The Mayaguez Fiasco


The Mayaguez incident was the only engagement between U.S. forces and the Khmer Rouge.

Just two weeks after the Vietnam War the U.S. were engaged in their first and only engagement with the Khmer Rouge whom captured a U.S. container ship. The attempted rescue and retribution strike against the Khmer Rouge ended in calamity.

The Seizure

Passing through islands that were recognized by Thailand as international seafaring waters the SS Mayaguez was suddenly on May 12, 1975 seized by Khmer Rouge forces, they claimed the nearby Poulo Wai island from where they launched their attack. They claimed the waters were therefore Cambodian territorial waters. The Mayaguez was subsequently diverted and forced to follow a gunboat into Kampong Saom on the mainland.

The Peubling Precedent

U.S. forces had just evacuated Saigon less than two weeks before, and the Pueblo incident was still fresh in their minds. This incident saw a US Navy intelligence ship captured by North Korea who claimed to it was in their territorial waters. After her crew had been held hostage for eleven months before being released, the North Koreans kept the ship which still sits in Pyongyang today as a show piece.

The Ford Administration was therefore convinced that they must do everything in their means to prevent the Mayaguez from reaching the Cambodian mainland to avoid a repeat of prior helplessness, President Ford and his Secretary of State Henry Kissinger seemingly didnt want to give off the impression that the U.S. could be rendered inept and easily held for ransom and therefore felt there was a need to prove otherwise.

The Rescue and Strike

The Ford Administration formulated a plan in which the Navy and the Marines would launch a joint rescue and attack mission. This plan envisioned Marines overpowering Cambodian forces believed to be on the Mayaguez, whilst other Marines would make an amphibious assault on Kaoh Tang island whilst aircraft from the carrier Coral Sea would strike military targets in mainland Kompong Som. (Where the crew of the Mayaguez had been evacuated to by the Khmer Rouge).

The rescue operation saw the Mayaguez sprayed with tear gas whilst Marines boarded wearing gas masks and finding the vessel empty.

Eight Marine helicopters assaulted Koh Tang coming under intense fire from RPG wielding entrenched Khmer Rouge forces which resulted in 15 Marines getting killed. The Khmer Rouge would later release the crew, whilst President Ford upon announcing the fact they had been released failed to acknowledge that they had been released by the Khmer Rouge.

Shortly afterwards U.S. forces withdrew from Koh Tang. Controversy arose over the fact that the bodies of the Marines and Airmen who were killed were left behind during the hectic evacuation. A further 23 airmen had perished in a helicopter crash due to a technical malfunction.

The last names on the Vietnam Memorial in Washington bear those killed in this incident which took place two weeks after the Vietnam War had ended following the Fall of Saigon, this incident and the disastrous assault attempts coupled with the Khmer Rouges release of the hostages leaves one to conclude that the Marines and Airmen who died in this fiasco had their lives wasted in a reckless act of bravado.