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VP-17/USMC/SS Mayaguez Incident 1975

Discussion in 'Military Aviation in General' started by East, Aug 8, 2008.

  1. East

    East 东部 Contributor

    Aug 21, 2005
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    Mayaguez Incident
    Ran in to this story on Internet and thought I should share it on AW;

    by Bill O'Brien

    On the recent 30th anniversary of the Mayaguez Incident (May 13, 1975), I tracked down old ZE-6 (152168). It was in the boneyard at Davis Monthan AFB slated for FMS (Foreign Military Sale) to the Brazilian Navy. So, I made a pilgrimage out there and visited the plane. I was very graciously hosted by Tim Horn of AMARC. I have attached some digital pictures showing the aircraft with some good close up shots of the tail. Apparently, after service with VP-17, 152168 was flown by VP-69, a reserve squadron out of Whidbey Island. Anyway, the old faded paint job is theirs and not the old White Lightning.


    The amazing thing, as the AMARC guys pointed out to me (two former P-3 flight engineers), is that you can still see the metal patches on the vertical stabilizerwhere the three .50 cal. rounds penetrated. The three rectangular patches are just above the section of faded green paint. I was really surprised to see the actual damage repair, since I never thought there would be any tangible evidence of that day. The last time I was that close to the damage was when I was on a “cherry picker” in U-tapao after we landed, putting metal duct tape over the holes so we could re-fuel and fly back to Cubi with the film we shot of the Cambodians.


    Here’s the story as I recalled it while taking pictures of old ZE-6 that day…......

    On May 12, 1975, barely two weeks after the fall of Saigon, Khmer Rouge forces seized a U.S. flagged merchant ship, the S.S. Mayaguez.

    On that same evening VP-17's Crew 9 was just finishing a 12-day I.O. circuit and were enjoying a few days off in U-tapao. Most of the crew were "out in town" enjoying the local flora and fauna (especially the fauna). Gary Ruffin (our 3P) and I were attending Harvey Wallbanger Night at the Air Force O-Club. Around midnight we were well into our cups when the duty officer walked in and told us we were flying. After laughing uproariously for a few minutes we realized he was serious. We pooled our money and Gary took a cab into town to round up the crew. I went down to Ops to get the brief. We fueled, filed and took off around 5 a.m.

    Our brief was sketchy at best. We were told that a Mayday had been received from the Mayaguez, but the nature of the emergency was uncertain. We were to search southwest of Cambodia (last reported position) to locate and positively identify the ship and attempt to determine the problem (were they aground, on fire or what). After several hours of searching we received an HF message from Cubi (CTG 72.3) to disregard CPA restrictions to the Cambodian mainland. This was my first clue that something serious had happened to the ship. I only wish they had told us everything they knew or suspected; that the ship had been seized by several hundred Khmer Rouge soldiers and the crew was being held hostage on board.

    At approximately 8:30 a.m. local time Jim Carlson spotted what looked like a ship anchored near one of the Poula Wai Islands (many of you may remember we called them the Peanut islands because that's what they looked like from the air). Radar never picked up the ship at all. We made our first pass up the starboard side from about 500 feet and saw no suspicious activity. We then circled and flew up the port side between the ship and the island. On the second pass, approaching the stern at about 250' altitude, we could read and photograph the name, making positive I.D. However, tied up amidships of the Mayaguez were two 1950's vintage former U.S. Navy Patrol Boats with deck mounted .50 caliber guns. Aboard the vessel and in the tree line were another 250 Khmer Rouge soldiers. As later documented in two books written about this event, the Cambodians opened fire on us from all points, the boats, the deck of the Mayaguez and the tree line. We could see the tracers in front of us, could see the rounds hitting the water and could hear three .50 cal. rounds penetrate the vertical stabilizer (the patches in the recent pictures show where they hit - luckily striking no control cables or the rudder).

    The noise of the rounds actually woke up our flight engineer who was asleep on the galley floor at the time - that's how loud it was! In the seat at the time was Jim Carlson (left seat) and Gary Ruffin (right seat) and our second mech. I was standing behind Gary in the cockpit. Gary had a closer look at the firing and said "Those M***** F*****s are shooting at us, let's get outta here!" He applied max power and pulled back on the yoke.

    It seemed to take forever for the engines to spool up and for us to climb clear of the firing. I reported the contact to Cubi and was quickly speaking with VP-4's XO, Brant Powell. We were told to keep visual contact with the ship until relieved. We replied that we would, once we determined if the aircraft was still safely flyable, and I also asked how high a .50 cal. could shoot. They said they would get back to me on that.

