Mayaguez Operation


Koh Tang Rescue

The United States had been officially out of Cambodia and Vietnam for only a few days when the radical Khmer Rouge seized the container ship Mayaguez. An all‑out effort was launched to effect its rescue, and that of its crew, which amounted to the last military act by the US in Southeast Asia.

Among the Southeast Asia campaigns, none had proven more divisive in America than the invasion of Cambodia ordered by President Richard Nixon in April 1970. Allegedly neutral under the government of Prince Norodom Siha­nouk, by the mid‑1960s Cambodia had become a haven for Communist forces, with parts of its east­ern provinces serving as bases for North Viet­namese army and Viet Cong troops operating against South Vietnam. Before the US and South Vietnamese operation into Cambodia during the spring of 1970, a new government under General Lon Nol had been formed, and in October 1970, the Cambodian monarchy had been established and the country renamed Khmer Republic. However, Us Southeast Asian nation was still divided: the Khmer Rouge, the local Communists loyal to Prince Sihanouk, soon controlled 60 per cent of the country. Finally, in spite of massive US assistance, Phnom Penh fell on 17 April 1975 and the Khmer Rouge gained full control of the country. Violently xenophobic, opposing both the USA and the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, the Khmer Rouge were responsible for the seizure of the SS Mayaguez in the afternoon of 12 May 1975.

Ship Captured

The Mayaguez, a US‑registered 10, 776‑ton con­tainer ship of Sea‑Land Service, Inc., was steam­ing in international waters some 110 km (68 miles) southwest of Cambodia when it was seized by Khmer patrol boats. Before the ship’s capture, the crew had been able to radio their plight and, in the early hours of the following day, a Thailand‑based Lockheed P‑3 Orion patrol aircraft of the US Navy spotted the vessel near the Poulo Wai islands. Soon after this the Mayaguez was anchored off Koh Tang Island, and the next day the crew were taken to nearby Koah Rong Sam Loem island. Based on information obtained by the P‑3 and by US Air Force General Dynamics F‑111s, the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the National Security Council urged President Ford to authorise a rescue attempt. The President, fearful that lack of a strong American reaction would encourage similar acts of political piracy, promptly approved this operation.

Luckily, the phased withdrawal of American forces from Thailand, which had been requested two months earlier, had not yet proceeded very far and the USA still had sufficient tactical air and sea power in the area to mount a quick rescue oper­ation. In addition, 230 men from the 3rd Marine Division’s Amphibious Brigade were airlifted from Okinawa to Thailand (in Lockheed C‑141As of the Military Airlift Command) and a task force, in­cluding the USS Coral Sea and three destroyer escorts, was diverted to take position in the Gulf of Siam.

First to get into action was a Lockheed AC‑130E of the 16th SOS, which during the night of 13 May kept track of small vessels shuttling between the Mayaguez and Koh Tang island, and in the process was fired upon by Cambodian gunboats and light AAA on the island. Then, in the early morning hours, the on‑station AC‑130E fired warning shots across the bow of a patrol boat in an attempt to prevent the transfer of the Mayaguez crew to the mainland. Later that day, tactical fighters also fired warning shots at Cambodian small boats and fishing vessels and dropped riot‑control gas.

Notwithstanding this show of force, and unbeknown to the US command, the crew was transferred off Koh Tang island. Meanwhile, rescue operations had moved into full gear as helicopters prepared to depart from Thailand.

Marines from Thailand

In the predawn hours of 15 May 1975, six HH‑53C Super Jolly Greens (a seventh helicopter of this type was then unserviceable but took part in operations later in the day) and five CH‑53Cs (two more being temporarily out of commission) departed from Thailand with their loads of Marines. Three HH‑53Cs delivered `grunts’ to the USS Harold E. Holt, a destroyer escort, for boarding the Mayaguez, while the eight other helicopters transported Marines to Koh Tang island. As it turned out, the task of the Marines deposited aboard the Harold E. Holt was an easy one. At 0830 the destroyer escort snuggled up to the Mayaguez and the Marines boarded the abandoned container ship. Shortly thereafter, the Mayaguez was taken in tow. On the other hand, the task of the Marines deposited on Koh Tang island turned into an unnecessary 14‑hour nightmare; Khmer resistance was stronger than anticipated and the crew of the Mayaguez was no longer on the island.

