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The Mayaguez incident: A farewell

May. 20, 2013 - 06:00AM   |  

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The commingled remains of 13 fallen service members — mostly Marines — killed in the last armed action of the Vietnam War were laid to rest May 15 at Arlington National Cemetery, Va. The men died in a raid known today as the Mayaguez Incident, which was mounted to save the crew of a civilian container ship highjacked in 1975 by communist Khmer Rouge forces near Cambodia.

On May 12 of that year, the USS Mayaguez was traveling in international waters bound for Thailand when Khmer swift boats fired on the ship with machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades, forcing it to stop. Before being boarded by 20 heavily armed soldiers, however, the crew was able to broadcast SOS and mayday calls picked up by a nearby ship.

Word of the hostage situation quickly reached Washington. Because the United States had no diplomatic relations with Cambodia, diplomats worked to negotiate the ship’s release through Chinese diplomats. But after efforts for a peaceful resolution failed, President Gerald Ford ordered U.S. forces to prevent the Mayaguez from moving to Cambodia by force. U.S. aircraft sunk multiple Khmer ships and fired shots in front of and behind the Mayaguez, forcing Khmer forces to move the hostages to nearby Koh Tang, a heavily fortified jungle island about 27 miles off the mainland.

A rescue attempt was hastily planned and Marines from Okinawa, Japan, were tapped for the operation. On May 15, after pre-staging in Thailand, Marines boarded helicopters and raced towards the island where they would face about 100 well-entrenched Khmer fighters who had mortar positions, heavy machine guns and large ammunition dumps.

Meanwhile, at sea Marines with 1st Battalion, 4th Marines, covered the Mayaguez in tear gas before boarding the ship not knowing the entire crew had been moved to Koh Tang. None was aboard.

Simultaneously CH-53s and HH-53s were bearing down on the island. Shortly after 6 a.m., as pilots attempted to put Marines on the sand, fourhelicopters were badly damaged by machine gun and RPG fire, including one code-named Knife 31. As it came in to the beach it was hit by multiple RPGs and went down in the ocean killing a pilot, five Marines and two Navy corpsmen on impact. Another Marine drowned, three others were gunned down as they swam for the beach and a 10th died of wounds while floating on wreckage. The other 10 Marines and three airmen aboard Knife 31 swam out to sea and tread water for two hours before being rescued. Four other CH-53s either crashed on the beach, crash landed after scrambling for Thailand or turned back without delivering their personnel.

Eventually, more than 100 Marines would land on the island, but they fought in isolated groups without reinforcement in what would become an intense, confusing battle for their lives.

Fearing annihilation, Khmer forces eventually put the Mayaguez crew aboard a Thai fishing boat and freed them. The crew was rescued at sea by the U.S. Navy and Marines were ordered to withdraw. By then 15 had been killed and 41 wounded. In the confused withdrawal, three Marines were left behind and later executed.

Attempts to collect the dead soon after the battle were unsucessful. The remains of those aboard Knife 31 were missing for decades, but the fall of the Khmer Rougemade recovery operations possible. In 1991, Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command began looking for fallen Marines and sailors and the airman. Twelve of the 13 missing were recovered between 2000 and 2004; the 13th was found in January.

Those buried during the May 15 service: Privates 1st Class Daniel A. Benedett, Lynn Blessing, Walter Boyd, James J. Jacques, James R. Maxwell, Richard Rivenburgh, Antonio R. Sandoval and Kelton R. Turner; Lance Cpls. Gregory Copenhaver and Andres Garcia; Navy Hospitalmen Bernard Gause Jr. and Ronald J. Manning, and Air Force 2nd Lt. Richard Vandegeer.

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