    When we returned to the island 45 minutes later the ship and patrol boats were gone. After a rapid square search, we found them heading for the Cambodian mainland at 12 knots! We kept close surveillance from 5,500 feet and they shot at us every time. Eventually we made a few passes across their bow and they pulled in and anchored at Koh Tang Island. This is the island the Marines would assault two days later.

    After five more hours of surveillance we were now approaching PLE and STILL awaiting relief from VP-4's Ready Alert aircraft from Cubi. We were actually told to disregard PLE and remain on station until relieved. We sort of did that (full story to be told only in person over a beer) and landed at U-tapao. We refueled, developed the film, patched the holes with metal duct tape and took off for Cubi.

    Our route back to Cubi took us very near the action at Koh Tang Island, which was now under air assault by an AC-130 gunship, Air Force F-4's and F-111's from Thailand, and Navy A-7E's and A-6A's from the Coral Sea. Attacks were also being made at Kompong Song Harbor, and Ream airfield on the Cambodian mainland.

    It was this bombing that convinced Phnom Penh to release the crew. They were sent out to sea along with a captured Vietnamese sailor in a fishing boat and would have been blown out of the water by Coral Sea's A-7's had not a sharp eyed P-3 pilot spotted what he thought looked like a beard on one of the crew! The attack was called off and the entire crew was rescued.

    The sad epilogue to the story is the extremely high casualty rate of the Marines who assaulted the island. Forty-one Marines were killed within the first few hours of the assault. Of those 41 Marines who gave their lives, only 32 bodies ultimately were recovered and sent home for burial, nine of them recovered only five years ago as a result of the work of POW/MIA teams. However, the greatest tragedy was, of the nine bodies never recovered, three Marines were left alive on the battlefield, still manning their machine gun position—forgotten in the confusion by the Marine captain in the last evacuation helicopter. These three Marines, L/CPL Joe Hargrove, PFC Gary Hall and PVT Danny Marshall were eventually captured alive, tortured and killed by the Cambodians.

    LCpl Joe Hargrove, PFC Gary Hall and Pvt Danny Marshall

    These names are on the last panel of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. The Mayaguez herself remained in service for only four more years. She was cut up for scrap in 1979.

    Attached Files:

    Flash, Catmando and Renegade One like this.
  2. Renegade One

    Renegade One Well-Known Member None

    Mar 9, 2007
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    Great post. I was in VF-111 on CORAL SEA (F-4Ns) at the time of the MAYAGUEZ incident, but never knew about the P-3 details described above. I had one hop over the island that day (flying in my Skipper's back seat), ostensibly flying MIGCAP, which probably wasn't necessary, but did allow us to observe the pretty intense bombing and shelling of the island during the assault. Later that night, most, I believe, of the surviving Marines were helo evac'ed off of the island and recovered on CORAL SEA. Some were delivered to USS HENRY B. WILSON. We had that very distraught Marine Captain down in Ready Two with us for most of the evening. Think we may have fed him some whiskey later on. Anyway, I remember him saying basically "I'm screwed...I just left my Marines behind." He wasn't worrying about himself, per se, we always thought he was most upset at the realization that he'd (unintentionally) "violated the Marine Code" and let his men down.
    CVW-15 at the time consisted of VF-51, VF-111, VA-22, VA-94, VA-95, RVAW-110 Det 2, VFP-63 Det 5, and HC-1 Det 3.
    Again, thanks for the post. Fascinating.
  3. feddoc

    feddoc Really old guy Super Moderator Contributor

    Jun 30, 2004
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  4. Rocketman

    Rocketman Rockets Up Contributor

    Jun 3, 2007
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    I wasn't there, but early in 1976 served with Marines who were. One of them was an 0331 and knew the gun team (gunner, A-gunner and ammo man) who were left behind. For a long time those guys were just listed as MIA and I'm glad the story has been told. My buddy said the ground action was brutal and a cluster f##k from the load out of the helos to the withdrawl under fire. He also said he owed his life to A7 and CH-53 drivers. I've seen photos he took of Marine bodies covered with ponchos on a tiny rocky "beach".

    USMC Weapons Platoons used to consist of M60 guns, 60mm mortars and rockets (still do I think). You were assigned out to the rifle platoons of your company based on the mission requirements. This meant that you usually knew the guys you were assigned to but didn't live with them 24/7. Maybe not the best thing during a hasty withdrawl at night , underfire with your gun team stuck out on the flanks . Those kids never should have been left behind but I can see how it happened.

    It's always bothered me that almost no one I've talked to ever heard of the Mayaguez.
  5. Mumbles

    Mumbles Registered User Contributor None

    Dec 23, 2005
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    I flew a Totems bird not so long ago....and it didn't look a whole lot better than the bird in the boneyard, but it looked a lot better than the rest of of "regular" squadron birds in the Wing.
  6. Catmando

    Catmando Keep your knots up. Super Moderator Contributor None

    Dec 13, 2005
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    Me too.

