Page 239

Page 239(The Bitter End)

anchorage, only a mile from Koh Tang, would become the focus of a good deal of diplomacy and military planning. Eventually, it would be the site of one of two raids conducted to rescue the crew. The other location would be [he island off the ship's bow, the unknown and unfamiliar Koh Tang.* The Initial Decisions

The Cambodian seizure of the Mayaguez, occurring just two weeks after the evacuation of Saigon, caught the U.S. by surprise. Distressed by this act of aggression, President Ford faced a difficult situation: how to negotiate with a country the United States did not recognize and one whose most recent military victory had forced America to close its Embassy and flee. Under these circumstances, it seemed to many that force would be the only means by which to effect a rescue of the crew. As a result, Washington placed U.S. forces in the Western Pacific on alert while the President attempted to secure the crew's release through diplomatic means.

The forces that had participated in Operation Frequent Wind two weeks earlier and the forces placed on alert for the recovery of the Mayaguez were one and the same. Despite the fact that his ships had scattered to various ports in the Pacific, Vice Admiral George P. Steele, the Seventh Fleet commander, knew that a military response to the Mayaguez contingency would involve the Seventh Fleet and its naval forces. Upon receiving orders from Admiral Noel A. M. Gayler, CinCPac, via his immediate superior, Admiral Maurice F. Weisner, CinCPacFlt, to prepare to participate in the rescue of the container ship Mayaguez, Steele immediately notified his commanders to undertake whatever action necessary to ready their forces for a military response to the crisis. To expedite their preparations, Admiral Steele directed them to proceed immediately to the Gulf of Thailand, to the vicinity of Koh Tang, off the Cambodian coast. On 13 May, he ordered the ships nearest the crisis scene, the guided missile destroyer Henry B. Wilson (DDG 7), the escort destroyer Harold E. Holt (DE 1074), the stores ship Vega (AF 59), and the carrier Coral Sea (CVA 43) to proceed immediately to the waters offKompong Som, Cambodia's main port.7

Admiral Gayler designated the Commander of United States Support Activities Group/Seventh Air Force, Lieutenant General John J. Burns, Jr., USAF, as the on-scene operational commander and the central coordinating authority. Marines returning to Okinawa and Japan with their respective amphibious ready groups, also received guidance from the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Passed via CinCPac, the orders directed them to reverse course and proceed to the Gulf of Thailand. Captain Edward J. 'Jim'7 Ritchie, a "Lady Ace" CH-46 pilot returning to Futema, remembered that moment very vividly: "I was on the flight deck preflighting my helicopter for a flight when all of a sudden the ship made a hard port turn and reversed course. The turn was so sudden and severe that I had to grab hold of the helicopter to keep from falling. I later learned the reason for the quick change was the Mayaguez"6 Within 24 hours, Other ships and Marines in the Pacific received the word to get underway or deploy. One of these ships, Midway (CVA 41), was ordered to increase speed to 25 knots and anticipate action in the vicinity of Cambodia. Additionally, CinCPac directed the Hancock and its escorts to leave Subic Bay for the Gulf of Thailand.8

While the Seventh Fleet commander communicated his intentions to his subordinates, General Burns directed his staff to plan for the immediate rescue of the Mayaguez's 40-man crew* He chose U.S. Air Force Colonel LoydJ. Anders, deputy commander for operations of the 56th Special Operations Wing, to head the operational task force, and instructed him to deploy to Utapao Air Base from Nakhon Phanom. In all likelihood the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) and Pacific Air Force (PacAF) Headquarters chose Utapao, located on the southeastern coast of Thailand, because of its proximity to Koh Tang. General David C. Jones, In his capacity as acting chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, ordered all of the Seventh Air Force's heavy helicopters to fly to Utapao. They included nine HH-53s (two others were kept on ground alert in Korat and three more were unflyable due to maintenance problems) and 10 CH-53s (four others were unavailable because they needed repairs). The "Jolly Greens" (HH-53s, nicknamed "Super Jolly" or 'Jolly Green Giant") designated for redeployment to Utapao belonged to the 40th Aerospace Rescue and Recovery Squadron (40th ARRS) while the CH-53s, carrying the same

*Despite the surveillance flights, [he operation's commanders never could pinpoint the crew's whereabouts.

*Admirat Steele recalled rhc consequences of the decision to react quickly: "The sad parr of the Mayagues. evolution is that we had sufficient force coming up wirh rhe Seventh Fleet, after it had been turned around from the evacuation of Vietnam stand down, to seize Southern Cambodia. I begged for another day or two, rather than commit forces piecemeal as we did .... The idea that we could use U.S. Air Force air police and Air Force helicopters as an assault force appears to me as ridiculous today as it did then." Steele Comments.

Page 239(The Bitter End)