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size=5>CHAPTER 13

size=5>Recovery of the S S Mayaguez

The Mayague2

Crisis-The Initial Decisions-Assault Preparations-The First Assault Wave The

Linkup-The Second Wave-The Retrograde-The Aftermath

While General Graham and his staff

discussed expanding the refugee facility at Camp Pendleton, on 12 May 1975, the

SS Mayaguez steamed off the coast of Cambodia, its crew not suspecting that they

would become the center of world attention for the next five days. Nor did they

realize that the approaching Cambodian gunboats intended to halt, board, and

seize their ship.

The ship's captain, called a master,

Charles T. Miller, recorded in the Mayaguez's log book what happened:

'On May 12, 1975 at approximately 1410

hours the vessel was challenged by Cambodian gunboat P128. At 1420 hours reduced

to maneuvering speed and gunboat fires antiaircraft machine guns across

starboard bow. . . . 1435 [hours] vessel boarded by 7 armed men carrying AK 47s,

shoulder held rocket launchers, and grenade launchers.'' The Mayaguez Crisis

When informed of the Cambodian action,

President Ford decided on a quick response. He notified the Joint Chiefs of

Staff of his desire to react to this piracy in the swiftest manner possible. Ron

Nessen, the President's press secretary, said failure to release the crew and

their vessel 'would have the most serious consequences-'2 Symbolically, the

seizure occurred exactly one month after the Marines of III MAF evacuated the

last Americans from Cambodia. America seemed determined to avoid another 'Pueblo

crisis,' even if it meant a military response* Senator John Sparkman, chairman

of the Senate Ibretgn Relations Committee, declared 'We ought to go after it,

... We should get that ship back . . . anyway that we can.'3

Ultimately, the President elected to

attempt to get the ship back by using his military option. Although a Joint

service operation and rescue, it would be the Marines of III MAF who would

attempt to rescue the Mayaguez's crew and the Mayaguez, by employing two

simultaneous and coordinated raids. The complexity and awkwardness of the

command relationships in this Joint military venture became further clouded by

the lack of intelligence on the crew's whereabouts. For most of the crisis, no

one in the joint chain of command knew with any certainty where the Cambodians

had taken the crew and the absence of this information seriously affected all of

the participants' decisions, and at times even obscured their objectives-It was,

at a minimum, a very difficult situation, made worse at times by the confusing

and complicated operational chain of command.4

At 1400 on 12 May, the Mayaguez and its

crew were in international waters near the coast of the new Khmer Rouge

'republic' (renamed Kampuchea by the victorious Communists). Despite the fact

that the Mayaguez was well beyond Cambodia's territorial waters, within an hour

it had been fired upon, boarded, and seized. Enroute from Hong Kong to

Satta-hip, Thailand, the Mayaguez and its crew ended their day not at the pier

in Sattahip but at anchor near a Cambodian island called Poulo Wai, held against

their will by armed Cambodians.5

The American Embassy in Jakarta,

Indonesia, quickly relayed this fact to Washington and to the National Military

Command Center at the Pentagon: 'At 08302 (1530 local), 12 May 1975, the Delta

Exploration Company in Jakarta received a distress message from the SS Mayaguez,

a US containership.'6 Within hours (some have argued too many hours), the United

States began surveillance of the merchant ship using P-3 reconnaissance flights

out of the Royal Thai Air Base at Utapao. This coverage continued for the

duration of the incident, a result of the Joint Chiefs' decision to maintain

contact with the ship's crew. However, from the moment of seizure until

implementation of the JCS order nearly five hours elapsed. Most of the delay can

be attributed to the time required to assess the situation and decide on an

initial course of action. This took nearly three hours.

Immediately after reaching the

decision, the JCS ordered via phone that air reconnaissance flights begin. The

surveillance aircraft tracked the ship's movement during the next 12 hours, from

the point of seizure near Poulo Wai Island to Koh Tang-Tang is Cambodian for

island-where the ship's crew, as directed by the Cambodians, dropped anchor in

100 feet of water at about noon on Tuesday, 13 May. This

*The Pueblo was a U-S, Navy

intelligence ship captured by the North Koreans in 1968.

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