LT. COL. RAY PORTERS SPEECH ABOUT 1/4'S MISSION
THE MAYAGUEZ INCIDENT
In May of 1975, the Khmer Rouge communists of Cambodia declared their territorial waters extended to 90 miles from any shoreline (as compared to the international 12 mile limit). This was not made known be a message, letter, or other means of communication, so the world did not know of their intent. Their method of alerting the world to a change was as follows:
May 2nd - A group of Thai fishing boats were seized, but later released.
May 4th - A Korean ship was fired upon, but escaped boarding attempts.
May 6th - Seven vessels fleeing from Vietnam were seized and held.
May 7th - A Panamanian ship was boarded and held for 35 hours.
These incidents indicated a changing attitude, but they were of little conceern to the US because we had never had problems traversing the area. Then, on May12, 1975 armed Khmer Rouge pirates forcefully boarded the SS Mayaguez, an American Registered ship under civilian command. They had the ship pulled out of normal shipping lanes, anchored it near the island of Koh Tang, and moved the crew to the mainland of Cambodia where the crew was told they would imprisoned for violating Cambodian territorial waters. Luckily, a message had been released relating the situation and was forwarded to US Command elements.
The National Miltiary Command Center received information about the capture at 0515 on May 12th, and after a two hour deliberation, an aerial reconnaissance of the area was ordered. This revealed the the SS Mayaguez was dead-in-the-water and anchored of f Koh Tang. President Ford was advised of the situation at his normal morning briefing and called for a meeting of the National Security Council at noon to consider actions necessary to ensure the safety of the crew and recovery of the ship. During that meeting he asked if we had militaryin the area tha could respond to the situation if necessary and was advised that we did. He then directed that they be alerted and ready to deploy on order. Considering the world situation at the time was a bold act, and was to impact directly on me as a Marine Officer.
In May of 1975, I was assigned as the Executive Officer of the 1st Battalion 4th Marines stationed in Okinawa, Japan. The majority of my battalion had left Okinawa to participate in Operations "Frequent Wind and EaglePull" - operations that were evacuating many of the vietnamese civilians from Saigon in the wake of advancing Viet Cong forces. I had been left in Okinawa as a "Jump Command Post" or rear guard and the reinforcement in the event I was needed. My force consisted of a small command group and Company D, commanded by Captain Walter Woods. We had the job of securing all of the personal belongings of the Marines involved in the operations and were responsible for cleaning up the area after they had departed. ( Not a very glorious assignment, but a necessary one. )
On the 13th of May, we had retired for the day; then, at 2100, the duty officer woke me and handed me a sheet of paper that read:
Have a 120 Man Force Ready for Air Lift at 0300
Heavy Weapons Limited to M-79 Grenade Launchers
There was nothing indicating where we were going or what we were going to do. Naturally, we thought we would be joining the rest of the battalion in the ongoing operations. This gave us three and one half hours to gather the men together, (some of whom were on liberty in the local villages), insure they were properly armed and dressed with one change of clothes and all field equipment. Although we had taken precautions to be able to respond to a deployment, we still had to get the men back on base, into trucks and driven 15 miles to the Kadena Air Force Base for our lift - a task we accomplished with thirty minutes to spare.
When we arrived at the Air Base, we were quickly shuttled into a C-130 and were air borne on time. We still didn't know where we were going or what we were going to do. After a long dark flight we landed in the Philippine Islands and debarked. I was met there by a Naval Officer who handed me my:
Capture the Mayaguez and Return it to American Control.
Ladies and gentlemen, up until this point of my life the word Mayaguez, represented a yellowish Spread that you put on bologna sandwiches. The officer then told me that the Mayaguez was an American containeer ship that had been captured by Cambodia and was being held off the island of Koh Tang. It was believed the ship was occupied by Cambodian Marines.
