The US pulled out of Viet Nam in April 1975 rather ignominiously with those horrible scenes of refugees and embassy personnel loading on helicopters from the roof of the US embassy as the North Viet Namese took over Saigon and assaulted public buildings. We had invested a lot of treasure and young men’s blood in that conflict for years without ever going all out to win the war but merely to contain the conflict. Indecision was the keynote feature of our military effort. Not because of the military leaders but the halters put on them by the political camps at home. You may recall the Democrats cut off the funding for the war even though our involvement had been greatly reduced since Nixon took office. We only had about 20,000 or less troops there down from over 500,000 under Johnson. Wavering and indecision is no way to ever conduct a military operation. Plan and fight for victory or defeat is surely your destined outcome.
Somewhat lost in the turmoil of that period is the simultaneous takeover of Cambodia by the Khmer Rouge. Just as the North Vietnamese were taking full control of the south, the Khmer Rouge were completing their conquest of Cambodia. Since we were not directly fighting there and with the events in South Viet Nam dominating the news cycle, that event was mostly on the back pages. The Khmer Rouge were even more brutal than the North Vietnamese which is hard to imagine. Remember the movie “The Killing Fields”? That was the Khmer Rouge in action. Both groups were dedicated communists regimes but had a long history of hostility between them. It was a black time for the US and its reputation as a world power. The Soviets and their cohorts around the world appeared to be on the ascendancy.
Only a couple of weeks after the fall of Saigon the Khmer Rouge attacked and captured a US container ship, the USS Mayaquez and seized the crew and took the ship to an island off their coast. The ship was in international waters at the time and the attack was unprovoked by any measure. Needless to say the US wasn’t exactly spoiling for a fight with anyone at that time. We were still licking our wounds from Nam. Things at home were shaky. We had just gone through the Watergate mess and Ford was the first President never elected to office. But he was at least not faint of heart and an old military man himself. As soon as the news broke of the seizure of the ship, he had the military move into action.
Many criticized the operation as too hasty with hindsight. But it was important to assert our rights on the seas in international waters and certainly it was not in our interest to bow to the thuggery of a regime like the Khmer Rouge. What motivated the Khmer Rouge is not known even today. One can only speculate that they thought they could flex their muscles against the US and even the Vietnamese without worry of consequences. Ford was a new sheriff in town though and they mis-calculated. Marines, Air Force and Navy forces were rushed to the scene. We demanded the immediate release of the crew and ship but the Khmer Rouge rather flippantly refused. Our planes attacked their nearby ships that might be transporting the crew in an effort to make them turn back, we destroyed a number of their aircraft and sank some of the naval vessels. Marines boarded the Mayaguez and other contingents landed on the island to secure it and assist the operations. The crew had already been removed from the ship and in fact release a few hours earlier but that was unknown at the time. The Khmer Rouge delayed any announcement for reasons of their own. They were too cute by half like Huessein wanting the world to believe he did indeed have weapons of mass destruction. The Marines that landed on the island came under intense enemy fire and we lost a number of our helicopters. We were not aware that the Khmer Rouge had reinforced the island apparently out of concern the Vietnamese might launch an attack against it. The Marines were badly outnumbered from the git go. The fighting was spread out over 4 days but the land and ship assault were all conducted on one very long day for the Marines. The Marines taking the ship had no casualitites and the ship was towed away promptly. The Marines onshore however spent and day fighting for their lives. Many of the helicopters sent to extract them came under fire. We lost in all 8 of the 11 helicopters used to transport the Marines. About 200 Marines were landed and as they were withdrawn it had to be piecemeal because we had limited helicopters available. One group would leave and the remaing ones would pull back to a new perimenter and await the next extraction. The assault began earlier in the morning and the fighting lasted all day and into the night. The last of the Marines weren’t taken away until about 10 pm.
We had 18 killed including some Air Force special forces and 41 wounded and alas 3 were missing. In the fog of battle 3 Marines were not pulled back with the last extraction and were left accidently behind. We searched for a few days for them but they were not found and reliable reports later confirmed they were eventually caught, tortured and executed although one of them may have died fighting. They survived apparently for several weeks in the jungles before their capture and deaths. An unknown little battle but it seemed very big to the men involved. The names of the dead are the very last entries on the Memorial Wall for Viet Nam in Washington even though that conflict was technically over.
Until Carter became President and the Iranians seized our embassy we had no more trouble with belligerents anywhere. It was a messy battle, like all battles are, and probably could have been planned better but the purpose of the battle was big. The US was bruised and staggering but we were not done. We had fight left in us.
Remember the little battles of our vets as you sip your beer and lull around the pool. A price has been paid for your freedom and you can’t pay it back with money but with worthiness and rightousness. http://www.olcranky.wordpress.com