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With that done, Major Porter returned to the hangar, briefed Company D, and then led his Mayaguex insertion force to the waiting helicopters.26
The operational plan called for General Burns to exercise control of all aspects of the assault, including the Marines under Colonel Johnson's charge. Having decided to remain in Nakhon Phanom, General Burns' ability to maintain command and control of the planned activity in the Gulf of Thailand would depend almost exclusively on the actions of the airborne mission commander (AMC). That unnamed Air Force officer (no records reveal his name) would discharge his tactical duties from an airborne battlefield command and control center (ABCCC) located in a specially equipped EC-130. Normally, Colonel Johnson, the task group commander, would have been the on-scene commander, but due to the scarcity of helicopters, he opted to wait until the second wave for insertion. By waiting, he effectively relinquished control of his Marines to Lieutenant Colonel Austin and the airborne mission commander. Until he could land on Koh Tang, this command and control status would remain unchanged. Although concerned about this awkward arrangement and his absence from the first assault wave, Colonel Johnson expected, during what he thought would be a relatively short wait at Uta-pao, to be able to advise General Burns in Nakhon Phanom and through him influence the tactical situation on Koh Tang.27 Unintentionally, General Burns increased Colonel Johnson's anxieties about the command structure when he stated that, "The Airborne Mission Commander in ABCCC will coordinate the strike activities and receive directions from ComUSSAG."28
"Receive directions" would soon become the operative words thanks in large part to the range and sophistication of the communications network which was used. General Burns and even the Joint Chiefs of Staff would be able to talk to the battlefield via the ABCCC. Unbelievably, Colonel Johnson, just 200 hundred miles away, could not. Eventually, oversatu-ratton of the network's frequencies by various higher headquarters seeking insignificant or irrelevant information rendered this technologically sophisticated system of communication and control ineffective, further complicating Colonel Johnson's unenviable situation.
Yet with plans complete and ready for implementation, including the news that Navy tactical aircraft from the Coral Sea could provide additional on-scene close air support, the Marines concerned themselves with more important matters, the impending mission. At 0230, already assembled, they boarded their assigned helicopters. All 11 helicopters took off from Utapao at 041'?. Three HH-53s, using call signs "JG 11, 12, and 13," carried the boarding party for the Mayaguez while five CH-53s and three HH-53s flew the assault force to Koh Tang. The three helicopters carrying Major Porter's team dropped it onto the Holt between 0550 and 0625.29
The Air Force chose the HH-53 for this mission because of its functional characteristics, especially its refueling capability. An Air Force after action report pointed up the important differences: "The HH-53 is air refuelable, has 450 gallon foam-filled tip tanks, a tail mini-gun with armor plating, and two waist mini-guns. The CH-53 is not air refuelable, but has 650-gallon non-foam-filled tip tanks and two miniguns, although no tail gun.*"30 Thus the HH-53, with its refueling capability, could remain in the battle area indefinitely as long as it had access to a HC-130. In this operation, it would have access to fuel from a Lockheed Hercules using the call sign "King." The First Assault Wave
To accomplish the transfer of the assault elements led by Captain Walter J. Wood to the Holt, the Air Force HH-53s, because of the size of the ship's helipad, placed only their front wheels on the ship's pad and hovered. Captain Wood described the process:
The helicopters could only set down their nose wheels and basically hover. As they set down in this fashion, we alf exited the helicopters through the starboard doorway. This entire process took approximately 15-20 minutes for three helicopters to disembark rhe boarding party.3'
At the beginning of the operation, the Holt stood 12 miles northwest of the island. Once the helicopter pilots had safely debarked the boarding party, the Holt starred moving very slowly in the direction of the Mayaguez. Everyone waited and watched as the Air Force saturated the captive ship with chemical agents.** Upon observing the last A-7 complete its bombing run, the Ho/f pulled alongside the Mayaguez and Major Porter's assault force prepared to board the ship.
Captain Wood described what happened next:
"Once the boarding party was on board the Holt, I
*As noted earlier in the text in comments from Lieutenant Colonel Edward A. Grimm, USSAG had attempted unsuccessfully in 197^ to obtain permission to foam the CH-53's tip tanks. Grimm Comments.
**According to Admiral Steele. "The suggestion [hat the captive ship be saturated with 'chemical agents' was a Seventh Fleet idea," Steele Comments.
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