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Final Combat: The Mayaguez Incident at Koh Tang

Container ship SS Mayaguez. (U.S. Air Force photo)

Container ship SS Mayaguez. (U.S. Air Force photo)

These twenty-three USAF Airmen en route to the Mayaguez died when their helicopter crashed due to a mechanical malfunction. (U.S. Air Force photo)

These twenty-three USAF Airmen en route to the Mayaguez died when their helicopter crashed due to a mechanical malfunction. (U.S. Air Force photo)

Unidentified U.S. Marines run from a CH-53 helicopter during the SS Mayaguez operation. (U.S. Air Force photo)

Unidentified U.S. Marines run from a CH-53 helicopter during the SS Mayaguez operation. (U.S. Air Force photo)

USAF pararescueman Stu Stanaland, from the 40th Aerospace Rescue and Recovery Squadron, guides Marines to a rescue helicopter. (U.S. Air Force photo)

USAF pararescueman Stu Stanaland, from the 40th Aerospace Rescue and Recovery Squadron, guides Marines to a rescue helicopter. (U.S. Air Force photo)

DAYTON, Ohio - In this case is a life ring from the SS Mayaguez. The ship was launched in 1944, and beginning in 1965 sailed a regular route from Hong Kong to Thailand and Singapore carrying supplies in support of U.S. forces in Southeast Asia. The Mayaguez was scrapped in 1979. USAF pararescueman Wayne Fisk wore this beret during the Mayaguez operation. He was on the last helicopter to leave Koh Tang. This instrument panel stopped a bullet. The panel is from an HH-53 helicopter that attempted under fire to rescue the crew of another helicopter downed in the opening minutes of the Koh Tang operation. (U.S. Air Force photo)

DAYTON, Ohio - In this case is a life ring from the SS Mayaguez. The ship was launched in 1944, and beginning in 1965 sailed a regular route from Hong Kong to Thailand and Singapore carrying supplies in support of U.S. forces in Southeast Asia. The Mayaguez was scrapped in 1979. USAF pararescueman Wayne Fisk wore this beret during the Mayaguez operation. He was on the last helicopter to leave Koh Tang. This instrument panel stopped a bullet. The panel is from an HH-53 helicopter that attempted under fire to rescue the crew of another helicopter downed in the opening minutes of the Koh Tang operation. (U.S. Air Force photo)

After South Vietnam fell to communist forces, the U.S. was again involved in combat in Southeast Asia. In May 1975, the Cambodian Khmer Rouge navy seized the American cargo ship SS Mayaguez and its crew of 39 in international waters. 

President Gerald Ford acted decisively to rescue the crew. The Mayaguez was anchored at Koh Tang Island near the Cambodian coast, and military planners believed the crew was on the island. Air Force gunships sank three Cambodian patrol boats to prevent them taking the Mayaguez's crew from Koh Tang to the mainland. Soon after, Marines boarded the Mayaguez and found it abandoned. 

Near Disaster 
Marines landed on Koh Tang in Air Force helicopters to rescue the crew, but incomplete intelligence made the operation a near disaster. Expecting only light opposition, the USAF helicopters instead faced heavy fire from a large force. The Cambodians shot down four helicopters, damaged five more and killed 14 Americans. More U.S. troops and aircraft urgently moved to reinforce the 131 Marines and five USAF aircrew trapped on Koh Tang.
 
As the assault unfolded, the Mayaguez crew appeared in a small boat, and were rescued unharmed. President Ford halted offensive action, and the operation shifted from assault to rescuing the trapped Marines. 

Determined Rescue 
Another 100 Marines moved into Koh Tang to reinforce and extract the trapped Marines. Coordinated USAF support by attack aircraft, forward air controllers, rescue helicopters and gunships pounded Cambodian targets while the Americans on the ground fought hard to maintain their positions. 

Only three USAF helicopters were left to extract more than 200 troops. They tried time and again, braving fierce, accurate fire, but were repeatedly driven off. Finally, they reached the beach and recovered 129 Marines in multiple trips, landing them quickly on Navy ships and returning to the island for more. On the last trip to the beach, USAF pararescueman Tech. Sgt. Wayne Fisk left his helicopter to find two missing Marines still laying down covering fire. He led them to the helicopter, and the 14-hour rescue ended as the aircraft left under fire. 

Three Marines, inadvertently left on the island in the darkness and confusion, were killed and buried there within a few days by the Khmer Rouge. Total U.S. casualties included 18 dead and 50 wounded. Twenty-three more USAF personnel died in a support force helicopter crash in Thailand due to mechanical failure. 

Quick, effective action at Koh Tang by USAF, Marine and Navy forces prevented a bad situation from becoming much worse. In particular, the persistence, determination and heroism of USAF helicopter crews saved many lives. The action at Koh Tang between May 12-15, 1975, was the last combat in Southeast Asia for U.S. forces. 

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Please note Springfield Street, the road that leads to the museum’s entrance, is undergoing construction through the beginning of September. Expect lane reductions and some delays. Please follow the signs and instructions provided by the road crews.

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