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Crisis in Southeast Asia :Mayaguez RescueDaniel L. HaulmanDATES: May 12-15, 1975LOCATIONS: Cambodia and Gulf of ThailandOVERSEAS BASES USED : U-Tapao Royal Thai Air Force Base(RTAFB), Thailand ; Cubi Point and Clark Air Base (AB), Philippines;Kadena AB, OkinawaAIR FORCE ORGANIZATIONS :WINGS :SQUADRONS:41st Aerospace Rescue and Recovery7th Airborne Command and Control56th Special Operations16th Special Operations60th Military Airlift62d Military Airlift307th Strategic314th Tactical Airlift347th Tactical Fighter374th Tactical Airlift388th Tactical Fighter432d Tactical FighterL 437th Military AirliftAIR FORCE AIRCRAFT : CH-53, HH-53, A-7, F-4, F-111, AC-130,C-130, HC-130, KC-135, OV-10, C-141, RF-4, U-2, C-9, C-5OperationsOn May 12, 1975, as the American civilian merchant ship SSMayaguez on a voyage from Hong Kong to Thailand passedabout sixty miles off the Cambodian mainland, a gunboat pulledalongside, and armed Khmer Rouge soldiers climbed aboard.They quickly seized the vessel and its forty-man crew, but notbefore one of the crewmen sent a "mayday" distress message .When U.S . President Gerald Ford learned that an Americanship had been seized in international waters, he responded105

GULF OFTHAILANDMPONGb .-j S OMArea of USAF Operations during Mayaguez Crisisimmediately. He remembered that North Koreans had seizedthe U .S . Navy ship Pueblo in 1968 and held its crew for a year,not releasing them until the United States had issued anapology . Just a month before the Mayaguez seizure, Cambodia and South Vietnam had fallen to Communist forces, suggesting that the United States was a "paper tiger ." PresidentFord sought a quick solution to the crisis through diplomacy,but that option faded quickly . Since the collapse of the PhnomPenh government a month earlier, the United States had noformal diplomatic ties with Cambodia . Ford tried negotiatingthrough China and the United Nations, but neither producedany immediate results . He turned from the state to the defense department .106

MAYAGUEZ CRISISMarines board a CH-53 helicopter bound for Koh Tang .President Ford ordered military aircraft to search the Gulf ofThailand for the Mayaguez. USAF F-111 s from Thailand located the ship near Koh Tang (Tang Island), about thirty-fourmiles southwest of the mainland city of Kompong Som. Reconnaissance flights suggested that the Cambodians were holdingthe Mayaguez crew on the tiny island . The President hoped torescue the American hostages before they were taken to theCambodian mainland .At the time, the United States still maintained powerfulmilitary forces in Thailand and the Philippines . Lt. Gen. JohnJ . Burns, USAF, Commander, Seventh Air Force, and the U .S .Military Advisory Group in Thailand assumed local commandof the rescue operation, reporting to Adm. Noel A. M . Gayler,USN, Commander in Chief, Pacific Command . USAF F-4s,A-7s, F-l11s, and AC-130s from Thai bases kept watch overthe Mayaguez and Koh Tang, prevented the ship from beingtaken elsewhere, and stopped virtually all shipping betweenthe island and the Cambodian mainland . They sank or damaged seven Cambodian gunboats, but they could not prevent afishing boat from voyaging from Koh Tang to Kompong Som onthe mainland, despite their use of rockets and riot control107

