Carlton Meyer, “The Strange Tale of the SS Mayaguez” (Tales of the American Empire, 4 September 2020)
As an example of US military arrogance and incompetence resulting in unnecessary tragedy that could have had more serious long-term consequences for the world, the May 1975 SS Mayaguez incident would have been hard to beat in the pre-9/11 world. Since the World Trade Center attacks in September 2001, this incident is increasingly becoming a minor footnote in the long and continuing history of US military, political, economic and social decline and decay.
In May 1975, the US cargo ship SS Mayaguez, travelling from Hong Kong to Thailand and having picked up classified US materials from Saigon on the way – the US having just recently evacuated all its diplomatic staff from that city in early 1975 after the Communists claimed victory in the Vietnam War – passed very close to Poulo Wai island in Cambodian territorial waters and was captured by Khmer Rouge forces. The then US President Gerald Ford was notified of the ship’s capture and the US National Security Council met to discuss the incident. The US government determined to free the SS Mayaguez by force and sent an aircraft carrier and two destroyers to Koh Tang Island where the SS Mayaguez crew were supposedly being held hostage. So began a series of actions in which US Marines invaded Koh Tang Island only to be met by tremendous Khmer Rouge gunfire. In the ensuing battle, many Americans were killed, three were captured and over 100 Cambodians were killed. The three US Marines who were captured were later executed by the Khmer Rouge.
As Carlton Meyer’s matter-of-fact voice-over narration informs viewers, the SS Mayaguez crew were actually being held away from Koh Tang Island and were released unharmed by the Khmer Rouge to one of the US destroyers sent to Cambodia. The release of the SS Mayaguez crew and the recovery of the ship were hailed by the Ford administration as a successful rescue in spite of the actual bungled rescue attempt, the senseless killing and the fact that the Khmer Rouge had been planning all along to release the crew back to the Americans after checking the cargo on the SS Mayaguez.
The mini-documentary is very detailed in its retelling of the incident though it barely has much time investigating why the US government decided to invade Koh Tang Island and blast its way through to the captured ship and crew rather than use diplomacy to negotiate the release of the SS Mayaguez. The film points to the general political and military context of the time: the US had just suffered a major military defeat and humiliation by a minnow nation, and Gerald Ford had been in power as US President for a few months and needed a victory that would enhance his reputation and tenure. The film also asks what might have been in the cargo that had been picked up in Saigon: did the cargo include sensitive military recordings indicating US surveillance of Khmer Rouge and other Cambodian communications? Another issue is why the SS Mayaguez sailed so close to Poulo Wai and why it was not flying the US flag at the time. Was the captain merely incompetent or was he under orders at the time?
I’d have liked to know whether the brilliant minds who thought up the reckless rescue plan and decided to send the Marines to Koh Tang Island were reprimanded in any way and promoted horizontally rather than vertically upwards but the film does not say. The long-term impacts and consequences of the SS Mayaguez incident are not covered in the film either. One significant result was that the US was later forced by Thailand to remove all its combat troops from Thai soil in 1976 after the Thai government learned that in spite of its refusal to allow US forces to use a military base in Thailand to launch the invasion of Koh Tang Island, the US went ahead and started the invasion from the base anyway. Relations between Cambodia and the US soured to the extent that any Westerners found in Cambodia were presumed to be US spies and ended up being tortured, forced to make false confessions and then executed.
The film provides a good general survey of the Mayaguez incident. Viewers wanting a more specific understanding are directed to the Wikipedia article about the incident.