October 1999/November 1999
Last Battle, Lost Men:
Search Efforts Continue for Koh Tang
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 Force pilot.
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 process.
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.
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