On May 12, 1975, just days after South Vietnam’s capital of Saigon fell, Khmer Rouge forces seized the American container vessel SS Mayaguez and its crew off Cambodia’s coast.
U.S. Marines stormed the ship and Koh Tang Island, where officials believed the Mayaguez crew was being held. Forty-one service members lost their lives in the battle on the island and in associated air operations.
But the Mayaguez crew members were not on the island or their ship. Cambodian forces released them just as U.S. military operations got underway, and they were safely recovered by the USS Wilson.
Christopher J. Lamb, a research fellow at National Defense University, spoke at the Pentagon about lessons learned from what he called the “Mayaguez Crisis.” He based his research on personal interviews, memoirs and recently declassified message traffic between the U.S. government and the military, he said.
Here are five of his takeaways:
The crisis was poorly managed, as the White House and the Defense Department clashed over control of military operations.
The National Security Council staff, under the leadership of Henry Kissinger, did not trust Defense Secretary James R. Schlesinger to execute presidential orders. In addition to leading the NSC, Kissinger was secretary of state. Even before the crisis began, Kissinger had effectively sidelined Schlesinger from President Gerald Ford. All key decision-makers agreed that a swift and forceful response was needed to dissuade future aggression by North Korea. They viewed this in the context of the American withdrawal from Vietnam and North Korea’s perception that America did not have the will to fight. However, there were intense disagreements on implementation details.
Schlesinger and others at the Pentagon tried to reduce risks to the crew. The Pentagon refused to issue orders to fire on all patrol vessels, fearing crew members from the Mayaguez could be on board. DOD also curtained airstrikes on Cambodia ordered by the president to make the carrier USS Coral Sea and its aircraft available to support the hard-pressed Marines on Koh Tang. For his perceived insubordination, Ford fired Schlesinger. It turns out in hindsight, however, that Schlesinger’s actions saved the lives of the crew and reduced Marine casualties, Lamb said. The Mayaguez was the only crisis or war managed directly by the president solely through the NSC, he added.
Air and naval gunfire support were uncoordinated due to insufficient joint interoperability and poor planning and communications. Because of this, the crisis played a big role in the passage of the Goldwater-Nichols Act of 1986, which gave combatant commanders direct command of all U.S. forces, thereby enabling a more effective joint military response.
The Mayaguez Crisis also played a part in the creation of U.S. Special Operations Command in 1987, he said. It was recognized that unique capabilities of operators such as the Navy’s SEALs and Air Force AC-130 aircraft were needed to perform specialized missions.
Marine Corps doctrine of assaulting an entrenched enemy with a 3-to-1 numerical superiority was violated, he said.
Military intelligence estimated that there were between 100 and 200 enemy forces. A force of just 270 Marines was sent in, and about 100 those were used to storm the Mayaguez, thus reducing those available to assault the island. Sharing of that intelligence with the Marines was lacking.
Mission command, the military’s current doctrine of conducting warfare, relies heavily on decentralization and operating on commander intent, he said. “As good as that is, you have to provide [adequate] oversight.” Instead, commanders in the Mayaguez incident assumed subordinates would arrange requisite air support for ground operations, which did not happen, and subordinates assumed they had the same intelligence their superiors were using, which was not true. Questioning commander intent in light of operational challenges would have quickly revealed these false assumptions, but that kind of give and take was largely absent in the Mayaguez Crisis. Three Marines were left behind on the island and were believed to have been executed, he said. Their names are the last ones on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.
In summary, Lamb said that key military and civilian leaders who served during the crisis went on to correct mistakes that were made, thereby improving the Pentagon’s fighting effectiveness. Lamb goes into much greater detail in his 2018 book: “The Mayaguez Crisis, Mission Command, and Civil-Military Relations.” It is published by the Office of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff’s Joint History Office.