The Last American Battle of the Vietnam War
Ironically, the last American battle of the Vietnam War was not in Vietnam nor was it against the North Vietnamese.
The Last Days of the Vietnam War
America had been involved in Vietnam War since the late 1950s and the Vietnam War officially ended for America in 1975. The war for Americans was against the North Vietnamese Army and the Viet Cong as they moved south and east from North Vietnam to capture South Vietnam trying to make it one country. On April 30, 1975, the North Vietnamese army entered Saigon and took over South Vietnam.
At the same time the Americans were fighting the Vietnam War, a civil war was occurring in neighboring Cambodia. A communist group known as the Khmer Rouge led by Pol Pot was trying to topple the government and take over Cambodia. On April 17, 1975, the Khmer Rouge overtook the capital city of Phnom Penh ending that war. Pol Pot declared it “Year Zero” .
The Khmer Rouge also began to take and secure islands in the Gulf of Thailand that Thailand and Vietnam also had claims on. But at this time, they were now in Cambodian hands.
How the Last Battle of the Vietnam War Began
On May 12, 1975, the US shipping vessel, the SS Mayaguez with a crew of 39, was on its way to the port at Sattahip, Thailand and was avoiding the tiny island of Poulo Wai, 60 miles from the Cambodia mainland and currently under the control of the Khmer Rouge, when a Khmer Rouge gunboat started racing towards the SS Mayaguez firing a rocket over the ship.
The captain of the SS Mayaguez, Charles T. Miller, ordered the radioman to get out an SOS right away. As the ship came to a stop, the first Cambodian Khmer Rouge troops came aboard armed with AK-47 rifles. At this same time, an Australian ship and an employee of Delta Exploration in Indonesia heard the mayday and relayed this to the US embassy.
President Ford Gets the News
The one thing President Ford did not want; was to appear weak to the US and the world, considering the evacuation and loss of Saigon and South Vietnam was just the previous month. And just 7 years earlier at the height of the Vietnam War in 1968; North Korea captured a US intelligence vessel, the USS Pueblo, while in international waters. That became a prolonged 11-month ordeal for President Johnson that President Ford did not want repeated.
At this point information was sketchy and no one knew for sure where the SS Mayaguez was. The first decision was to make sure the ship and crew did not reach the Cambodian mainland. P-3 Orions, F-4E, F-111A fighters, A-7D Corsairs and U-2 reconnaissance planes were ordered to find the SS Mayaguez. Several US naval ships were also ordered to the area.
The SS Mayaguez was found following Cambodian gunboats towards Kompong Som on the mainland. US jets fired at the gunboats and in front of the SS Mayaguez hoping to stop the progress. Instead of the mainland, the Cambodians had the ship drop anchor at the small island of Koh Tang. The Mayaguez crew was then taken on a captured Thai fishing vessel to Rong Sam Lem Island.
The Decision to Go to Battle
The decision was made to rescue the SS Mayaguez and the crew as soon as possible. US Marines would go over the side and retake the SS Mayaguez while US Marines would land on Koh Tang and capture any of the crew on the island, they didn’t know the entire Mayaguez crew was on Rong Sam Lem Island.
This was a case of hasty planning and faulty intelligence. The White House could talk directly to pilots and commanders and find out what was going on and give orders. While of course commanders at the battle could also give orders and make plans. There were more people managing the battle than fighting in the battle.
The Last Battle of the Vietnam War
On May 15, US helicopters loaded with the marines took off from bases 200 miles to the north in Thailand and headed for Koh Tang Island. Poor planning had the helicopters showing up at Koh Tang after sunrise. Poor intelligence believed the island was defended by only a few dozen, poorly armed Khmer Rouge.
The helicopters arrived at the island on the west and the east beaches, while trying to drop the marines off, they came under heavy fire from the Khmer Rouge. The helicopters were being hit and continually had to abort, three crashing into the water and others trying to make it back to Thailand. Fourteen Americans died in these helicopter crashes, 10 Marines, 2 Navy corpsmen and 2 Air Force crewmen.
Aerial view of crashed helicopters on east beach. View of the west and east beaches of Koh Tang Island.
A group of marines were landed at the east beach while more marines landed on the west beach of Koh Tang Island and were met with far more resistance than was planned for. At the same time, the USS Holt came along side the SS Mayaguez and US Marines boarded and took control of the ship.
The battle on Koh Tang raged on all day, on the islands west end, a three-man machine gun crew was set up to protect the north flank. At this time the Khmer Rouge, for no clear reason, decided to release the crew of the SS Mayaguez. The crew and the crew of the captured Thai fishing vessel left and later met up with the USS Wilson.
Aerial view of the USS Holt (right) alongside the Mayaguez. Aerial view of two Cambodian gunships next to Mayaguez. US Marines board the SS Mayaguez.
Towards sunset, there had to be a decision, stay and fight all night or pull out. The White House made the decision to pull out all troops. This was much easier said than done. While it became dark, the helicopters were having even more trouble landing on the beaches to pick up the marines than they did dropping them off. One helicopter at a time, landed, picked up Marines, took off and another would try to land. In the darkness and under heavy fire, it was becoming more chaotic.
As marines were loading onto each helicopter to leave, that left fewer Marines on the ground and the perimeter had to be tightened. The last helicopter, Knife-51, landed and picked up the remaining Marines. The beach was looked over for any remaining Marines and for any outgoing tracers and none was seen. At 8:10 PM, Knife-51 took off. But there were rumors that three marines had been left on the island.
A quick count was made and it was found that three marines were unaccounted for, the three-man machine gun crew that was set up to protect the north flank. The next morning, the USS Wilson returned and circled Koh Tang for three hours and found no signs of anymore fighting or marines.
The final toll was 18 Americans killed and 50 wounded. Those 18 names on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall are those of the Americans killed in this last battle of the Vietnam War, including the three marines inadvertently left on the island, Lance Corporal Joseph N. Hargrove, PFC Gary L. Hall and Private Danny G. Marshall .
Officially, the last American battle of the Vietnam War was in Cambodia and against the Khmer Rouge and is believed to be the only time Americans battled the Khmer Rouge.
© 2010 Sam Montana
Resources and further reading on these subjects:
 Immediately following the takeover of Cambodia, the new Khmer Rouge government evacuated every Cambodian city, including the capital of Phnom Penh, and forced them into the countryside. This led to 1.7 million Cambodians being executed or dying of starvation and has been called the Killing Fields and the Cambodian Holocaust.
 Another 23 Americans were killed in Thailand when their helicopter crashed in preparation.
The Last battle by Ralph Wetterhahn, an excellent book about the battle and the Mayaguez incident
Pol Pot: Anatomy of a Nightmare by Philip Short, an excellent book about the Khmer Rouge and Cambodia
Goodnight Saigon by Charles Henderson, about the last days of the Vietnam War and fall of Saigon.
Photos by the US Air Force on Wikimedia & www.henninger.com/mayaguez/stills.htm