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Document created: 1 March 05
Air & Space Power Journal - Spring 2005
Lt Col John F. Guilmartin Jr., USAF, Retired
On 12 May 1975, less than two weeks after the fall of Saigon, a unit of the Cambodian Khmer Rouge navy seized the American-flagged container ship SS Mayaguez, taking the crew hostage. With memories of North Korea’s seizure of the USS Pueblo in 1968 still fresh, Pres. Gerald Ford was determined to act decisively to recover the ship and crew. Surely America’s might would quickly prevail against a fourth-rate military establishment, but complications arose. Despite the presence of abundant Thailand-based tactical airpower, the United States still needed ground troops to recover the crew but had none nearby. Staffs at all levels of the chain of command went to work with a vengeance. Late that night the ship was located, anchored off a tiny island called Koh Tang in the Gulf of Siam; planning proceeded on the assumption that the crew was on the island. Marines would deploy to U Tapao Royal Thai Navy Base and assault Koh Tang aboard Air Force special-operations and air-rescue H-53s based in Thailand, hitting the beach at sunrise on the 15th in the Air Force’s first-ever helicopter--assault operation. The frigate USS Henry Holt, serendipitously in the area, would provide support.
It looked like a walk, but virtually everything that could go wrong did. The marines and helicopter crews never received the good intelligence available about the island’s defenders; they went in expecting 18 to 40 lightly armed militia but instead found a reinforced battalion of elite Khmer Rouge naval infantry. The Cambodians shot down three of the first four helicopters to approach the island, one of them carrying the Marine forward air controller (FAC) team; the fourth was badly damaged and forced to abort. For hours, Air Force A-7s providing fire support failed to find the marines, let alone support them. The marines hung on by a thread while the remaining H-53s of the assault wave fed in reinforcements trickle by trickle; the enemy badly shot up most of the remaining seven helicopters—only three landed in commission at U Tapao. A boarding party, transferred to the Holt by helicopter, seized the Mayaguez, only to find the ship deserted; the Cambodians had taken its crew to the mainland two days earlier.
Perhaps prompted by a retaliatory strike on mainland targets by A-6s based 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, just arrived on scene, took them aboard, prompting President Ford to order a halt to offensive action. Had he not rescinded this order in response to frantic lower-echelon pleas and had not a second wave gone in, the enemy might well have overrun the marines on the island. It was close. They were saved by a combination of low-level initiative, hard fighting, and superior airmanship: an AC-130 fire mission coordinated by an air-rescue HH-53 Jolly Green crew proved pivotal, as did the belated intervention of two OV-10 FACs. The extraction, begun on the initiative of the senior FAC without endorsement from above, occurred under fire in inky darkness. When the extraction began, only four H-53s were available, and one was quickly shot up and put out of commission. Maintenance provided one more as the rescue proceeded, providing a razor-thin margin of success.
What about the lessons? Official sources remain noncommittal, but the Air Force’s sudden conversion to a strong belief in realistic, combat-oriented aircrew training—read Red Flag—surely emerged, at least in part, as a result of the near-disaster on Koh Tang. Seemingly self-evident lessons about the importance of accurate intelligence at the cutting edge and the dangers of high-level intervention in tactical decisions went unheeded—witness the Desert One fiasco five years later. But realistic training became the hallmark of the Air Force’s tactical forces, particularly special-operations elements, and remains so to this day.
To Learn More . . .
Guilmartin, John F., Jr. A Very Short War: The Mayaguez and the Battle of Koh Tang (College Station, TX: Texas A&M University Press, 1995).
The conclusions and opinions expressed in this document are those of the author cultivated in the freedom of expression, academic environment of Air University. They do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Government, Department of Defense, the United States Air Force or the Air University.
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