad that no rational person could have imagined what was next on the agenda.  Casualty estimates range from 1.7 million to 2.7 million people killed (military and civilian).  Of innocent bystanders alone, somewhere between 700,000 and 1.1 million.  Within four years, conditions were such inside Mexico that American politicians began to view them as presenting a clear and present danger to the peace and stability of the United States.  It was serious enough to justify two (2) separate US interventions: the invasion of Vera Cruz (1914) and the twelve-month-long Poncho Villa Expedition (1916-17).  In addition to the two US expeditions, there was another confrontation — which occurred after thousands of Mexicans invaded Texas to escape the violence in Mexico (see also, Sedition in Texas and The Bandit War).  It did not help to improve relations with Mexico when it was learned that Germany was making an attempt to coopt Mexico into attacking the US southern border.

Send in the Marines

When President Woodrow Wilson decided to commit American blood to the defense of Paris, France in 1917, it was necessary to mobilize the U. S. Armed Forces.  At the very moment when Wilson made his fateful decision, there were only two (2) military services even partially ready for combat: The United States Navy and the U. S. Marine Corps.  The Navy and Marines were “most ready” because they had already demonstrated their capabilities in the Spanish-American War.  The Army, meanwhile, were still organized almost exclusively for fighting hostile Indians in the western states.  Mobilization in 1917 was a herculean task — and it speaks well for the American people that they were able to pull it off in such a short period of time.

One of the units activated in 1917 was my first (home) regiment, the Eighth Marines.  Of course, a number of regiments were brought online in 1917, not only for use in Europe, but also in areas far away from the European battle zone.  In total, fourteen regiments of Marines were activated by the middle part of 1918.  Most of these never served in the European conflict but were deployed either in the Caribbean or remained in readiness inside the United States.  The 8th Marine Regiment was one of these stateside infantry units.

At the time, Marine Corps regiments lacked the structure of subordinate battalions.  There was only a regimental headquarters element, and independent numbered companies.  The 8th Marines included its headquarters, 103rd, 104th, 105th, 106th, 107th, 108th, 109th, 110th, 111th, and 112th rifle companies totaling 1,000 officers and men under the command of Major Ellis B. Miller.  In 1917, owing to the “different kind of war” unfolding for the United States in Europe, the Marine Corps recognized the wisdom of adopting the U. S. Army’s battalion structure.  If the Marines were going to fight a sustained land engagement, particularly alongside Army units, they would have to adopt an organizational structure that was identical to that of the Army.  The structure, for the regiments dispatched to Europe, included three subordinate battalions, each with a headquarters company, and four rifle companies — an increase in strength to 3,000 men.  Since the 8th Marines was not earmarked for service in Europe, the standard pre-war organization was retained.

The regiment’s first orders from HQMC was to prepare for deployment — to Texas.  The contingency plan was to send the 8th Marines into Mexico if needed in the defense of the United States’ southern border — particularly in light of the fact that there was no improvement in Mexican/American relations after Pershing’s pursuit of Pancho Villa, and the growing concern among American citizens living along the border for their safety — particularly in light of Germany’s attempt to involve Mexico against the United States.  Should it become necessary, the 8th Marines would make an amphibious assault at Tampico and seize the oilfields there.

After arriving at Fort Crockett[1], the 8th Marines resumed its normal duties, which included field training, weapons training, and amphibious operations.  In August 1918, a newly organized 9th Marine Regiment under the Third Marine Brigade joined the 8th Marines at Fort Crockett.  These units had been stationed in Cuba to safeguard sugar mills from insurrectionists and saboteurs working with German agents.  It was in this way that the 8th Marine Regiment became a subordinate command, along with the 9th Marines, of the 3rd Marine Brigade.

This presence of a large force of U. S. Marines in Texas — not too far distant from the Mexican border, continued through 1919.  There was never any attempt to hide the purpose of these Marines and Mexican officials were fully aware of the United States’ willingness to intervene in Mexico’s internal affairs.  Accordingly, a steady supply of oil from Tampico continued to flow to the United States and its allies.  This duty assignment was the 8th Marines most important contribution to the First World War. After eighteen months in Texas, HQMC directed that the 8th Marines move to Philadelphia.  There, on 25 April 1919, the regiment was deactivated. 


Endnotes:

[1] Fort Crockett, constructed in 1903, was named in honor of frontiersman and member of the U. S. House of Representatives, David Crockett.  Fort Crockett was a facility of the U. S. Army Coastal Artillery Corps at Galveston, Texas.  During World War I, Fort Crockett served as a training base and pre-deployment training facility.

