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.
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.
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. 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.) 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. Presidential advisors also wanted to avoid another USS Pueblo incident. 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.
- Caro, R. A. The Years of Lyndon Johnson: Means of Ascent. New York: Random House, 1991.
- 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.
- Rumsfeld, D. When the Center Held: Gerald Ford and the Rescue of the American Presidency. New York: Free Press, 2018.
- Shafer, J. “The Honest Graft of Lady Bird Johnson: How she and Lyndon came by their millions.” Slate Magazine, 16 July 2007.
 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.
 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.
 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.
 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.
 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).
8 thoughts on “Mayaguez”
What a cluster-f*ck. Just another example of what happens when too many chiefs and politicians try to run an operation. Semper Fi.
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Exactly so, Mike … on both accounts.
This is heartbreaking to read, always has been. I served in 6th Marines under Col. Austin’s command. He was one of the most exceptional leaders I ever encountered in my time in uniform. The immediate aftermath made wearing our uniform very difficult. We were totally unprepared to conduct complex operations at this time. Let this those times never return. Semper Fidelis
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I commanded GOLF company 2nd Bn 9th Marines some time later. The issue of not knowing where your troops are is always a problem. We need to be tougher on accountability. Lack of rapid accurate information is scandalous. Further, the greater the distance from the battlefield one usually finds greater bum scoop. As for LBJ and all the politicians and those who profit from the blood spilled by our troops…they both crooks and traitors. We need fewer generals and more very bright company grade and SNCOs. Will it happen? I doubt it. Everywhere I look it seems to me that our country is in a downward spiral.
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I wasn’t there, so I hesitate to offer criticism. That said, it would seem to me that the squad leader lost control of his men. “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.” Shit happens, and I don’t necessarily fault the machine gun team for finding a better position. But they needed to let the section leader know where they had moved to, and why. The section leader, had he been checking on his men, would have noticed the shift. Still, few of these Marines had any previous combat experience. The story is tragic on many levels, and plenty of lessons to be learned for future application. The cost of mistakes in warfare is always high. You know this, of course. Thanks for your contribution, Amigo.
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Thanks for stopping by, sir. Glad to hear about Col. Austin.
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Most have forgotten about this incident, seeing it as just a speed bump of the times.
It was tragic for those committed to hostile action without prep time. But on the other hand, the more prep time just made the problem more difficult.
Further, I do not think the enemy was respected as we really did not eclecticism such a rigorous defense.
Somehow politicians and the American public expect instantaneous actions and victory.
As you and I know, that rarely happens.
I’m glad you did a post on this battle, and I expect if we had just done the basics for a landing – nape and snake and naval gunfire, it would have gone much better. I loved dropping the big bomb. But probably not as a close air weapon. I’m not certain what “danger close” means for a 15,000 pound bomb.
Great recap. Keep up the great posts!
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We all assume that training solves all our problems. It doesn’t — and all too often, our training amounts to little more than “going through the motions.” We cannot/must not under-emphasize the importance of training, but neither must we forget to connect the dots. Why is communication up and down the line so important? Do we practice that? Thinking on the spur is important, and I wonder if we are offering sufficient opportunities for young Marines to ponder “what if” scenarios. “What do you do, PFC Binotts, if …”
Today’s schools of infantry are nothing like what they used to be, and that’s a good thing. The NMCA’s knee-jerk reaction to Mayaguez is the greatest sin, however. The decision and process of staging a reaction force were “good enough,” but the decision to “go” was premature and unwarranted. The result of that was the loss of far too many men. The entire operation was an utter shamble, if you ask me.
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