Mayaguez: The Final Tragedy of the U.S. Involvement in the Vietnam War

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INTRODUCTION

On April 17, 1975, the Khmer Rouge seized Cambodia and, within two weeks, Communist-led forces overran South Vietnam. At the same time, the Laotian Government fell to the Pathet Lao, and "United States Forces departed the immediate area except for those in Thailand." Even as the U.S. abandoned her decade long commitment to a conflict she, in hindsight, may never have had a chance to win, events between May 12-15, 1975, in the waters off Cambodia drew them back, one more time, to the bitter fruits of that Southeast Asian conflict. (1)

THE GENESIS OF THE INCIDENT

The crisis began to unfold on May 12, 1975, when Cambodian communist naval forces, operating former U.S. Navy "Swirl Boats," approached the container-ship SS Mayaguez, en route to Sattahip, Thailand, flying an American flag in the Gulf of Siam, eight miles from Poulo Wai Island and 60 miles south of Cambodia. For generations, these had been generally accepted as international sea lanes. The new Cambodian communist regime claimed this area as their territorial waters. Initially, these Khmer Rouge naval forces sprayed machine gun fire across the ship's bow. Concerned for the safety of his crew, Mayaguez 's, Captain Charles T. Miller, directed engine room personnel to reduce speed to a maneuvering level to avoid the machine gun fire. in response, the Khmer Rouge fired rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs). (2)

Miller, realizing the peril he was in, had his radio operator send a general "Mayday," and then he stopped the ship. Alter delaying the inevitable as long as possible, Miller finally allowed seven Khmer Rouge, led by Battalion Commander Sa Mean, to board. Once aboard the Mayaguez, the Khmer Rouge and the Captain began difficult communications during which Sa Mean accused the crew of spying and had his men subject some of the crew to what was later described, euphemistically, as "intense interrogation." Depending on the source, this translated as either "torture" or slaps on the face. Ultimately, with the radio operator still secretly sending SOS signals, Sa Mean pointed to a map and demanded that Miller sail his ship east to Poulo Wai Island--which he did. (3)

At some point in this confrontation, an Australian ship received the call for help from the Mayaguez. They radioed their home offices in Australia which sent out a general message to U.S. officials. Not long after, the Mayaguez reached Poulo Wai where it was boarded by 20 more Khmer soldiers. They insisted that Miller proceed to the port of Ream on the Cambodian coast. Miller, using hand gestures, finally explained that the ship's radar was not working and that he feared the Mayaguez might run aground. Sa Mean radioed his superiors who instructed them to stay at Poulo Wai. Unknown to the participants in this evolving drama, the ship's distress signal had also been received around 0718 hours Zulu time by several other listeners most notably, John Neal, a member of the Delta Exploration Company in Jakarta, Indonesia who notified the U.S. Embassy in Jakarta. In turn, the Embassy sent a message to Commander-in-Chief, Pacific Command (CINCPAC) for transmission to Washington, D.C. It read simply, "Have been fired upon and boarded by Cambodian armed forces at 9 degrees/48 minutes north/102 degrees /53 minutes east. Ship is being towed to unknown Cambodian port." (4)

By 1715 hours on the east coast of the United States, several messages reached the National Military Command Center (NMCC) in Washington D.C. alerting American government and military officials to events unfolding half a world away. As this transpired, a U.S. Navy P-3 Orion surveillance aircraft began searching for the 30-year old container ship. Soon, while taking fire from Khmer forces, the crew identified the Mayaguez at anchor at Koh Tang Island, 50 miles off the southern coast of Cambodia, near their common border with Vietnam. (5)

Initial Responses

President Gerald R. …