KOH TANG, Cambodia -- Forty years ago, scores of inexperienced U.S. service members waged a largely forgotten battle in a largely unknown place to rescue a mysterious ship from an unfamiliar enemy.
Forty-one American service members were killed in the operation, including three Marines who were left behind, ending the dark chapter of U.S. involvement in Southeast Asia -- one that many seemed more than willing to forget.
In May, veterans of the battle of Koh Tang, also known as the "Mayaguez Incident" or the last battle of the Vietnam War, returned to the small, jungle-blanketed Cambodian island in the Gulf of Thailand for the anniversary of the ill-fated mission. They disregarded persistent health problems, braved the unrelenting demons that have plagued their thoughts since 1975, and carried a message to the U.S. government and the American public at large: We will never forget.
"The heroes are still over there on the island or have been returned in caskets," said Clark Hale, who was a 27-year-old Marine platoon sergeant in May 1975. "We came to remember them."
Hale said he would make it life's mission to bring further attention to the veterans of the battle and the fallen, even if that meant separating it from the Vietnam War. He was joined by fellow Marine veterans, Larry Barnett, Fred Morris, Gale Rogers, and Scott Standfast; airmen John Lucas and Don Raatz, and Cary Turner, cousin of Lance Cpl. Joseph Hargrove, one of the men left behind following the battle.
The commander of Khmer Rouge forces on Koh Tang during the battle, Em Son, also accompanied the group to the island and spent several days in their presence. Son has claimed he executed Hargrove.
Hale organized the trip with John Muller, commander of Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 11575 Phnom Penh. Muller, a Vietnam veteran and security contractor, saw to it that the men and their families were treated like rock stars during their nine-day pilgrimage.
Not only did Muller see to it that marble plaques were finally erected on the island bearing the names of the fallen, he also organized catered boat trips up the Mekong on a Vietnam-era military surplus boat -- blasting Vietnam-era songs out of an ammunition can stereo -- and he negotiated a small flag-raising ceremony at the U.S. Embassy in Phnom Penh.
The program of events was designed to promote healing among the veterans and their families after years on the fringe -- not quite Vietnam veterans (in a majority of cases), but definitely combat veterans of the Vietnam-era -- and it accomplished that, Hale said.
The return to Koh Tang attracted renewed interest from Vietnam veterans living in Cambodia, western journalists from across Asia, a European documentary crew, Cambodia's two major English-language daily newspapers, as well as legendary Vietnam War-era photographer Al Rockoff, the basis for John Malkovich's character in the Academy Award-winning film, "The Killing Fields."
The audience gave the veterans hope that the search for their five unaccounted-for comrades -- a three-man machine-gun team that was left behind and two others who died in the battle -- and remembrance of their sacrifice would continue, even with plans from a Russian consortium to turn the island, which is still a Cambodian military base, into a resort.
The Mayaguez Incident
The Mayaguez Incident began May 12, 1975, about two weeks after the U.S. military evacuated the embassy in Saigon, signaling an end to U.S. involvement in Vietnam, and about a month after the evacuation of the embassy in Phnom Penh.
The official government narrative says the U.S.-flagged merchant vessel SS Mayaguez was on its way from Hong Kong to Thailand with a cargo of food, clothing and medical supplies, when the Khmer Rouge opened fire and hijacked it in international waters about 60 miles southwest of the Cambodian port of Kompong Som near Poulo Wai island.
However, mystery still swirls around the ship, its cargo and its intentions. It flew no flag, was about two miles from Cambodian territory, had left Saigon nine days before it fell, and the captain destroyed a secret code upon capture, according to a 1981 article in the Boston College International and Comparative Law Review, written by University of Houston legal scholar Jordan Paust.
Paust used court records from lawsuits later brought by the crew against the ship's owner and the U.S. government in his analysis. He claims the true contents of the ship's cargo have never been released.
President Gerald Ford mobilized 2nd Battalion, 9th Marines, from Okinawa for a rescue mission.
Unbeknownst to the Marines, the crew had been separated from the ship and was spotted by air units heading toward the mainland. National Security Council Meeting minutes from the Ford Library state that the president and his cabinet were aware the hostages might not be on Koh Tang but pushed ahead with a rescue mission.
The Marines traveled first to Thailand in preparation. Most were fresh from boot camp and meeting each other for the first time, Hale said. They were told to expect a few dozen old men and farmers.
In reality, the Cambodians had been beefing up island defenses after clashes with the recently triumphant Vietnamese.
The Marines would be asked to land under cover of darkness at a bottleneck on the island's northern end, make contact with the Cambodians via translators and request the handover of the hostages. If the Cambodians refused, they were to use force to get them back and retake the ship.
The mission began to fall apart before it started when 23 Air Force personnel died in a support force crash in Thailand.
