Corporal (Ret.) Al Bailey vividly remembers the battle scenes at Cambodia’s Koh Tang island on May 15, 1975. The retired Marine veteran was on the first of several U.S. Air Force CH-53 heavy transport helicopters that deployed in an attempt to rescue the crew of the U.S. merchant container ship SS Mayaguez, which had been captured by Khmer Rouge naval forces three days prior.
Dubbed the “Last Battle of the Vietnam War,” May 15 marked the 45th anniversary of the U.S. rescue attempt and assault on Koh Tang island, which was foiled by heavier-than-expected Khmer Rouge resistance on the small islet off the Cambodian coast.
The Khmer Rouge had planned to release the crew of the SS Mayaguez, historians have documented, yet the U.S. proceeded with the assault, resulting in fierce fighting at Koh Tang and the loss of 41 U.S. lives and several Cambodian fighters.
“There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t remember that day,” Cpl. Al Bailey told VOA Khmer in a phone interview. “It’s something that the mind would not let go.”
The incident -- which took place one month after Phnom Penh fell to the Cambodian communists and two weeks after Saigon fell to the Viet Cong -- was precipitated when Khmer Rouge speed boats intercepted the SS Mayaguez on May 12, 1975. The seized cargo ship was taken to Koh Tang island, which is around 60 kilometers southwest of Sihanoukville, then known as Kampong Som.
The ship was on its way to Sattahip, Thailand, and carried 274 containers, of which 77 contained materials of the U.S. government and military that were taken from the U.S. Embassy in Saigon nine days before the fall of the city on April 30, 1975, according to U.S. historians.
“The Khmer Rouge waited just before touchdown to open up with everything they had on each helicopter that approached – anti-aircraft artillery, rocket-propelled grenades, and a devastating amount of rifle fire,” recalled Cpl. Bailey, who now lives in eastern Maryland.
Cpl. Bailey was on the helicopter called Knife-21, which caught fire and crashed just off a Koh Tang beach, but not before 20 marines were dropped off. It was the first battle for Al Bailey and many other soldiers, who were still completing their training at the time.
Air Force Col. (Ret.) Ric Hunter, of the 34th Fighter Squadron, remembered flying his F-4 Phantom fighter bomber on May 14 over a Thai fishing trawler the Khmer Rouge was using to transport the captured SS Mayaguez crew. They were being taken to Koh Rong Sanloem island for questioning, historians say.
“I dropped over the boat to take a look since my gun would not work, my rocket wouldn’t fire,” Col. Ric Hunter told VOA Khmer in an interview, “and looked down and saw a bunch of people lining the bow of the boat with their heads down... we ultimately identified a good portion of the [SS Mayaguez] crew on that Thai fishing boat headed to the Cambodian mainland.”
Koh Tang is midway between the port city of Sihanoukville and Poulo Wai island, where the container ship was first intercepted before being instructed by the Khmer Rouge to move to Koh Tang.
The island was controlled by the Khmer Rouge's 410th Battalion, which was under naval commander Meas Muth’s 3rd division, researchers have documented. Mao Ran was one of the Khmer Rouge platoon commanders assigned to lead the battle at the time.
Speaking in Kampong Speu province with VOA Khmer in an April interview, Mao Ran said the U.S. bombed the shoreline at Koh Tang the night of 14 May, before launching a ground assault the next morning.
“On May 15, they started to unload combatants from helicopters to fight us,” Mao Ran said. “We were ready to fire back and shot down two helicopters.”
“We saw flames coming out of the [helicopter] tails and one of them crashed in the water and another one on the beach,” he said referring to two CH-53 transport helicopters shot down by the Khmer Rouge.
Mao Ran believed the U.S. used the container ship to provoke the ultra-communist regime into a battle. Only weeks before had the Khmer Rouge seized all of Cambodia and established Democratic Kampuchea.
“If the U.S. ship was in international waters, nobody would be able to capture it,” Mao Ran said. “I dare not conclude, but if it weren’t the U.S. intention to let us capture it, it would not have stopped the engine and let us board.”
In his book, 'The Last Battle: The Mayaguez and the End of the Vietnam War,'' Ralph Wetterhahn writes that among the first words a Khmer Rouge interrogator said to the captured cargo ship crew, was asking them if they worked for the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency.
Cpl. Al Bailey and Col. Ric Hunter told VOA Khmer that they, in recent years, have had to find closure with the events of May 15, 1975, including acknowledging the role played by Khmer Rouge fighters.
“I was sent to do a mission. They were sent to do a mission,” said Cpl. Al Bailey. “Yes, I would hug them [if I saw them now, 45 years later] and tell them that 'I’m glad that you’re here and I’m glad that I’m here' and I would treat [them] with the utmost respect.”
Col. Ric Hunter, referring to Khmer Rouge soldiers, said: “They took a beating from us and they kept on fighting so I have a warrior respect with them for their fighting ability. I don’t believe their reasons for fighting were valid.”
Despite alleging the U.S. provoked the violent and deadly episode, Mao Ran said he also wanted to move on from the incident, noting soldiers on both sides were fighting hard to defend their respective countries.
“We were Cambodian soldiers so we had to protect our territorial integrity,” Mao Ran said. “If they came to encroach our territory, we had to capture them. If they came to attack us, we had to fight them back. This is what a soldier is for.”
The battle did not take place in Vietnam, which means U.S. military personnel who participated in the SS Mayaguez mission were not eligible for a Vietnam Service Medal.
However, Cpl. Al Bailey and Col. Ric Hunter are now working to get Vietnam Service Medals for surviving veterans; and the two are lobbying to get a Congressional medal for surviving combatant Staff Sergeant Fofo Tuitele, who, they said, saved many marines that day, including Al Bailey.
“I think it is time, 45 years later, to recognize the heroism of the people that were in this battle,” said Col. Ric Hunter, who lives now in the Raleigh area of North Carolina. “How hard they fought. How well they fought.”
At least ten Khmer Rouge soldiers were killed and 15 others wounded and the U.S. lost 18 soldiers, three of who were accidentally left on Koh Tang during the nighttime evacuation of U.S. troops on May 15, historians and book authors have documented.
One of them was killed on the island after being captured by Khmer Rouge soldiers and two others were taken to Sihanoukville, where they were beaten to death at a hilltop pagoda, according to information provided by former Khmer Rouge soldier Em Son to the Joint Task Force-Full Accounting, which accounts for U.S. military personnel listed as “Missing in Action” or “Prisoners of War.”
Another 23 U.S. personnel were killed in a helicopter crash due to a mechanical failure in Thailand, and 50 others were reported wounded in the assault.
Peter Maguire, author of 'Facing Death in Cambodia' and founder of the Fainting Robin Foundation, said the controversial nature of the SS Mayaguez rescue mission meant that U.S. military personnel had not received the recognition they deserved.
“I believe President Ford and Henry Kissinger were much more interested in using it as a symbolic political event that showed that the United State was back, that we weren’t going to be pushed around anymore,” Maguire said.
A planned reunion in Las Vegas for all the veterans related to the SS Mayaguez mission was scheduled for last week, but has been postponed due to the novel coronavirus pandemic.