Under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Randall W. Austin, the first Marines were to land at daybreak on the northwest tip of Koh ‘fang island in two groups: the larger was to be deposited on a beach on the western shore and the smaller was to be landed on the eastern beach. Expected to benefit from a better than two‑to‑one numerical advantage over the Khmer Rouge and from strong air support, the Marines were to determine whether or not the Mayaguez crew was still being held on the island and, in the affirmative, to free them.

At first approaching the western beach unopposed, the lead helicopters, Knife 21 and Knife 22 (the CH‑53Cs taking; part in the Koh Tang operation bore Knife radio call signs, individual numbers being 21, 22, 23, 31, 32, 51 and 52, whereas the HH‑53Cs were Jolly 11, 12, 13, 41, 42, 43 and 44) came under small arms, rocket and mortar fire as soon as Knife 21 touched down. Having lost one of its engines and sustaining further damage, Knife 21 managed a single‑engine take‑off after unloading the Marines. Lieutenant Colonel John H. Denham and his three crew members struggled to get away but the damage was too extensive, forcing an emergency ditching during which Sergeant Elwood E. Rumbaugh, the flight mechanic, lost his life after pulling the co‑pilot out of the sinking helicopter.

While the survivors of Knife 21 were rescued by another CH‑53, Knife 22 attempted to land on the western beach but, with its fuel tanks punctured, barely succeeded in making an emergency landing on the Thai coast. A third CH‑53, Knife 32, made it to the western beach and unloaded its `grunts’ but was hit repeatedly. With a seriously wounded crew member, Knife 32 made it back to base. In the initial attempt to land Marines, three of the precious helicopters had been taken out of action.

The assault on the eastern beach, which had been planned to mount a pincer attack and seal off the northern tip of Koh Tang island where the Mayaguez crew was erroneously thought to be held, went even less well. Knife 23 and Knife 31 were both shot down, the crew and Marines of the former being subsequently pinned down on the beach while the USAF co‑pilot, two Navy corpsmen and 10 Marines lost their lives in the crash of Knife 31. With only 54 Americans in two separated groups on the island, the rescue operation was turning into an expensive affair both in terms of lives and loss of equipment.

Up to then, tactical aircraft had been prevented from providing air support for fear of hitting friendly troops in the confined and confused area where the first Marines had been air‑landed. However, as a Marine FAC had escaped from Knife 31 and was able to radio directions, the tactical fighters were at last able to enter the fray. With the fighters keeping enemy gunners busy, three HH‑53Cs were directed to land Marines on the western beach. Jolly 41 was driven away by enemy fire, but Jolly 42 landed its Marines on the western beach while Jolly 43 was forced to deposit its `grunts’ south of the beach. Nevertheless, the situation remained critical as the three American groups (60 Marines on the western beach, 29 south of this beach, and 20 Marines and five USAF crew members on the eastern beach) were unable within 50 m (55 yards) of friendly forces. Taking to link up. A first attempt to extract the force stranded on the eastern beach had to be aborted after Jolly 13 (initially used to bring Marines to the Harold E. Holt and later, after taking fuel from a HC‑130P tanker, assigned SAR duties) suffered severe damage.

Airfield strike

At 0745, while the Marines were clawing their way along Koh Tang’s beaches under the protective umbrella of USAF fighters and gunships, the Coral Sea’s Air Wing Fifteen (CVW‑15) launched a first strike against Ream airfield, where 17 Cambodian aircraft (mostly North American T‑28Ds which the USA had supplied to Cambodia in happier days) were destroyed. A second naval air strike, which also comprised A‑7Es and Grumman A‑6A attack aircraft with F‑4Ns providing air cover, was launched an hour later and resulted in the destruction of an oil depot near Kompong Som. In addition, the 43rd Bombardment Wing at Andersen AFB on Guam was preparing to provide further support, with 15 Boeing B‑52Ds being readied for action. However, the Mayaguez crew was freed before the SAC heavy bombers were dispatched and the B‑52 mission was cancelled.

Under the direction of an A‑7D acting as a FAC, other A‑7Ds strafed and bombed enemy positions and an AC‑130E fired with its 20‑mm, 40‑mm and 105‑mm (4.13‑in) cannon, at times hitting well within 50m (55 yards) of friendly forces. Taking advantage of this support, another load of Marines was landed by Jolly 41, but by then eight of the 11 helicopters which had been available at the start of the operation had either been shot down or so severely damaged that they could no longer be employed. Fortunately, at 1045, the USS Wilson spotted an approaching Thai fishing boat which the Khmer Rouge had commandeered to return the Mayaguez crew. The objective of the rescue operation had been achieved. Now was the time to pull the Marines out of Koh Tang. To do so, however, would first necessitate bringing in additional Marines to attempt an overland rescue of those stranded on the eastern beach.

