Photo by Department of Defense
Today marks the anniversary of a little-known epilogue to the Vietnam War, the Mayaguez incident. On May 12th, 1975, the S.S. Mayaguez, an American-owned container ship, was seized inside Cambodian territorial waters by Khmer Rouge swift boats who took the ship's crew captive. The Khmer Rouge had ousted the US-backed Khmer Republic government less than a month prior, so the US government had few diplomatic avenues to pursue with the Khmer Rouge forces holding the Mayaguez crew. President Gerald Ford and the National Security Council members felt, in light of the recent evacuation of the US Embassy during the fall of Saigon in South Vietnam, a strong message need to be sent that the US was still willing to meet challenges to American interests with force.
US Navy and Air Force aircraft were instructed to prevent the captured S.S. Mayaguez from reaching the Cambodian mainland with warning shots, and a naval task force was hastily assembled to serve as a platform for a rescue attempt. On May 14th, elements of 1st Battalion, 4th Marines assaulted the island of Koh Tang as well as the Mayaguez itself which was anchored nearby. But due to the ad-hoc nature of the operation, the Marines lacked crucial intelligence regarding the heavy defenses on the island, and their helicopters took heavy fire during the initial landing. and 7 of the 8 assault helicopters were destroyed or severely damaged. The Marines who managed to make it to their beach landing zones were now pinned down in close contact with Khmer Rouge fighters.
Ironically, at the same time of the assault, Khmer Rouge officials announced the release of the Mayaguez crew via radio, who were also being held at different island than one currently under assault by the United States. The US continued to fly strikes and close air support until the Marines on Koh Tang were evacuated Unfortunately during, the confusion of the pullout, 3 Marines were left behind, and were executed by the Khmer Rouge on Koh Tang.
The dual failures of planning and coordination during the Mayaguez rescue attempt would provide painful lessons that would eventually lead to a reevaluation and reorganization of joint operations in the the wake of another failed rescue, Operation Eagle Claw. This would lead to a major shift in the organization of special operations, with the establishment of the Joint Special Operations Command, and the Special Operations combatant command.