The real story of the Mayagüez incident is beginning to emerge. Although all the details are still not known, contradictions and cover-ups in the official account are coming to light. The May 18 New York Times had to concede that there was some evidence “the Administration was either confused in reporting what went on, less than candid, or both.”
The truth is that the Mayagüez incident was a cold-blooded provocation.
Smarting from the humiliating defeat handed to them by the people of Vietnam and Cambodia and the international antiwar movement, the statesmen in Washington decided they needed a “success” to counteract the bad publicity.
According to New York Times correspondent Philip Shabecoff, “High-ranking Administration sources familiar with military planning said privately that the seizure of the vessel might provide the test of American determination in Southeast Asia that, they asserted, the United States has viewed as important since the collapse of allied governments in South Vietnam and Cambodia.”
Since the liberation of Pnompenh, the Pentagon has carried out daily reconnaissance flights over Cambodia. Small boats carrying Thai and Cambodian agents with bombs and radio equipment had been captured in Cambodian waters. On May 11 a fishing boat with a crew of seven was seized near Sihanoukville. Among the arms aboard were two 12.7 mm machine guns and a quantity of plastic bombs, grenades, and mines, together with a powerful radio set. On May 12 another boat was seized.
On May 3 a South Korean vessel in Cambodian waters was fired on in an attempt to get it to stop. On May 7 a Panamanian vessel in the same area was stopped by a Cambodian gunboat, but was released after being inspected.
Washington knew of these incidents, yet issued no warnings to its ships that Cambodia was enforcing its twelve-mile territorial-waters limit. Even if no special effort was made to encourage the Mayagüez to enter Cambodian waters, a decision must have been made by the White House not to warn the ship to change its course.
Reports differ on how far the ship had penetrated Cambodian waters. The White House said it was eight miles from Wei Island, the ship’s captain said six and a half miles, and the Cambodians said about three miles. But all agreed it was within the twelve-mile limit when it was seized by Cambodian gunboats on May 12 and taken to Tang Island, about thirty miles from the mainland.
According to their statement issued May 15, the Cambodians had “no intention of detaining it permanently,” and “no desire to stage provocations. We only wanted to know the reason for its coming and to warn it against violating our waters again.” The goal of the Cambodian coast guard was to “examine it, question it and make a report to higher authorities....”
This account was confirmed by the captain and crew of the Mayagüez after they were released. Captain Miller said he was questioned about the ship’s cargo and asked if he or crew members worked for the CIA or FBI. All the crew agreed they were well treated by the Cambodians.
“I hope any time any prisoners get taken they get treated as well as we did,” said one crewman. “They fed us their food, then ate what was left.”
The men were in danger not from the Cambodians but from the U.S. planes that attacked the boat taking them to the mainland. The captain reported they were strafed and bombed as much as a hundred times.
“They teargassed us. The first gassing wasn’t too bad....
“The second time they dropped tear or nausea gas. Everybody vomited. Our skin was burning. A couple of men were struck by shrapnel.” He described it as his “worst experience” in forty-two years at sea.
The ship and crew were released by Cambodia at 7:20 a.m. Cambodian time on May 15, an hour after the marines launched their assault on Tang Island, according to the Pentagon, and two and a half hours before the air strikes against the mainland.
According to Miller, almost twelve hours before the actual release the Cambodians had offered to let him take his first engineer and seven crewmen back to the Mayagüez to call Bangkok and ask for the attack to cease. (According to the official Pentagon chronology, the only attacks at that time had been the bombing and strafing designed to stop the Cambodians from taking the crew to the mainland.)
Miller said he decided against going because in the dark U.S. planes might have blown their small craft out of the water. The next morning the whole crew set out for the Mayagüez aboard a boat manned by five Thai fishermen. They were picked up by the destroyer Wilson.
The Mayagüez incident was pounced on by Ford as an excuse to launch a savage attack against Cambodia. He called the seizure an “act of piracy,” and threatened “serious consequences” unless the ship was immediately released.
In the past, U.S. ships violating territorial waters have been seized by the governments of Ecuador and Peru without provoking military retaliation by the Pentagon, New York Times columnist Anthony Lewis pointed out the difference, however.
“For all the bluster and righteous talk of principle,” he said, “it is impossible to imagine the United States behaving that way toward anyone other than a weak, ruined country of little yellow people who have frustrated us.”
To back up his ultimatum, Ford shuttled 1,100 marines to Utapao Air Base in Thailand and mobilized others while U.S. warships raced to the area.
The first action was the bombing and strafing of the patrol boats and the fishing boat carrying the crew of the Mayagüez. Eleven hours after the attack, the Pentagon announced that planes based in Thailand had sunk three of the boats and damaged four others. Some Pentagon sources said they were confident there were no Americans on the boats that were destroyed – others said they were not completely confident.