During a following briefing, I learned that we were expected to rappel onto the containers on the ship from Air Force CH-53 helicopters. These helicopters were being used because (unlike Marine Corps helicopters) they were configured for inflight refueling, which was necessary to do the distance we had to travel from Thailand to the Cambodian waters and the Mayaguez. We were given 30 minutes to generate a plan and get our ammunition from the armory. Marines hadn't boarded a ship at sea since the war of 1812 so we needed to come up with a plan rapidly. We considered the ship to be like a multiple story building: therefore, we elected to employ "Combat in built-up area" tactics. That involved entering the ship from the top and working our way down. We would employ concussion grenades if necessary. For the purpose of you who don't know this tactic, I'll explain.
You get to the top of a Ladder (stairs for the civilians in the audience) and open the hatch (or door). If it appears there are personnel in the lower compartment, you call out in English to see it they are friendlies. If not, you pitch a concoussion grenade down the stairs and stand by. As soon as it explodes, you rush down the steps to engage the enemy combatants, who should be suffering from the effects of the explosion. The reason you start from the top may be obvious - for if you are trying to throw the grenade up the stairs and it fails to make the upper deck (or floor), as it bounces back down the stairs you become the victim of the effect of the concussion. Not what you want in a combat stuation.
My Operations Officer, Captain John Feltner rapidly prepared an ammunition request and got it to the armory. They were somewhat reluctant to fill the order initially, but when a Navy Captain confirmed the need for the order, they quickly filled it and got it to the air strip. There my Marines gathered their individual ammunition needs and re-boarded the C-130.
Early on the morning of May 14th, we landed at the U-Tapao Air Base, in Thailand. As we disembarked, I was met by an Air Force Captain. He said,
"Man am I ever glad to see you Marines! My MP Company was origianlly given this mission but a helicopter transporting about half of my command crashed, killing 23 of my men. Worse than that; however, is the fact tha my men have never been trained to use the M-16 Rifle and are scared to death of going into combat with an unfamiliar weapon. Also, there is a secret message, number XXXXXX that you should read soon".
I assured him that I would, told him we had the situation under control, shook his hand and proceeded to the briefing room pointed out by him. There I learned that my force would be joined by 8 civilian mariners from the SS Greenville Victory, the sister ship of the SS Mayaguez. They knew the configuration of the ship and could help us with that and they could get it under way after we had gained control. One of them had a cast on his leg and I wondered how we were going to get him down a rope and onto the ship. He assured us that he was up to the task. I requested a linguist be attached to my unit and that was confirmed. I also requested air delivery of tear gas on the Mayaguez as we approached it and the Air Force said that could be arranged. We were informed that there was a Cambodian communications unit on the island of Koh Tang and that it was lightly armed. After the briefing I went to the message center and requested the afore mentioned message. This message stated that the unit of communication personnel on the island of Koh Tang had been reinforced by at least two companies of Cambodian Marines and could even be as strong as Battalion size! This compounded the threat for my unit, because they could engage us from the island and could also have a large contingent of the Mayaguez! Armed with this information, I met with m y unit and with the help of the Greenville Victory personnel to determine where we could enter the ship after boarding. We broke the Marine Company into boarding teams and assigned them their areas of responsibility. By 0930, we began boarding four CH-53 Helicopters, ready for deployment; however, before we managed to get loaded, more C-130's landed and a great number of Marines got off. This was 2nd Battalion, 9th Marines, flown in from Okinawa to land on Koh Tang Island to prevent Cambodian Marines deployed there.
Now we were to be delayed until a new plan was developed. We immediately went into a planning session. It was determined that it was absolutely necessary to have forces on the island to preclude attacks on the ship from the shore line. The Commanding Officer of 2/9 stated they could land on the island AND put a force on the Mayaguez. I objected to this option! I had been given the mission and I had prepared my men for the operation with assistance of the Greenville Victory crew! We were rehearsed and ready!!! The rest of the briefing room agreed with me and I had the mission restored to my unit; however, because it was necessary to put a sizeable force on the island, I would have to cut my unit from130 to 63. That gave me 57 Marines and 2 Navy Corpsmen. I concurred witht the reduction, returned to my unit, gave the Company Commander the news, and directed him to determine which men would be deployed. I also had him consider reallocation of the ammunition we had to ensure the boarding force would be adequately supplied for a possible long fight.