The First Hell

When Marines landed on Guadalcanal, they came ashore without opposition.  A small Japanese construction force assigned to complete the airfield at Lunga Point wisely withdrew as soon as they realized there were Marines in the area.  Guadalcanal did eventually turn into a combat cesspool, but not during the initial landing.

Marines landing on Tulagi, however, faced off against a determined enemy.  This enemy would eventually let go, of course, but only over their dead body—and the U. S. Marines were plenty capable of accommodating them. 

On 7 August 1942, the Japanese, in their insufferable arrogance, continued to imagine that it could maintain their presence in the central Pacific region, even after their two attempts to extend their homeland defensive perimeter were thwarted in the Battle of Coral Sea (May 1942) and at Midway (June 1942).  These two back-to-back victories gave the Allied forces the opportunity to seize the offensive elsewhere in the Pacific.  Allied planners decided to make this move against the British Solomon Islands: Guadalcanal, Tulagi, and Gavutu-Tanambogo.

As part of their campaign that resulted in the Battle of the Coral Sea, the Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN) sent naval infantry to occupy Tulagi and nearby islands in the southern Solomons.  The Third Kure Special Naval Landing Force occupied Tulagi on 3 May 1942 [Note 1].  These troops almost immediately began to construct a seaplane base, ship refueling facility, and communications station on Tulagi and Gavutu/Tanambogo and the Florida Islands.

Aware of these activities, Allied planners became even more concerned when they observed Japanese efforts to construct an airfield near Lunga Point.  Admiral Ernest J. King, serving as Commander-in-Chief of the United States Fleet, devised a plan to deny the use of the Solomon Islands.  Otherwise, the Japanese would be positioned to threaten supply routes between the United States and Australia.  King’s long-term objective was to seize or neutralize the Japanese base of operations at Rabaul.  The Solomon campaign would also enable the Americans to support Allied efforts in New Guinea and open the way to re-take the Philippine Islands.

Admiral Chester A. Nimitz, Commander, United States Pacific, established the South Pacific theater of operations, placing Vice Admiral Robert L. Ghormley in command to direct the Allied effort in the Solomon Islands.  Major General Alexander A. Vandegrift, U. S. Marine Corps, moved his 1st Marine Division from the United States to New Zealand for pre-combat training.  Additional Allied units (land, naval, and air forces) established bases in Fiji, Samoa, and New Caledonia.  Vandegrift’s established his forward headquarters at Espiritu Santo in the New Hebrides.  The Solomon campaign would become known as Operation Watchtower.

Initially, Watchtower excluded Guadalcanal—until Allied intelligence noted the airfield construction at Lunga Point.  Nimitz then decided to incorporate Guadalcanal.  The expeditionary force involved 75 warships and troop transports (both American and Australian), which assembled near Fiji on 26 July 1942.  There was only time for one rehearsal landing.

Major General Vandegrift commanded 16,000 Allied (mostly U. S. Marines) and he intended to lead the majority of these ashore on Guadalcanal on 7 August.  Vandegrift assigned a second offensive operation to his deputy commander, Brigadier General William H. Rupertus [Note 2].  Rupertus would command the assault on Tulagi with 3,000 Marines.

Bad weather in the southern Solomon Islands allowed the Americans to approach Guadalcanal undetected early on the morning of 7 August.  The amphibious ready group split into two groups, one earmarked for Guadalcanal, and the other for Tulagi, Gavutu-Tanambogo-Florida.  Aircraft from USS Wasp attacked the Japanese installation on Tulagi in advance of the landing, destroying 15 seaplanes.  The cruiser USS San Juan and destroyers USS Monsoon and Buchanan conducted pre-landing bombardments.  To provide supporting fire for the main landing, the 1st Battalion, 2nd Marines (1/2) made an unopposed landing on Florida Island at 07:40—guided to their objective areas by Australian coast watchers.

The Battle for Tulagi

Tulagi Island is roughly two miles long and about a half-mile wide.  It’s location is south of Florida Island, 22 miles across Sealark Channel from Guadalcanal.  A ridge rising 300 feet above sea level marks the northwest-southeast axis.  Two-thirds of the way down from its northwest tip, the Ridgeline is broken by a ravine, and then rises again toward a triangle of hills.  The farthest southeast hill is designated Hill 208, and the farthest northeast hill is designated Hill 281.  Three thousand yards east of Tulagi are the islets of Gavutu and Tanambogo.  Gavutu Harbor on the Northeast end of the island, and Purvis Bay, southeast of Gavutu, forms an ideal deep-water anchorage.

At 0800, two battalions of Marines made an unopposed landing on the western shore of Tulagi, about midway between the two ends of the oblong shaped island [Note 3].  Thick beds of coral prevented landing craft from reaching the shoreline, so the Marines went over the side of their landing craft and waded ashore—a distance of about 110 yards.

