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surprised Owen's squad, and the other squads as well, was not what they found in the engine room, but what they did not find. The ship was deserted! Having searched for booby traps and found none, the Marines declared the Mayaguez secure at 0822 on 15 May 197 5.34
As the first helicopter started its descent to the Holt, a flight of eight Air Force helicopters in four sections approached Koh Tang.* The Air Force's after action report stated, "K 21 and K 22 were to insert their Marines on the western beach, while K 23 and 31 were to be the first into the eastern beach. The third wave, K 32 andJG 41, and the fourth wave, JG 42 andJG 43, were to follow up with insertions on the eastern beach."35
As the island came into full view at 0615, the pilots, based on the intelligence briefing they had received, still expected little or no opposition.** Initially, it appeared that they were right because as Knife 21 flew into the western zone with K 22 in trail, they received no enemy fire. Then as K 21 unloaded 21 Marines of Company G's 1st Platoon, including its commander, Second Lieutenant James McDaniel, "The enemy opened up on both helicopters with small arms, rockets, and mortars."36
With Knife 21 still in the zone. Knife 22 attempted to provide suppressive fire. Suffering the loss of an engine from the intense enemy fire, K 21 had no choice but to attempt a single engine takeoff. Successful in this effort despite additional damage co the transmission, K 21 barely cleared the treeline and eventually ditched in the ocean about a mile offshore. One of the helicopters from the third wave (K 32) rescued the crew, save for one member (Staff Sergeant Elwood Rumbaugh), who was lost at sea. After the aircraft commander of K 22 terminated his efforts to assist his wingman, and gave way to K 32, he returned to the western landing zone where he again encountered heavy fire, this time as early as 150 yards from the shoreline.37
During this approach, K 22 suffered severe damage including the loss of an engine and a ruptured fuel tank. Forced to abort its run because of the damage and subsequent fuel loss, Knife 22, carrying the assault company commander (Captain James H. Davis) made an emergency landing on the Thai coast, 125 miles northwest of Koh Tang and 85 miles cast ofUta-pao. The SAR helos picked up the crew and passengers and transported them to Utapao.
Those aircraft entering the eastern zone received a no less hostile reception from the well-fortified Cambodian defenders. The first two helicopters inro the eastern zone. Knife 23 and 31, encountered heavy enemy fire.***
While Knife 23 attempted to land on the eastern beach, his wingman, Knife 31, followed in trail. Both helicopters received intense fire, including automatic weapons and rocket propelled grenades (RPG). Suddenly, Knife 31's port fuel tank exploded, followed immediately by a second explosion, the result of an RPG. The round blew off a substantial portion of the cockpit, killing the copilot. K 31 crashed in the ocean about 55 meters from the island's eastern shoreline. In addition to the copilot, casualties included 10 Marines and two corpsmen killed. Five of the 10 Marine casualties initially survived the crash, but three subsequently died when they attempted to rush ashore. Enemy fire coming from the treeline, just inland of the shore, cut them down before they could reach the beach. Another Marine drowned attempting to swim to the open sea, while a fifth Marine, wounded, apparently died later near the downed helicopter. Thus only a few minutes after the first Marine had set foot
*Admiral Steele suggested In his comments thai tactical employment of the Air Force helicopters may have been a factor in this operation: "My recollection is a bit dimmed by time, but I believe thai the U.S. Air Force helicopters came in high over rhe island as was their normal practice, whereas Marine helicopters were trained to come in very low. and thus avoid enemy fire. I believe thar this contributed to the disaster to the USAF helos that occurred." Steele Comments.
**According ro First Lieutenant Terry L Tonkin, the Marine forward air controller on rhis mission, the Air Farce intelligence briefers cold them to expect "18-20 Cambodian irregulars with families," yet a 12 May Defense Intelligence Report estimated 200 Khmer Com-munists with 82mm mortars, 75mm recoilless rifles, 30-caliber machine guns, and a B40 Rocket Propelled Grenade (RPG) launcher. According to Tonkin the Ait Force had this report in its possession six hours before rhe assault began. He has always wondered why the Marines never received that briefing. Tonkin Comments. Lieutenant Colonel George E. "Jody" Strickiand served at FMFPac Headquarters in Hawaii after his 1973-74 tour at the DAO in Saigon. He shared insight that he gained about what he called the "Washing-ton/Nakhon Phanom high-tech command and control debacle." He said, "It is now clear thai General Burns' staff did possess intelligence that was not provided to our Marines. Once again it appears that the proper 'clearances' were factors in denying our Marines Intel. The 'Green Door' intel in General Burns' hands was never provided!" He cited as his source: FMFPac/PacAF Intel Conference. Strickiand Comments.
***According to Marine Corps records, K 23 and K 51 were the first helicopters to attempt landings on Koh lang. They began their approaches to the eastern zone at 0600, well before K 21, which landed at 0630 in the western zone. 2/9 Koh Tang Report.
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