Having directed the reorganization of my unit, I went to coordinate with the 2/9 Operations Officer. I had to know how he intended to approach the island and where his forces would be deployed. He informed me that he intended to land on both sides of the island at a narrow point, link up, and then move toward the higher part of the island to engage the enemy. I questioned the logic of linking up through jungle terrain, possibly under fire. He said there should be little resisatance from the lightly armed Cambodian Communications Contingent. I was shocked that he had not been informed of the reinforcements on the island and referred him to the secret message detailing information to that effect. I don't know if he ever read the message; however, I discovered later, that he stuck with his plan to seperate his forces on landing and to link up across the narrow part of the island.
By now it was late on the 14th, and we were to deploy at 0200 on May 15th so I got my unit out to the air strip, broke it into two groups and began embarking. As we were boarding the helicopters, I noticed there was confusion in the ranks of the men from the 4th Marines. The problem was that they thought the Air Force CH-53 helicopters could accommodate the same number of Marines as the Marine Corps CH-53's. This was not the case because they had more onboard equipment and instead of accommodating 35 personnel, they could only seat 16. This late discovery resulted in hasty movement of men who were designated to go with one group to other helicopters and effectively seperated some of the mortar rounds being carried from the mortar tubes, and squad leaders from their squads. None the less, the boarding was accomplished and the helicopters were launched.
While in route, I was informed, by the pilot, of another mission adjustment. Since there was an American destroyer moving into the area, instead of rappelling onto the Mayaguez, we would jump to the helicopter landing pad on the ship and execute a "Ship-to-Ship" boarding. The only problem with getting aboard the destroyer was that the helicopter pad was too small for the CH-53's, so they would have to hover over the pad and we would have to jump down to it. Sounded simple enough, but when we got to the ship, it was rolling in four foot swells. Now, as the helicopter hovered above the landing pad, we had to time our jumps so that we met the deck at its closest position. Otherwise we would be jumping from up to ten feet. Somehow we managed to accomplish this without and jnjury and to get the civilian in a leg cast aboard.
Now we began our approach on the Mayaguez. Using my binoculars, I could see six personnel on the target ships decks. They were either wearing black (or dark green) uniforms and one was eating rice from a bowl. When he looked up and saw the destroyer headed toward him he appeared concerned and began barking orders to the other men. I could not see what they did then becasue 2 Air Force jets strafed the ship with tear gas canisters and it appeared in a white cloud of tear gas. When we got into range for our bull horn to be heard, I instructed the linguist to say:
"We are American Marines. We are going to board the ship. If you oppose us WE WILL KILL YOU!!"
By now we were nearing the Mayaguez. I had my men don their gas masks and prepare to jump from one ship's deck to the other; however, this was not going to be easy because there were safety cables strung around the destroyer's deck and we could not jump them AND land safely on the Mayaguez. To solve the problem, the Marines balanced on the cables like birds on a telephone line, completely exposed to possible enemy fire but ready to engage. They all witnessed the phenomenon of ships nearing each other at sea. At first the gap between the ships appears to be meaningless, but as the ships hulls got nearer and neared the chasm became a deep, dark, bottomless pit. Undaunted; however, they balanced and when the order "MARINES OVER THE SIDE" came, they jumped onto the deck of the Mayaguez, broke into their assigned search teams, and began searchof the ship for enemy combatants. Luckily, the Cambodian Marines had abandoned the ship by means of a Swift Boat attached to the back side ot it, away from our view. In their haste to escape; however, they ran the boat into a sand bar and became stranded between the Mayaguez and the shoreline. This would ultimately cost them their lives. Having secured the ship, we raised the Stars and Stripes on her and embarked the civilians mariners from the Greenville Victory so we could get underway. We could hear and see gunfire on the island, but were in no postition to help out and our mission was to move the ship so that is exactly what we turned to.