The Marine landing surprised Tulagi’s Japanese defenders and it took them some time to organize their defenses.  The overall Japanese commander of the Tulagi contingent was Captain Shigetoshi Miyazaki of the Yokohama Air Group.  Miyazaki radioed his commander in Rabaul, IJN Captain Sadayoshi Yamada, informing him that Tulagi was under attack, that he was in the process of destroying signals, and his intention to resist the Americans to the last man.

2/5 secured the Northwest end of Tulagi without opposition and then joined Edson’s Raiders in their advance toward the southeastern end of the island.  Japanese resistance was stiff, but isolated.  Around noon, Captain Suzuki, commanding the 3rd Kure Force, repositioned his men on Hill 281 and a nearby ravine at the Southeast end of the island.   Japanese defensive positions included dozens of tunneled caves dug into the hill’s limestone cliffs.  Each of these contained machine-gun positions protected by layers of sandbags.  The Marines reached the primary line of resistance (MLR) near dusk and dug in for the night.

Japanese naval infantry attacked the Marine perimeter five times during the night.  Their tactics included ferocious frontal attacks and small unit attempts at infiltration.  The Marines met teach assault by fire and close combat.  Although taking a few casualties, the Marine line held through the night; the Japanese gave up far more dead or wounded.  Twenty-two year old Private First Class (PFC) Edward H. Ahrens, from Dayton, Kentucky, assigned to the 1st Raiders, single-handedly engaged the enemy in hand-to-hand combat, killing thirteen Japanese before he too was killed [Note 4].

At daybreak on 8 August, six Japanese infiltrators shot and killed three Marines before they were eliminated.  Later that morning, 2/2 landed to reinforce the landing force; 2/5, surrounded Hill 281 and the ravine.  Pounding the enemy with mortar fire, the Marines launched a coordinated attack with satchel charges and well-aimed small arms fire.  Each assault on Japanese held caves and machine-gun positions was expensive.  Japanese naval infantry fought from foxholes, slit trenches, pillboxes, and caves.  Machine-gunners fired their weapons until killed; when one gunner fell, another would take his place and this process continued until everyone in that position was dead.

Stiff Japanese resistance continued until late afternoon, although the Marines found a few stragglers over the next several days, engaged them, and killed them.  In total, only three Japanese soldiers surrendered on Tulagi.  Forty Japanese escaped by swimming to Florida Island.  Over the next several months, Marines tracked down these escapees and killed them.

The Battle for Gavutu-Tanambogo

Gavutu and Tanambogo were islets, so-called because they were little more than exposed mounds of coral rising out of the sea.  The Japanese constructed a seaplane base on Gavutu.  The highest point on Gavutu was Hill 148; on Tanambogo, Hill 121—hills the IJN defended with concrete bunkers and a series of well-fortified caves.

Separating the two islets was a causeway extending some 1,600 feet.  Nearly six hundred troops occupied these islets, including a number of Japanese and Korean civilians assigned to the 14th Construction Unit.  The two islets were mutually supportive; each was in machine gun range of the other.

Marine commanders mistakenly estimated an enemy force of around two-hundred men.  Following a naval bombardment, which  damaged the seaplane base, Marines of the 1st Parachute Battalion stormed ashore at Gavutu at noon on 7 August 1942.  Because naval gunfire had damaged the seaplane ramp, the Marines had to disembark their landing craft in an exposed position.  Japanese defensive fire began ripping up the Marines, wounding or killing one in every ten of the battalion’s 397 troops.  The landing force scrambled to get out of the killing zone. 

Captain George Stallings, the battalion operations officer, ran forward to direct the forward movement of two Browning machine guns and a mortar section.  He directed these weapons against Japanese positions to suppress their murderous fires.  Dive bombers arrived to help suppress the Japanese, with some success.  After about two hours of intense combat, the Marines reached and began climbing Hill 148.  From the top, they began working their way down the other side, clearing Japanese positions with satchel charges, grenades, and hand-to-hand combat.  Other Marines at the top of Hill 148 began delivering automatic weapons fire against the Japanese on Tanambogo’s Hill 121.

The battalion commander radioed General Rupertus for reinforcements before assaulting Tanambogo.  Rupertus detached a company from 1/2 on Florida Island to assist in the assault, ignoring the advice of his operations officer that one company would not be sufficient.  Rupertus reasoned that since most of the Japanese on Tanambogo were aircrew, aircraft maintenance, and construction personnel with no combat training., one company would do.  Again, the Marine hierarchy under-estimated Japanese strength and fighting spirit.  The rifle company was sent to Tanambogo shortly after dark on 7 August.  The Marines came ashore while illuminated by the fires created by earlier naval bombardments.  Five of the landing craft received heavy automatic weapons fire as they approached the shore, which killed or wounded several navy boat crewmen.  Realizing that his position was untenable, the company commander quickly transferred his dead and wounded to the remaining boats to be taken back to the landing ship.  He then led twelve Marines in a sprint across the causeway to cover on Gavutu.

