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.
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.