Things went from bad to worse as the first of eight Air Force CH-53s, known as "Knife," and HH-53s, called "Jolly Greens," approached the island as dawn broke on May 15.
Breaking the code
Four U.S. helicopters were shot down and five more were damaged, with more than a dozen killed in the initial assault. In all, 230 Marines and airmen were caught in a life-and-death struggle on two beaches during the 14-hour battle.
The number of Khmer Rouge on the island varies. Son claims there were about 60. Some Marines and airmen who fought in the battle agree, while others have claimed there were hundreds.
At some point during the day, the Marines learned that the crew had been released. Now, they only had to get off the island as darkness fell.
Air Force pilots braved enemy fire in barely functioning aircraft to evacuate them. On the last helicopter out, chaos ensued. Marines climbed over each other to get off the island, after-action reports state. Khmers in "black pajamas" could be seen running through the tree line.
American commanders counted 38 dead, approximately 50 wounded and three missing: Hargrove, Pfc. Gary Hall and Pvt. Danny Marshall, members of a machine gun team guarding a flank.
Hale and the other Marines said they wanted to return to recover their three comrades. They were told to wait until morning. In the morning, they were told they didn't have enough ammo or enough transportation. Then they were told diplomatic means would be used. It never happened.
"I leave the conversation when Marines say, 'Marines don't leave men behind,' " Hale said. "I blame the Ford administration for not letting us go back in. They made us break our code."
Ford called the mission a success and enjoyed a bump in approval ratings as a result.
Years later, word emerged from Cambodia that the three Marines were caught shortly after the battle and executed.
Upon reaching the island on May 12, the veterans gathered near the Cambodian military headquarters for the dedication of plaques that were hung at the compound's entrance. As the 30 or so attendees crowded around, Hale and Lucas read off the names of the fallen. Cambodian troops read off the names of their fallen from plaques hung beside them. Then, together, they observed a minute of silence.
Son -- who lost a leg to a landmine in the years following the battle -- sat, flanked on both sides by the American veterans. He answered questions through a translator about his role in the battle and what happened.
Afterward, the veterans and their families hiked through the jungle, past livestock and old Cambodian military buildings, down the beaches and out to their old fighting positions. Some wanted to say goodbye to lost friends, others were looking for answers.
The emotions came flooding back. They were young again, excited, scared, sad, determined and filled with wonder at what had changed, and what hadn't.
"It's [expletive] up," Barnett replied, laughing, when asked how it felt to be back. "[Expletive] up. But at the same time it's euphoric. I'm unable to put it into words."
He looked out into the jungle, thinking about how his lost comrades had been just regular kids before getting sucked into the Koh Tang morass.
"The only thing they had to worry about was how to get gas money and hamburger money to go to the drive-in picture show. Three months later, you're laid out in this [expletive]."
Rogers nailed a small plaque to a tree for a sick veteran of the battle who could not make the trip.
"We made it from like here to that tree through the jungle and we just couldn't make it any further so we pulled back," he recalled. "I don't know if they fragged us or mortared us or what, but we got hit right around that corner. I don't remember a whole lot after that. Next thing I know, it was getting dark and they was crawling up on us."
The stoic Standfast -- awarded a Bronze Star with combat distinguishing device for his efforts on Koh Tang -- let his guard down as he observed his squad's sector. He smiled and looked around excitedly, pointing out landmarks.
"I told my wife. This is pretty important for me -- and for her," Standfast said, describing a lifelong battle with post-traumatic stress and seeing clearly how his ordeal has continued to affect him.
"I said on the boat ride over here, ‘Maybe I'll treat you better.' " His voice broke. "Because I haven't treated her good… I hope this does help with some of the healing and dealing with it better. It's not going to go away."
His devoted wife Phyllis broke down. They embraced.
"It's moving," she said moments later, wiping away tears. "He's dealt with this ever since I've known him… It's destroyed him. It's that survivor's guilt."
On the morning of May 15, the veterans, their families and others arrived at the U.S. Embassy in Phnom Penh for another ceremony.
Hale said he had been disappointed and angry all week, feeling that the embassy and the U.S. government had given them the cold shoulder.
The Marine Corps did not send a representative to the commemoration. Ambassador William Todd did not attend. A Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency team was supposed to join the veterans on Koh Tang but canceled. Hale says an embassy official worked with him on his speech and initially convinced him to redact critical remarks.
But when it came time, Hale tossed the approved speech and spoke as he originally intended in truly powerful fashion.
"President Ford said the operation went perfectly after he found out the crew was safe," Hale said. "Marines were still fighting for the sand on the beach. Were we forgotten? Seems like it ...
"We have lived with this for 40 years. We wanted to go back to Koh Tang and get our men. We have remains out there that need to be home."