SHORT OF WARagents . Reconnaissance flights showed that the boat mightcontain some of the Mayaguez crew. Actually, all of the captured Americans were aboard the fishing boat, but Burns believed that most of them remained either on the ship or onKoh Tang.U.S. air and ground forces concentrated at U-Tapao, thenearest Thai base to the scene . Among them were USAFCH-53 Knife helicopters from the 56th Special OperationsWing and HH-53 Super Jolly Green Giant choppers from the40th Aerospace Rescue and Recovery Squadron . Both helicopter types bore armor plating and machine guns, and theHH-53s could refuel in the air. One of the CH-53s, loadedwith air policemen, crashed on the way to U-Tapao, killing alltwenty-three men aboard . Meanwhile, 16 Military Airlift Command C-141s carried more than 1,100 U.S . Marines fromKadena AB in Okinawa and Cubi Point in the Philippines tothe Thai base . The movement took twenty-two hours . At thesame time, a flotilla of U .S . Navy ships, including the aircraftcarrier USS Coral Sea and the destroyers USS Henry B. Wilsonand USS Harold E. Holt, voyaged toward the Gulf of Thailand .General Burns and his staff planned to use about 230 marines to board the Mayaguez and assault Koh Tang simultaneously, hoping to find the Mayaguez crew members on eitherthe ship or the island . Pacific Command intelligence sourcesestimated as few as 19 enemy soldiers on the island, althoughthe Defense Intelligence Agency warned that there could be200 or more. Lt. Col. Randall W. Austin, USMC, Commanderof the Marines destined for Koh Tang, reconnoitered the islandin a USAF aircraft on May 14 and expected little opposition .Normal amphibious procedure called for a three to one numerical superiority for an attack and a preliminary bombardment. Burns refused preparatory air strikes on Koh Tang because he did not want to hit the Mayaguez crewmen hebelieved to be there .Early on May 15, the rescue operation began. Three USAFhelicopters transported forty-eight Marines to the Holt. As theHolt sailed toward the Mayaguez, USAF A-7s dropped tear gascartridges on the decks of the merchant ship to immobilize anyenemy who might be aboard. Shortly afterwards, the Holt pulledalongside the Mayaguez, and Marines with gas masks boarded108

MAYAGUEZ CRISISthe ship. They found it empty. The Navy personnel could notstart the old merchant ship's engines, so the Holt attached a lineand began towing the ship away from the vicinity of Koh Tang.At this point, the Cambodian government broadcast a messagethat it was going to release the Mayaguez. The message contained no reference to the crew members, who were still in anunknown location. Since General Burns reported that the Mayaguez crewmen were probably on Koh Tang, President Forddirected that military operations continue .Eight USAF helicopters loaded with about 180 Marines attempted to land on the northern side of Koh Tang . Disasterfollowed . An entire entrenched enemy battalion heavily armedwith automatic weapons, rocket launchers, mortars, heavycaliber machine guns, and grenades opened fire on the bighelicopters as they approached . Three went down, includingone with most of the Marines' forward air control radio equipment. Four other helicopters suffered severe damage, one ofthem returning to Thailand without unloading its men. Onlyone escaped heavy damage . The helicopters delivered about130 Marines to Koh Tang in the first assault wave .The Cambodian soldiers outnumbered and outgunned theU .S . Marines, who were fragmented into three groups. Theyneeded air support, but it was slow in coming . A USAF forward air control A-7 flew overhead to direct air strikes but haddifficulty communicating with the Marines on Koh Tang. Someof the ground forces contacted the airplane with survival radios . Flying high and fast, the A-7 could not determine theexact location of friendly or enemy forces on the island andrefused to direct heavy fire into areas that might containAmericans . General Burns had ordered that supporting firefrom the air be limited to small-caliber gunfire or riot-controlgas to prevent casualties among possible Mayaguez crewmen.While the fighting on Koh Tang continued, reconnaissanceaircraft spotted the Mayaguez crewmen in a fishing boat inthe Gulf of Thailand . The Wilson intercepted the boat and tookon the liberated Americans . Now both the Mayaguez and itscrew were free, but the fighting on Koh Tang continued .Austin needed reinforcements to allow him to fight off theenemy until he could unite his scattered troops and withdrawsafely. Burns' superiors debated the need for putting more10 9

SHORT OF WARWreckage of U.S. helicopters on Koh Tang .Marines on an island from which they were to withdraw buteventually decided a second assault wave was necessary, evenwith seven of the helicopters destroyed or severely damaged .Four surviving helicopters landed Marine reinforcements onKoh Tang around noon, bringing the number of Americans onthe island to about 220. A fifth helicopter was hit repeatedlyand had to turn back without unloading its troops .Once General Burns learned that the Mayaguez crewmenwere not on Koh Tang, he directed heavier air bombardment ofthe island . A series of F-4, A-7, and AC-130 air strikes reduced enemy fire . American strafing increased, first with 20and 40-millimeter ammunition and later with 105-millimeterordnance from the AC-130 gunships . In the late afternoon,Maj. Robert W. Undorf, USAF, arrived in an OV-10 Bronco