In fact the lives of the crew were a small item in White House reckoning. The crew might even have served the White House purposes better dead. According to a report in the May 15 Washington Post, “Senior administration officials hinted privately... that if the crewmen are killed or held hostage by the new Communist government of Cambodia, then ‘punitive’ military actions may be undertaken....”
Not only did Washington allow very little time for a response to its ultimatum, but its attempts at finding a diplomatic solution were simply a charade. “How much time was allowed for diplomacy?” asked New York Times columnist Anthony Lewis.
“At 5:03 A.M. May 12, Eastern daylight time [eleven hours earlier than Cambodian time], Washington heard about the seizure of the Mayagüez. At 2:00 P.M. that day the White House announced the news and began diplomatic efforts for release of the ship.
“The Cambodian communiqué said U.S. planes began strafing and bombing around the ship and islands about five hours after the White House announcement. The delayed United States report put the first air attack on Cambodian gunboats at 1:00 A.M. May 14, or 35 hours after diplomatic moves began. When were the first attacks? In any event we allowed less than a day and a half for a response from the untried and isolated government of a shattered country.”
Washington’s stated reason for attacking the patrol boats was to prevent the transfer of the crew to the mainland. The planners of the operation must have known that all or some of the crew had reached the mainland or the island of Rong Sam Lem nearer Sihanoukville, and that those who did not were most likely killed in the attack on the patrol boats.
Yet when Washington launched the next phase of its aggression, the attack on Tang Island by 200 marines, it still used the justification that the marines were searching for the crew. This “error” was pointed out by the crew after they arrived in Singapore.
“They hit the wrong island,” one crew member said. “We were 25 miles away from the island the marines landed on.”
“I guess the marines from the destroyer escorts were not informed,” the captain said.
But the attack on Tang Island was no mistake. What did go wrong in the Pentagon’s plans, however, was that the marine force ran into “unexpectedly stiff” opposition on the island. The marines were supposed to storm across the island, and “rescue” the crew, but all they could do was establish a beachhead and advance a few hundred yards.
Before the attack, the island was being described as a “rocky little island,” or “little spit of land,” but after the marines got bogged down it was described as heavy jungle. They had expected to find only about twenty persons, mostly old, on the island. They later estimated the defending force at 150 men, with one estimate running as high as 400. The Pentagon said it was unable to carry put sufficient “softening up” of the island, but announced that the largest American nonnuclear bomb, weighing 15,000 pounds, had been dropped on the island.
About one-third of the attacking force of marines were killed or wounded. The initial Pentagon reports listed only one dead and a few missing, but by May 18 the figures had crept up to five dead, sixteen missing and presumed dead, and seventy to eighty injured.
The captain of the Mayagüez said, however, that there were already seven dead marines “on ice” aboard the destroyer Wilson when the operation still had eleven or twelve hours to run. There were even reports that some marines had been inadvertently left behind in the withdrawal.
The facts about the attacks on the mainland were also kept from the public as long as possible. First reports mentioned only one raid on Ream airport, but a Pentagon spokesman later admitted that a second raid had been carried out against an oil refinery near Sihanoukville. The purpose was supposedly to protect the marines “under heavy attack” on Tang Island.
On May 18 it was revealed that Washington had planned to use B-52 bombers against the mainland if the aircraft carrier Coral Sea had not arrived in the area in time.
On May 19 a Pentagon spokesman disclosed that U.S. planes had flown 300 strafing and bombing runs and had damaged seventeen planes in the attack on Ream airfield.
In fact, far from being a race against time to rescue the crew, the Pentagon’s assault was a race against time to get its military might into operation before the crew was released without recourse to force.
According to a dispatch from Washington in the May 16 New York Times, “Statements by officials indicate that there is good reason to believe that the whole operation would have been carried out earlier if the aircraft carrier Coral Sea and other fleet units had not been diverted by the South Vietnamese refugee operation.
“On Tuesday a senior Defense Department official said: ‘We know what we have to do, we just have to wait until the means to do it have arrived on the scene.’“
Commentators are already probing the “discrepancies” in the different versions of the timing of the attacks. Anthony Lewis pointed out there was more to the actions than the official reason of saving American lives and property:
“At 8:15 P.M. May 14 Washington learned of a Cambodian broadcast offering to return the Mayagüez. At 9:15 the White House demanded the crew be released and promised to cease military action if it was. At 10:53 the United States destroyer Wilson, communicating from the scene, said a small boat was approaching with at least thirty white men aboard. At 10:57, nevertheless, United States planes bombed a Cambodian airport miles away. At 11:14 President Ford was told that all the crew was safe. At 11:50 United States planes bombed an unused oil refinery.
“That record speaks volumes. The last attacks, at least, could only have been punitive in purpose. They were designed to punish a ‘little half-assed nation,’ in Senator Barry Goldwater’s elegant phrase.
“Bombing an unused refinery after the ship and crew were recovered: That’s really big brave stuff.”