October 1999/November 1999
Last Battle, Lost Men:
Search Efforts Continue for Koh Tang MIAs
By Maj. Joe Davis
Although the United States government doesn't recognize them as Vietnam
veterans, their names are on The Vietnam Veterans Memorial. They
are the forty-one men who died on May 15, 1975, during the rescue mission
of the U.S.-registered container ship S.S. Mayaguez.
In July 1994, The VVA Veteran ran Out With A Whimper, The
Tragedy of The Mayaguez, William Triplett's account of what many consider
to be the final battle of the Vietnam War. The February/March 1999 Veteran
contained an interview with former Secretary of Defense James Schlesinger
on the Mayaguez rescue. In it, Schlesinger revealed for the first
time his recollections of the incident and how he was able to stall the
White House for three hours and avert a complete tragedy. In our continuing
pursuit of the entire S.S. Mayaguez story and that of those who
died in the line of duty, we offer the following report by U.S. Army Maj.
Joe Davis of the JTF-FA on the recovery of the remains of those who died
during that fateful rescue attempt.
On May 12, 1975, the civilian container ship SS Mayaguez was
hijacked in international waters by a Cambodian Khmer Rouge gunboat. Forty
American merchant seamen were taken hostage.
For the next two days, the Mayaguez was anchored off Koh Tang
Island's northern point, about thirty miles from the Cambodian mainland.
American intelligence experts surmised that the civilian hostages were
held on the island. Hostile troop strength on Koh Tang was estimated
at two dozen lightly armed Khmer Rouge. Political negotiations between
Washington and Phnom Penh broke down, and President Gerald Ford authorized
a rescue operation.
On May 15, 1975, two hundred forty Marines, Navy corpsmen, and Air Force
helicopter crews launched an air assault. They were met by more than 150
heavily armed Khmer Rouge. Three helicopters were shot down.
Unbeknown to U.S. forces, the Khmer Rouge were releasing the forty Americans
as the air assault began. They had spent the night on a nearby island and
were below deck in a civilian fishing trawler heading to the American fleet.
With the hostages released, an emergency extraction of the American forces
ashore ensued. More helicopters were critically damaged.
The forty American hostages survived the Mayaguez incident; 41 American
service members did not. Twenty-three Air Force aircrew and security
policemen died when their helicopter's main rotor failed on a flight to
U-Tapao Air Base in Thailand.
From the battle on Koh Tang, 18 men remain listed as missing and unaccounted-for
or as killed in action/body not recovered (KIA/BNR), a challenge that remains
for the 160 men and women assigned to Joint Task Force-Full Accounting
at Camp Smith in Hawaii.
The JTF-FA is the lead Defense Department organization for the search
and recovery of missing and unaccounted-for Americans from the war in Southeast
Asia. The unit assumed that mission in January 1992 from its predecessor,
the Joint Casualty Resolution Center.
Though the eighteen MIAs on Koh Tang--fourteen Marines, two Air Force,
and two Navy personnel--were engaged in the same battle, they are segregated
into four reference cases because of the nature of their loss scenarios.
The first case involved the shootdown of an Air Force CH-53 helicopter
with 26 personnel onboard. The helicopter crashed on the surf line of Koh
Tang's East Beach. Thirteen men swam out to sea, where they were rescued.
The thirteen who died were ten Marines, two Navy corpsmen, and one Air
Due to tidal and shoreline contour changes, that crash site is now located
approximately 100 yards offshore. A shallow-water excavation using cofferdams
was conducted in November 1995 and many remains were recovered and repatriated
to the Central Identification Lab to begin the forensic identification
Another excavation was conducted last March, based on witness reports
that two bodies washed ashore and were buried in an existing Khmer Rouge
fighting position along the beach. Three
separate sites were excavated on Koh Tang, totaling 450 square meters
of soil, but no remains were recovered.
The second case is an Air Force flight engineer who died when his CH-53
was shot down in deeper water off West Beach. The third is a three-man
Marine machine gun crew inadvertently left behind on West Beach after the
emergency extraction of friendly forces ended. The fourth case involves
one Marine who died of wounds received on West Beach. That Marine was publicly
announced as the only American KIA/BNR in the Mayaguez rescue operation.
The seventeen on Koh Tang were listed as missing and unaccounted-for, and
the twenty-three who died in the helicopter crash in Thailand were listed
as non-battle deaths.
Many on-site investigations and excavations have occurred since December
1992 to find the five missing service members in the latter three cases.
Former Khmer Rouge soldiers who fought in the battle have been interviewed.
Former Vietnamese soldiers, who occupied Koh Tang from 1979 to 1989,
also have been interviewed. Despite collaborating interviews and
witnesses who pinpointed alleged American burial sites on Koh Tang, none
of these field operations has resulted in the recovery of remains associated
with the five unaccounted-for servicemen.
In March 1999, two locations on the Cambodian mainland also were excavated
based on witness reports of two Americans being buried in the seaside town
of Sihanoukville after they died of their wounds. Bone fragments recovered
were found to be non-human.
According to Army Brig. Gen. Harry Axson, commander of Joint Task Force-Full
Accounting: "We have work to do in Southeast Asia into 2006 based on the
current work plan. Whether it's the task force overseeing those search
and recovery operations, or some other organization, the overarching mission
of achieving the fullest possible accounting of those Americans who didn't
return home from all our nation's wars will continue.''
He added: "We owe it to our comrades, and we owe it to their families
who have been waiting decades for news. Ours is a humanitarian mission
that is for Americans.''
Air Force Major Joe Davis of Springfield, Virginia, is the Deputy
Chief of Public Affairs for JTF-FA. He is a Gulf War and Somelia veteran.
E-mail us at TheVeteran@vva.org