Michael Hayes

KOH TANG island, Cambodia: The last chapter of America's tragic involvement in the Vietnam War took place on this pristine, tropical island, although the book on what happened here still hasn't been closed. While most Americans might be hard-pressed to explain the Mayaguez incident, those who took part in the engagement say they will never forget it nor, more importantly, those they left behind.

“You never forget and they’ll never be forgotten,” says former US Marine Lance Corporal Larry Barnett about the American soldiers who died on Koh Tang. “It’s about those lost forty-three, even if we get the publicity because we’re the ones standing on our feet.”

Barnett, who hails from Springfield, Ohio, is one of seven American veterans, who returned to Koh Tang on May 12 to commemorate a plaque naming those who died or are still “Missing in Action”. 

“There’s not a day in my life I haven’t thought about it,” says Barnett, reflecting on the forty years that has passed since the battle took place. “There’s no such thing as closure,” he adds. “It’s about understanding.”

It was on May 15, l975 - just weeks after the "fall of Saigon" - when U.S. Marines in CH-53 helicopters flew in low at 5:30am to attack the island in the hopes of rescuing the crew of the American container ship Mayaguez, which had been detained by the Khmer Rouge three days earlier.

US Marine Corps veteran Clark Hale, examines probable US helicopter wreckage on Koh Tang island, Cambodia on May 12, 2015, the 40th anniversary of the battle that took place there. The US lost three helicopters during the day-long battle. 20 American and 13 Khmer Rouge soldiers lost their lives. Another 23 US Air Force personnel died when their helicopter crashed departing the US air base in Nakhon Phanon, Thailand.

Unbeknownst to the invasion force and to then President Gerald Ford who ordered the assault, the crew had been moved the day before to Sihanoukville and from there to Koh Rong Sam Lem where they spent the night. The Mayaguez was left anchored just to the north of Koh Tang, its diesel engines shut down and devoid of life.

Even worse - and the cause of the tragedy on the island - U.S. intelligence had underestimated the size of the Khmer Rouge forces on Koh Tang. From the moment the helicopters hovered above the beach attempting to land they came under a storm of gunfire from well-entrenched troops.

One helicopter, code-named KNIFE-31, was hit immediately and crashed into the water about 100 feet from the beach; a second, KNIFE-23 and the one carrying Larry Barnett, had its tail shot off but managed to ditch on the beach; a third, KNIFE-21, was able to drop its soldiers off, but took so many hits it crashed into the sea a mile offshore.

Of the eight helicopters that took part in the assault, all but one were either damaged or lost. More than 225 Marines were on the island at the height of the battle and when the final troops were extracted fourteen hours after the initial landing the casualty count was fifty US soldiers wounded and twenty either dead or missing. Another twenty-three US Air Force personnel also died when their helicopter crashed just after lift-off from a base in Nakhon Phanom in Thailand. They were headed to U-tapao from where they were supposed to fly to Cambodia to attempt an on-board rescue of the Mayaguez crew.

The seven US veterans of the battle went to Koh Tang by boat where a plaque listing the names of the dead and missing had been erected at the gate to the Cambodian military base on the island. Former Marine Clark Hale read out the names on the plaque. Retired Air Force colonel John Lucas also read out the names of a separate plaque listing the Air Force personnel who died in Thailand, after which a minute of silence was observed.

Interestingly, the former Khmer Rouge commander of Koh Tang, Em Son, also was present for the occasion. Son, age 61 and a Khmer Rouge veteran who was wounded 16 times before the Mayaguez Incident, joined the American vets in honoring the fallen. He said thirteen of his soldiers had died during the battle.

When asked by a journalist what his feelings were looking back on the fight, he proceeded to deliver what seemed like a well-scripted, politically correct account of the day’s events, one which left many details vague, including what happened to the three Marines—Joe Hargrove, Danny Marshall, and Gary Hall—who were mistakenly left on the island and weren’t captured until about a week after all the other Americans were evacuated.

US Marine Corps veterans with former Khmer Rouge Koh Tang commander Em Son take questions from the press at the inauguration of a memorial for those who lost their lives during what is called "The Last Battle of the Vietnam War"  which took place on May 15, 1975.

According to Son, one died accidently when trying to escape. “We shot near the soldier, but he was hit and died,” Son said.   The other two were turned over to his superior officer Meas Muth in Sihanoukville, and from there he said he doesn’t know what happened to them.

But Son has good reasons to be scared to death. On March 3, 2015, the aging Meas Muth was charged in absentia by the UN-supported Khmer Rouge Tribunal in Phnom Penh for crimes against humanity, including murder, extermination, enslavement and other acts committed at the Wat Enta Nhien security center in Sihanoukville “against Vietnamese, Thai and other foreigners at sea and on the islands over which Democratic Kampuchea claimed sovereignty”. The Cambodian side of the mixed tribunal, however, has so far refused to arrest Muth.

Those who have interviewed Em Son previously say he provided substantial information on the fate of the missing Marines, describing how and where they were executed at Wat Enta Nhien, and where the bodies were eventually dumped. 

“I’ve heard various accounts (from Em Son) and they all seem to change,” said Barnett. “I believe he is trying to protect himself. I don’t know.”

On May 13, the American vets visited the Wat and were told this was where their two colleagues were most probably killed. Today, the temple is a rather tranquil oasis with young kids playing in the courtyard, a scene that belies its more tortured past.

At the end of the day, the events that took place four decades ago on Koh Tang are perhaps best summed up by author Ralph Wetterhahn in his book The Last Battle where he writes: “The struggle on Koh Tang was, in a sense, a metaphor of the entire Vietnam War: an action begun for what seemed a good and noble purpose, which quickly degenerated into an ugly, desperate fight, micro-managed from no less than the office of the president of the United States. While Gerald Ford and Henry Kissinger improvised tactics, confusing political expedience with military reality during a black-tie dinner, Americans lay bleeding and dying needlessly on a distant spit of sand. In so many ways, the Mayaguez Incident mirrors the outcome of the Southeast Asian conflict itself.”

For the American vets, the mistakes made by US leaders are a nagging concern. “There were a lot of bad decisions made by the Ford administration and by the military leadership,” said retired US Marine Staff Sargent Clark Hale. “For us, we just want to bring our boys home.”     

At a flag-raising ceremony at the US embassy in Phnom Penh on May 15, Hale elaborated on the difficulties of dealing with the past. “President Ford said the mission went perfectly. I think President Ford’s definition of ‘perfect’ and my definition are different,” he said.

“I couldn’t understand why we gave so many lives for a mission that could have been cancelled,” he added, referring to the fact that the Mayaguez crew was released on the day of the battle but even after that more Marines were inserted on Koh Tang.

“We and the vets don’t understand why it took twenty years to go back,” he said, referring to the US military’s MIA recovery efforts, which only began in Cambodia in 1993 after the US re-established full diplomatic relations with Cambodia. “Forty-three men. Is that a fair exchange? Were our lives less than the lives of the crewmen (of the Mayaguez)? We’ve lived with this for forty years.”

Michael Hayes is the co-Founder and former Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of the Phnom Penh Post.

Feature Image: The American veterans of the Battle of Koh Tang are still looking for answers as to what happened to their three fellow Marines—Joe Hargrove, Gary Hall and Danny Marshall-- and  who were left behind on the island and are still officially listed as "Missing in Action".  From L to R: John Muller, VFW Post 115752 Commander (who organized the trip), Clark Hale, Scott Standfast, John Lucas, Don Raatz, Fred Morris, and Larry Barnett.