Reinforcements foiled

Dense and accurate enemy fire at the eastern beach foiled one more attempt to land reinforcements for the most hard‑pressed Marines, for Knife 52, already low on fuel, took several hits and had to return to base without unloading troops. Greater success was achieved at the western beach by Knife 51 (which, like Knife 52, had earlier been unserviceable), Jolly 11, Jolly 12 and Jolly 43, 108 Marines being landed to nearly double the number of Americans on Koh Tang island. By then, the Marines who had been landed south of the western beach had succeeded in joining up with the main contingent, thus consolidating the American position. Nevertheless, well dug‑in Khmer forces were likely to render costly any endeavour to link up the western and eastern contingents by pushing through the jungle across the neck of the island. Extrication of the 25 men stranded to the east would have to be done by helicopters, with the western force diverting the enemy’s attention and aircraft laying down protective fire.

Even though A‑7Ds dispensed canisters of riot control gas over Khmer positions before the arrival of Jolly 11 and Jolly 43, an early afternoon attempt to extract the personnel at the eastern beach failed when Jolly 43 had one of its engines shot out and a fuel line ruptured. Barely managing to reach the Coral Sea, which was then some 100 km (70 miles) from the island, Jolly 43 was temporarily out of action. To give the helicopters a better chance to succeed, the USAF then stepped up its air support, with two American 0V‑l0As of the 23rd TASS marking targets and directing A‑7Ds, F‑4Es and AC‑130Es. Yet, in spite of the fact that strike aircraft and the Wilson silenced numerous enemy positions, the situation was becoming even more critical as dusk was fast approaching.

Airlift from beach

Although Marines from the main contingent had advanced almost halfway between the two beaches, it was realized that a link‑up could not be achieved before nightfall and maximum efforts were expended to airlift the 20 `grunts’ and five airmen who had been isolated on the eastern beach for nearly 10 hours. Assigned this dangerous task, Jolly 11, Jolly 12 and Knife 51 went all out, while a C‑130E dropped a 15,000‑lb (6804‑kg) concussion bomb to shock Cambodian soldiers, and tactical aircraft, gunships, and a longboat from the Wilson laid down suppressive fire. Success was finally achieved and all 25 men were recovered by Jolly 11, which then rushed to the Coral Sea so that the injured could receive medical attention without further delay. A subsequent search for possible survivors near the wreckage of Knife 23 proved unfruitful and resulted in Jolly 12 being taken out of the fight when heavy damage forced it to recover aboard the carrier. It now remained for the last three available helicopters ‑ Knife 51, Jolly 43 (which had been repaired aboard the Coral Sea), and Jolly 44 (which at last had been made airworthy at Nakhon Phanom) ‑ to race against nightfall and pull out the main Marine force from the western beach.

Conspicuous gallantry on the part of the helicopter crewmen, effective discipline maintained by the Marines on the beach, commendable accuracy of the AC‑130Es in firing as close as 50 m (55 yards) in front of the `grunts’, and much risk‑taking by the OV‑10A pilots combined to foil the Cambodians’ hopes of pinning down the Marines for a fight to the finish during the night. Knife 51 and Jolly 43 picked up the first load of Marines (that of the latter being more than twice its normal combat loading) and rushed to the Coral Sea while Jolly 44, which had only been able to lift a partial load, saved precious time by making a precarious night landing on the small aft deck of the Holt which was sailing closer to the island. Quickly back at the beach, Jolly 44 picked up a load of 44 Marines and, almost immediately thereafter, Knife 51 lifted out the last 29 men. The two helicopters and their exhausted passengers, several of whom were wounded, made it safely back to the Coral Sea. The ordeal of the Marines and airmen was over; the Mayaguez and its 39 crewmen were once again free.


AAA Anti‑Aircraft Artillery

ARRS Aerospace Rescue and Recovery Squadron

FAC Forward Air Controller

SAC Strategic Air Command

SOS Special Operations Squadron

TASS Tactical Air Support Squadron

TAW Tactical Airlift Wing

TFW Tactical Fighter Wing

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