Thirty minutes late, the engineer from the Greenville Victory came on deck and reported that whenever he started up the generator it overheated into the red line area, so we weren't going to be able to move the ship under its own power. When informed of this, the Navy sent over a crew with tourches and cut the anchor chain. They then threw us a line and we tied the ships together. In short order the Mayaguez was being towed out of Cambodian waters. Shortly after getting underway, we were approached by a small fishing boat loaded with Americans waving a white tee shirts. This was the crew of the Mayaguez that had been released by the Cambodians. They had been on the mainland when our operation began and were told they would never leave Cambodian prisons. As the Cambodian Colonel was relating this sentence to Captain Miller when Air Force jets bombed the building next to where they were sitting. Realizing that it could get worse as long as they held the crew, the Colonel asked Captain Miller if he could stop the bombing strafing. The Captain said:
"Yes, if you put me and my crew in a boat headed for our ship, I think I can stop the bombing."
The crew was immediately placed in a Thai fishing boat and began their escape toward the Mayaguez. An Air Force jet spotted the boat and laid a spray of bullets across its bow to warn it away from the action. That's when the crew all began waiving anything white in an attempt to show they were friendlies. The pilot saw them, tipped his wings and flew off to engage other targets.
Whe the crew boarded, they were in tears, realizing they were safely in the hands of US Marines and sailors. Then the Chief Engineer for the Mayaguez realized the ship was being towed and looking forward he shouted:
"YOU CUT MY ANCHOR CHAIN"
Informed by the Greenville Victory engineer about the overheating of the generator, he responded:
"Hell, it's been doing that for years!"
All crewmembers had a laugh at that and the two of them went to the engine room to get the Mayaguez running under her own power.
At dusk my detachment was transferred to an Army Seagoing Tug and finally taken to the USS Wilson, a second destroyer which had deployed to the area and had taken part in the operation. As we boarded we were directed to the armory where we stashed our weapons and ammunition. When I got on deck, I saw several Marines from 2/9 were aboard, many of them wounded. At sunrise we were directed to a account for all of the 2/9 Marines were aboard. Since I was the senior Marine on board, I personally saw to the count and reported it. Within 20 minutes we were informed that three Marines from a machine gun team had been left on the island. I had my operations officer assemble my troops and arm them for possible insertion on the island. Having done so, my officer came to me in shock. He said that the Navy had collected all of our ammuniton and grenades and had thrown them overboard. The only ammunition retained was the 7.62 linked machine gun ammunition because the shiphad 12 M-14 rifles that could use it. Before I could blink, I was called to the command center and put in touch with the office of the Commadant of the Marine Corps. I was asked if I could go on the island to rescue the three Marines left behind by the 2nd Battalion, 9th Marines. I said I was ready to go BUT that all of my ammunition except the linked machine gun rounds had been thrown overboard by the Navy. I informed them that we had a dozen M-14 rifles, three M-60 machine guns and 3200 rounds of ammunition. After a few choice words from the office I was communicating with, told me to wait. When he returned he said we were to stand down. I protested, saying that we could accomplish the mission by using life boats to reach the shore and then could set up a perimeter and search for the three Marines. The answer was: "Absolutely not! The Commandant will not send an inadequately equipped force onto the island. Stand down means just that! If you disobey these orders you will face a Court Martial -- DO YOU UNDERSTAND, MAJOR? I responded with a Yes Sir, but my heart wasn't in it. I had never left a Marine behind in Vietnam and didn't want to do so now; however, I had to think of the safety of m men and knew there was sustantial enemy force on the island. Thus we sailed away. To this day I have nightmares in which I am trying to reach stranded Men, or I'm trying to get ammunition to men but cannot reach them. When I do I wake in a cold sweat with my heart racing and ache for the three Marines who got left behind. I feel the Commanding Officer of the USS Wilson, who directed the elimination of my ammunition , denided me the chance to resecue those Marines and in doing so, signed their death warrants.
