Mayaguez Incident Tested President Ford's Mettle
By John J. Kruzel
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Jan. 3, 2007 Nine months into his presidency, on May 12, 1975, Gerald R. Ford was forced to take military action and deal with an international hostage crisis.
President Bush recalled "The Mayuaguez Incident" during his eulogy yesterday at Ford's state funeral services held at the Washington National Cathedral here.
“When a U.S. ship called the Mayaguez was seized by Cambodia, President Ford made the tough decision to send in the Marines,” President Bush said yesterday in his eulogy at Ford’s funeral, “and all the crew members were rescued.”
The incident occurred less than two weeks after the fall of Saigon. Naval forces of the Khmer Rouge, Cambodia’s communist dictatorship, intercepted the U.S. merchant ship SS Mayaguez off Cambodia’s southern coast and captured the roughly 40-man crew.
The seizure occurred in a disputed section of the Gulf of Siam, with the international community recognizing the stretch as a free channel, and Khmer Rouge claiming it as Cambodian territory.
When the Mayaguez was seized, Ford called the act “piracy,” and attempted to recover the victims through talks with Cambodia.
“We made diplomatic protests to the Cambodian government through the United Nations,” Ford said during a 1976 presidential debate. “Every possible diplomatic means was utilized.”
But lacking diplomatic ties between the U.S. and the newly installed Khmer Rouge, Ford’s negotiations with the Cambodian combatants failed. He then opted for military intervention.
“I thought it was the right thing to do,” Marine Gen. James L. Jones, former Supreme Allied Commander, Europe, said in an interview with the American Forces Press Service. “You can’t allow people to attack U.S. flagged ships and get away with it with impunity.”
Jones served as a captain in the 3rd Battalion, 9th Marine Regiment – one of three Marine regiments dispatched to Koh Tang on the rescue mission – but he had left for Washington on military leave prior to Mayaguez’s seizure and was not present during the mission.
“It’s a strong naval tradition in the United States that when a ship comes under attack, that you’re really attacking the United States,” Jones said. “It’s tantamount to landing in North Carolina, and there’s a visceral response that comes with that.”
Ford learned from intelligence reports that the Mayaguez was docked near Koh Tang, an island off the coast of Cambodia. It was believed the crew was being held on the island, and Ford committed to rescuing them.
“I had a responsibility, and so did the National Security Council, to meet the problem at hand,” Ford said, referring to his decision to land forces on Koh Tang.
Ford responded by sending 16 Air Force HH-53 helicopters based in Thailand to the beaches of Koh Tang at sunrise on May 15. The frigate USS Henry Holt, serendipitously in the area, would provide support.
The mission was expected to be a rescue operation of low complexity and little combat. But Marine units and helicopter crews dispatched to Koh Tang were unaware the island was heavily defended by Khmer Rouge forces preparing for attacks from their Vietnamese neighbors.
U.S. servicemembers went in expecting 18 to 40 lightly-armed militia fighters, but instead they found a reinforced battalion of elite Khmer Rouge naval infantry.
“The helicopter landing went badly. There was only one landing zone, and that was defended,” Jones said. “When they landed they were severely hit; it was a real tenacious firefight. The Air Force helicopters that were assigned were not particularly trained for tactical landings.”
The Cambodians shot down three of the first four helicopters that approached the island; one of them carrying the Marine forward air controller team. The fourth helicopter was badly damaged and was forced to abort.
For hours, Air Force A-7 attack aircrafts providing fire support failed to find the Marine units, let alone support them.
After the first wave of HH-53s, a boarding party transferred to the USS Holt by helicopter seized the Mayaguez, only to find the ship deserted. The Cambodians, it turns out, had taken the crew to mainland Cambodia two days earlier.
Perhaps prompted by potential strikes from attack aircraft on the USS Coral Sea, the Khmer Rouge released the Mayaguez’s crew, sending them out in a Thai fishing boat. Destroyer USS Henry G. Wilson arrived on scene and took the crew aboard.
News of the crew’s recovery prompted politicians in Washington to halt offensive action, much to the chagrin of troops engaged in the operation.
“One of the mistakes that was made in the senior echelons was that once the crew was released, the politicians wanted to stop the landing,” Jones said. “So you had half the troops on the ground, another half waiting to go in; it was chaos.
“Somebody should have realized that once you start an amphibious landing you just don’t stop it,” Jones said. “Once you’ve committed, you’re committed until you actually achieve your objective and then you can have your ceasefire. But you can’t say ‘Hey, they’re out. Everybody leave.’”
In response to frantic lower-echelon pleas, Ford rescinded the order to call off the operation. If the second wave had not landed as planned, the enemy might well have overrun all the remaining Marines on the island.
Nevertheless, the Mayaguez Incident did not damage Ford’s reputation with troops, Jones said.
“I think the decision to do it was absolutely correct and I think everybody else believed that as well,” Jones said. “Marines are employed overseas and the thing they like best is to feel that they’re going to be used and they’re going to do something meaningful.
“Having gone through the fall of Saigon and watched (it) come down like a house of cards that same year, the opportunity to do something that was positive – to try to free the crew – was something that was motivating for all of us on the ground,” Jones said.
“I’m not sure whether the landings motivated the (Khmer Rouge) to free the crew,” Jones said. “But the desired outcome took place.”
Members of the Mayaguez crew were especially thankful for Ford’s commitment to their recovery.
“I got a call from the skipper of the Mayaguez,” Ford said, “and he told me that it was the action of me, President Ford, that saved the lives of the crew of the Mayaguez.”
“And I can assure you that if we had not taken the strong and forceful action that we did, we would have been criticized very, very severely for sitting back and not moving.”
(Background information for this article was obtained from a Spring 2005 Air & Space Power Journal article by retired U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. John F. Guilmartin Jr.)