MAYAGUEZ CRISISaircraft to act as forward air controller . The OV-10, whichcould fly lower and slower than the A-7, allowed Undorf topinpoint the positions of the Marines and to direct more accurate gunfire from the USAF fighters and gunships . At aboutthe same time, the two groups of Marines on the western sideof the island established a combined perimeter, while a searchand rescue HH-53 helicopter evacuated twenty-five Marinesisolated on the eastern side of the island . KC-135s andHC-130s orbiting over the Gulf of Thailand refueled the fighters and helicopters . To disrupt the enemy defenders psychologically, a C-130 dropped a huge 15,000-pound BLU-82bomb, the largest non-nuclear explosive in the American arsenal, on the southern part of the island . It fell far enough awaynot to injure any Marines, leaving a crater the size of a footballfield . By then, the aircraft carrier USS Coral Sea had arrived,but it used its fighters to hit targets near Kompong Som onthe Cambodian mainland in order to prevent their interventionin the island fighting . Other U .S. Navy ships bombarded KohTang to support the Marines .As darkness approached, Burns had very few USAF helicopters left for the extraction of the almost 200 troops remainingon Koh Tang. During the insertions and search and rescueattempts, eleven helicopters had been destroyed or damaged .Only three USAF helicopters accomplished the final extractions, two of them making repeated trips . Picking up the lastof the Marines was extremely dangerous, not only because theenemy continued to challenge the helicopters and soldierswith heavy fire, but also because of almost total darkness . AirForce fighters and gunships, directed by additional OV-10s,provided air support for the final extractions. The helicopterstook the Marines to the Coral Sea and the Holt, each equippedwith a small helicopter deck. The troops had been on KohTang a total of fourteen hours .The Mayaguez rescue operation was a qualified success.The primary purpose of the mission, the rescue of the fortyman Mayaguez crew and the return of their ship, had beenaccomplished . The United States had demonstrated that itwould not tolerate the seizure of its ships in internationalwaters and discouraged Khmer Rouge piracy, which hadthreatened other ships in the Gulf of Thailand . The action

anUKI UP WIIKrestored, to some extent, the confidence of U .S. allies in thewillingness and ability of the administration to respond toCommunist challenges, a confidence that had fractured afterthe fall of the Cambodian and South Vietnamese governments .The Mayaguez operation, on the other hand, aroused agreat deal of negative criticism . Counting the helicopter thatcrashed in preliminary movements in Thailand, the U.S. AirForce lost four CH-53 helicopters. Enemy fire badly damagedeight others. More important than the loss of aircraft was theloss of life . In the assault on Koh Tang, the United States losteighteen lives, most of them in one destroyed helicopter . Thehelicopter crash in Thailand took the lives of another twentythree USAF personnel . In the contingency as a whole, theUnited States suffered ninety-one casualties, including fortyone dead and fifty wounded, to save the lives of forty men whomight have been released without military action. Viewed as awhole, the operation cost more lives that it saved .Of all the lessons learned in the Mayaguez incident, the firstwas that inadequate intelligence leads to disastrous results .American intelligence failed to locate the Mayaguez crewmen,leading planners to think that they were either still on the shipor on nearby Koh Tang, when in fact they were in neither place.American intelligence also failed to predict accurately thestrength of the enemy on Koh Tang. Observers, including theUSMC commander, who had flown over the island the day before the assault, expected only token resistance . The USAF helicopter crews and Marines flew into an ambush . They shouldhave known better. The USAF and USN aircraft that kept watchover the Mayaguez and Koh Tang on May 14 had attractedconsiderable antiaircraft gunfire from the island . Given the shortsuspense, the scanty intelligence is more understandable .Should American aircraft have bombarded Koh Tang beforethe Marines attempted to land there? After all, preliminarybombardment was a traditional part of Marine Corps amphibious doctrine . But General Burns believed that Mayaguezcrewmen were on the tiny island and did not want to endangerthem. If he had thought the crew was not on Koh Tang, therewould have been no reason for the assault .Air support for the Marines was initially poor . This was notbecause the EC-130 airborne command and control center

MAYAGUEZ CRISISwas too far from the scene of action, as some critics havecharged . Operation commanders did not want to endanger theMayaguez crewmen they believed to be on Koh Tang, the enemy destroyed a helicopter that contained most of the Marines' forward air control radio equipment, and the fast andhigh-flying A-7 could not pinpoint the location of friendly orenemy positions . The OV-10 proved to be a more effectiveforward air control aircraft than the faster and higher-flyingA-7 . The po