Our mission was complete and was a success. The Mayaguez had been captured and returned to American control - but there was a cost!
As the helicopters carring the Marines who were going to secure the island approached, they came in high instead of just off the water. This made them vulnerable to both rocket propelled grenades and machine gun fire and the Cambodian Marines concentrated everything they had on them. Two were hit high in the air and crashed into the ocean in flames. Others were riddled with bullets, but the pilots managed to get down low and to deliver their Marines near the shores of the island. The reason I say near the shores is because tide was so high that there was no sand beach to land on. Still, they dropped their loads and headed back for reinforcements who were waiting at U-Tapao. When the helicopters landed, ground crews rushed to repair them so they could get back into action. One had a hydraulic line severed but they used the old standby repair item, DUCT TAPE, to piece it together. When tested, the tape held, the bird loaded replacements, and they headed back toward the combat area.
After the troops in the first wave landed, they set up a perimeter and engaged a numerically superior force. They were pinned on the beach and had one man killed. They managed to push the enemy back, silence one machine gun emplacement and to inflict enough casualties that the enemy fell back and was seen massing for a major push to overrun the Marines Positions. Air Force and Navy aircraft pounded the enemy with rockets, and machine gun fire, but they were dug in so well that they had little effect.
Remember the swift boat I mentioned earlier? The one stranded on a sand bar? Well the Cambodians on board would hide under the front cowling until they heard and aircraft approaching and then they would pop out and take it under fire. Air Control asked what kind of aircraft was asking permission to fire on the boat and the response was:
"I'm not an aircraft. I'm a destroyer and have five inch fifty fours ready to fire. He was granted permission and it only one round to turn the swift boat into tooth picks.
It was now mid-day and, since the crew had been recovered and the Mayaguez was apparently underway, the decision was made to evacuate the Marines from the island and to discontinue the men ashore. The helicopters carrying reinforcements were now told to return to U-Tapao, debark the reinforcements, refuel, and return to evacuate the island force which was running short on ammunition and was facing a possible major attack from the enemy. Armed with this information, the commander on scene opted to employ a BLU-82/B (the largest non-nuclear weapon in the US arsenal on the enemy. The BLU-82/B a 15,000 pound bomb, delievered by parachute from a C-130 cargo plane and was designed to clear landing zones for helicopters in jungle areas. The air burst of the bomb, combined with its sound, flash, concussion power and general destructive power is devastating to enemy forces.
When the bomb was initially released from the C-130, the Marines ashore thought it might be a resupply drop and they were very disappointed that it was way off target, drifting right into the enemy held territory. Their disappointment turned into cheers when the bomb exploded and the enemy quit firing at them long enough to regroup and prepare a solid defense of their area. At this point fighting on the island was sporadic but still aggressive.
It was nearing dusk and the Battalion Commander on shore was worried that his force could not withstand a night defensive stand with their limited ammunition. Then, the evacuation helicopters began arriving. As they hovered for the Marines to board, they received intensive fire from the island, but held position until Marines were aboard. Yhen they lifted off and headed for any US operated asset (2 destroyers and an aircraft carrier) where they dropped them off and then returned to pick up more Marines, because 5 of the original fleet were out of action. At the completion of this operation, all but two of the helicopters used in the operation were inoperable. The pilots who flew these birds were truly brave as they hovered, with bullets rattling through their aircraft, until the Marines were aboard.
The mission was now complete. It cost 41 lives but it stopped Cambodian pirating operations and warned the world that the United States would respond to such acts with its military might, just as it did in this incident; because, when it was necessary to act, the joint forces of the Marines, Sailors, Airmen and Soldiers responded by putting their lives on the line to ensure the safety of civilian lives and American controlled assests. THAT'S WHAT WE DO!
Lt. Col. Ray Porter (Ret)