SS Mayaguez Rescue / Battle of Koh Tang

SS Mayaguez Rescue / Battle of Koh Tang

Monday, May 15, 2017, will mark the 42nd anniversary of an oft forgotten event in both Marine Corps and U.S. military history. But, it will not be forgotten by the hundreds of Marines, Sailors and Airmen who participated in the rescue of the U.S. container ship S.S. Mayaguez and the battle fought on Koh Tang, an island off the Cambodian mainland, for the release of the ship and her crew. It is not my intent in this posting to recite the entire story because it is too long, many books and articles have been written about the operation and are available to anyone who wishes to delve deeper into it. I would suggest to start at www.kohtang.com which is the web site for the Koh Tang/Mayaguez Veterans Organization. My intent today is just to make it known and ask that everyone take a moment on Monday to remember those 41 servicemen who sacrificed their lives to rescue 41 the merchant sailors of the S.S. Mayaguez, Here’s the story in a nut-shell: On 12 May 1975 the SS Mayaguez was captured by Cambodian Khmer Rouge pirates and taken to Koh Tang (island), Aircraft from Thailand and the Philippines responded to ascertain the situation. On 13 May 1975 2nd Battalion/9th Marines (WestPac Air Contingent Battalion) we alerted, pulled from the field in NTA & Kin Blue on Okinawa, during monsoon rains, back to Camp Schwab for deployment to Royal Thai NAS U-Tapao, Thailand. At the same time USS Coral Sea, USS Wilson and USS Holt were diverted to the Gulf of Siam (Thailand). At U-Tapao, CH/HH-53 helicopters from the Air Force 40th ARRS and 21st SOS squadrons rendezvoused to provide lift from U-Tapao to Koh Tang, about 180 miles. During this rendezvous, one of the choppers crashed killing 23 Airmen. The morning of May 15, 1975 the Marines of 2/9 assaulted Koh Tang, while a detachment from Delta 1/4 landed aboard the USS Holt and cross-decked to the SS Mayaguez. It was a massacre on the island due to poor intelligence which led us to believe that there were only about 20 irregulars on the island instead of the 200+ battle hardened Khmer Rouge regulars with heavy armament. USS Holt towed SS Mayaguez from the island, while USS Wilson picked up the crew who had been released by the Cambodians. Getting off the island was now the problem, with so many aircraft damaged and destroyed during the insertion. Final extraction from West Beach was not accomplished until after dark that evening. Marines of 2/9 were scattered between all three ships and the final muster brought a shocking realization. A three man MG crew, as well as bodies from the days combat had been left on the island. This was a direct violation of the adage that Marines never leave their brothers behind. However, regardless of how much we begged the Admiral aboard the Coral Sea to let us return to the island, our requests fell on deaf ears due to the geopolitical situation at the time. Most of their remains have now been recovered and are buried in their hometowns or Arlington National Cemetery. There is still much controversy about the remains of the 3 man MG crew which may have been taken to mainland Cambodia. The Koh Tang/Mayaguez Veterans Organization continues to monitor and do what it can to find out what happened to our brothers. “All Gave Some, 41 Gave All” Semper Fi, Edd Prothro, MSgt USMC Ret.
Sgt Grit wants to hear from you! Leave your comments below or submit your own story!

13 comments


  • Top Pro USMC ’64-’84

    In reply to aardq.
    There were 20 Air Police plus the 3 man crew aboard the aircraft which crashed in Thailand on 14 May 75. Killed during the assault on the island’s East Beach were 10 Marines, 2 Navy Corpsmen and the Air Force copilot aboard Knife-31; One Air Force crew chief drowned at sea due to crash; One Marine killed on patrol on West Beach; and the 3 Marines machine gun crew were unknowingly left on West Beach. These comprise the last 41 names on the wall of the Vietnam War Memorial. May they rest in peace. Semper Fi!


  • aardq

    Clarification on the casualties. Does the 41 include the 23 airmen that were lost, or in addition to the air crew?Thank you


  • Top Pro USMC ’64-’84

    In reply to GySgt Bruce V. Bennett USMC (ret.).
    There was no “inter-service turf battle” about who would fly the mission. The CH/HH-53’s were the only ones available. Read further below:


  • Top Pro USMC ’64-’84

    Hey Gunny – We didn’t get to see much of that media coverage after we returned to Okinawa, only Star & Stripes and OkiMar. I did telephone my wife who worked in the “head shed” at MCRD San Diego. Luckily, there we several friends who worked in the Base Comm Center and kept her clandestinely up to date. You would be hard pressed to find any criticism of the Air Force pilots and air crew by any of the Marines involved in the landings. They, the same as us, were directed to do a nasty unforgiving job, and they did it to the best of their abilities. The LPH (either Guadalcanal or Okinawa, I can’t remember which) for Advance Ready Group Alpha (ARG-A) had boiler problems and was in the process of repair in the Philippines and could not sail. The CH/HH-53’s were the only birds available that had the range to make the round trip from U-Tapao to Koh Tang. A CH-46 couldn’t do that. Also, the enemy fire from the island was devastating, not a bird got out without some type of serious damage. Several of the aircraft were hastily repaired aboard USS Coral Sea and returned to the fray. One example of valor by an Air Force pilot is that of Bob Blough. During the extraction he was ordered to fly to the Coral Sea and remain. But, Bob knew it was about an hour long round trip. So he hovered, caddie-wampus across the flight deck of the USS Holt, which was only 5 minutes away, disembarked the Marines through the side door, and returned to the island to pick-up more. He was later chastised by his superiors (???) for not flying to the Coral Sea as ordered. Now, that’s guts, compassion, and exceptional flying done by a young lieutenant. I would take a bullet for Bob Blough any day. Semper Fi!


  • Top Pro USMC ’64-’84

    In reply to Jeff Kyle.
    Jeff – At the 2012 reunion of the KTMVO I had the pleasure of dining with the father and sister of Don Backland, Jr. who flew Jolly 11 during the operation. He later was killed in an accident after he switched to flying Warhogs. His father, Don, Sr. told me that his flight log for that day was only six words, “The worst day of my life!” May he rest in peace. Semper Fi!


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