During the night, heavy thunderstorms dropped torrential rains on the islets.  Under this cover, the Japanese launched several assaults against the Marine perimeter.  General Vandegrift, monitoring the operation from Guadalcanal, ordered 3/2 to prepare for landing on Tanambogo the next morning.  The battalion began moving ashore at 10:00 on 8 August.  Initially, the landing received air support from carrier-based attack aircraft, but General Vandegrift called it off after two aircraft accidentally dropped their bombs on Marine positions — killing four Marines.  USS San Juan directed accurate naval gunfire on Tanambogo lasting for about thirty minutes.  Marines from Gavutu provided covering fire while 3/2 went ashore, which enabled the battalion to complete its landing phase by 12:00.

3rd Battalion, 2nd Marines began its assault at 16:15, supported by two Stuart light tanks.  One of these tanks became stuck on a large tree stump and was isolated from its infantry support.  Fifty Japanese airmen assaulted the tank and set it on fire, killing two crewmen and nearly beating the remaining two Marines to death before infantry fire killed most of the attackers [Note 5].

3/2 Marines began clearing operations by systematically destroying the Japanese cave network with satchel charges and hand grenades.  During the night of 8 August, Japanese defenders initiated several assaults, which frequently involved hand-to-hand engagements.  By noon on 9 August, all Japanese resistance on Tanambogo ended.  During the battle for Tulagi and Gavutu-Tanambogo, Marines killed 863 Japanese soldiers/airmen and took twenty prisoners (most of whom were civilian laborers).  Marine and Navy losses were 122 killed in action, 200 wounded.

The U. S. Navy quickly turned the Tulagi anchorage into a naval base/refueling station.  Japanese naval superiority in the “slot” forced Allied ships into the refuge of Tulagi during hours of darkness and ships encountering significant battle damage were usually anchored at Tulagi for repairs.  Later in the war, Tulagi became an operating base for the Navy’s patrol-torpedo boats; Florida Island became an American seaplane base.

Once officials declared the islets “secure,” General Rupertus’ landing force joined the rest of the 1st Marine Division on Guadalcanal.   

Sources:

  1. Alexander, J. H.  Edson’s Raiders: The 1st Marine Raider Battalion in World War II.  Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2000.
  2. Christ, J. F.  Battalion of the Damned: 1st Marine Paratroopers at Gavutu and Bloody Ridge, 1942.  Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2007.
  3. Hammel, E.  Carrier Clash: The Invasion of Guadalcanal & The Battle of the Eastern Solomons, August 1942.  St. Paul: Zenith Press, 1999.
  4. Jersey, S. C.  Hell’s Islands: The Untold Story of Guadalcanal.  College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 2008.
  5. Miller, J.  Guadalcanal: The First Offensive.  Washington: Center of Military History, 1995.

Endnotes:

[1] The Special Naval Landing Forces were not called “marines,” but their purpose was identical to those of their American opponents: to project naval power ashore.

[2] William H. Rupertus (1889-1945) was a highly decorated Marine Corps officer who participated in the Banana Wars, as a China Marine, and in World War II at Guadalcanal, New Britain, and the Marianas  Island campaigns.  A distinguished marksman and a member of the famed Marine Corps Rifle Team, Rupertus was the author of the now famous Rifleman’s Creed.  

[3] Commanding officers were: 1st Raider Battalion, Lieutenant Colonel Merritt A. Edson; 2nd Battalion, 5th Marines (1/5), Lieutenant Colonel Harold E. Rosecrans.  Company B and Company D of the 1st Raiders were first ashore, followed by Company A and Company C.  Japanese defenders did not make a serious attempt to oppose the landing; they instead withdrew into a network of caves and dugouts intending to inflict as many casualties on the Marines as possible.  Edson soon realized that naval and aerial bombing had no effect on the Japanese defenses unless they were “direct hit.”

[4] Posthumously awarded the Navy Cross.

[5] Marines later discovered 42 Japanese bodies around the tank, one of whom was the Japanese executive officer of the Yokohama Air Group, Lieutenant Commander Saburo Katsuta, and several of his seaplane pilots.  The overall commander at Tanambogo was Navy captain Miyazaki, who blew himself up inside his command post during the late afternoon of 8 August.