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 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.
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  • GySgt Bruce V. Bennett USMC (ret.)

    The Mayaguez incident was well or over covered by the media. To me the biggest problem was always that the Air Force was inexperienced in landing troops in battle at the time, was picked to do this mission. Their inexperience led to needless loss of Marines in the incident. I still am puzzled as to why Marine Corps helicopters were not used in the incident. I have always suspected that it was an inter-service turf battle for participation and the Air Force won out on the helicopters. Can someone explain to me why the Air Force was picked for the mission over experienced Marine Corps helicopters who had much experience of inserting and with drawing troops in combat.

  • Jeff Kyle

    Hi, my Marine Corps service occurred after these events. To make a long story short, I ended up joining the Air Force because the Marine Corps didn’t need reused CH-53A/D helicopter Crew Chiefs back in 1985. Along the way in the Air Force, I had the privilege of being assigned to the 40th Rescue Flight/40th Helicopter Flight, which is the post Vietnam War reincarnation of the 40th ARRS (Aerospace Rescue and Recovery Squadron). While there, I worked with the Air Force Museum to obtain all of the historical memorabilia of the 40th ARRS. When the Museum delivered the huge amount of stuff, I, as the unit 1st Sgt, got the honor of going through all of it. Mixed in with everything are the duty log books that were used by the 40th during the last part of the Vietnam War and the Mayaguez incident. Chaos was the word of the day, to say the least! Many Marines and Airmen went above and beyond the call of duty! I think it was the Discovery Channel that visited the unit to view the log books and other items from that time. They made a documentary of the entire episode. I would highly recommend watching this show. Jeff Kyle, Cpl, USMC 6113/6167 and SMSgt USAF (Ret) 2A572/2A590

  • Top Pro USMC ’64-’84

    As a post script and disclaimer to my article: When I say “we” or “us” I’m speaking generally in terms of BLT 2/9 and not me personally. I was assigned to 2/9 as Message Center Chief, and as such my duties were performed at the US Naval Comm Station at U-Tapao. I did not participate in the assault of Koh Tang, nor did I mean to imply that I did. Thanks & Semper Fi, Edd Prothro

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