    Although not even remotely involved, I remember it well as the incident made worldwide headlines. But the details were sketchy. And after the long Vietnam War, this action too quickly retreated into the dustbin of history for many, unfortunately, despite its significance.

    +1 to East for a fascinating post from a P-3 perspective, and thanks to Fedoc and others for keeping the names of those brave men alive here.
  7. HAL Pilot

    HAL Pilot Well-Known Member None Contributor

    Jan 6, 2003
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    So there I was, a young almost 14 year old (13 years, 9 months) living in Okinawa, Japan and working for $1.10/hour after school and on weekends for the Support Battalion, Special Troops, Machinato Service Area, U.S. Army Japan (they gave jobs to dependent kids overseas). It's just after midnight and SSGT. Chin, my supervisor, calls and ask for my brother and me. My Dad (a LTC at the time in command of a Psyop Battalion) ask the Sargent why he would want his sons in the middle of the night, listens intently for a few minutes and says "OK, I'll drop them off on my way to work." Dad says get dressed, talks to my Mom for a few minutes and off we go. On the way he tells us a military operation is going down and they need us at work.

    I spent the better part of the next 24 hours (as a 13 year, 9 month old dependent) loading things like c-rats and small arms ammo on trucks at the Army base and unloading them at MCAS Futema. The thing I remember most is handing out boxes of c-rats and 5.56 ammo to Marines as the snaked by my table on the way to their aircraft.

    Then it was over, the Marines were gone and we went home still wondering what the hell was going on. Dad came home about 2 days later (he never left Okinawa but was quite busy anyway) and and told us what went down. The next day we saw it on the evening news and read about it in Stars & Stripes (no CNN, FOX News, etc. back then).

    Heavy stuff for a kid.
    Catmando likes this.
  8. a-6intruder

    a-6intruder Richard Hardshaft None

    Apr 23, 2008
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    A very good and accurate documentary on the Mayaguez. Select "The Script" for the first person accounts of air crew, national leaders, Marines, and Khmer Rouge.

    The most poignant quote was from Capt Jim Davis, who was in charge of the extraction off the beach:

    That’s probably the longest time of my life. When your boots are wet and your elbows are in beach sand, there’s not a lot – you don’t own a lot of real estate. And there are not a lot of alternatives at that point in time except fighting to the death or swimming.

    Terry Tonkin was an A-6 B/N who called in Close Air Support for several hours after being blown out of a helo that got shot down during the insertion. He received the Silver Star for his actions. A synopsis of his and other awards, including one Navy Cross and four Air Force Crosses can be found at


    Another good account is http://www.geocities.com/Pentagon/3227/maya.htm

    My father-in-law (then-LtCol Randy Austin) was the Battalion Landing Team Commander for 2/9 that day. The event is used by several Staff Colleges as a case study in failure at the operational level of war. (For you newbies, do not confuse operational level with tactical level.) While loading up in Okinawa, they assumed they were going back into Vietnam (it was only a few weeks after the final evacuation of Saigon). No indepth intel was provided. No time to do any sort of accurate mission planning. Command and control was not well delineated among the three services who participated. Several H-63s were shot down or severely damaged such that they never flew again. Air Force helo pilots earned their flight pay that day.

    On the Marines that were left behind on Kho Tang, some of that can be attributed to failure to maintain an accurate head count. Someone says "Where's 'Smitty'?" and you reply "he's right behind me," when in fact in the fog of war the last time you saw him wasn't 10 seconds ago, it was 10 minutes ago. When they were extracted from the island, they ended up at several locations - on board USS Coral Sea, as well as the USS Holt. Comms and weariness from the day's events delayed determining an accurate head count. By the time they realized they probably left 3 Marines alive, several hours had passed. They requested permission to plan a rescue mission, which was denied at the National Command Authority level. To put it into perspective, how many times do we screw up the "Man Overboard for Mustering Purposes" head count on an aircraft carrier? Try doing that with two hundred Marines on at least two ships, after a 15 hour battle that ended in a night extraction, with known casualties left behind in destroyed helicopters which landed in the water. Not too long ago (within the last 10 years) a Marine was left out in the California Desert and died of dehydration before anyone realized he never made it in from the exercise. Not making any excuses, just putting some perspective on it as a caution for the next generation not to make the same mistake.
    Renegade One likes this.
  9. jitiola

    jitiola Tengo La Camisa Negra!!!!

    Feb 8, 2007
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    Awesome stuff folks! My heart goes to those who served and lost life that day. Question though: Why is this such an "unpopular" (not talked about) conflict? This is my first time hearing of such an incident and that surprises me because so many were KIA/MIA. Post-Vietnam have anything to do with it?

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