Capture and Release of SS Mayaguez by Khmer Rouge forces in May 1975

Beginning in 1965, the SS Mayaguez sailed a regular route for Sea-Land Services in support of American forces in Southeast Asia: Hong Kong -- Sattahip, Thailand -- Singapore. On May 7, 1975, about a week after the fall of Saigon, Mayaguez left Hong Kong on a routine voyage.

She was launched in April 1944 as SS White Falcon, a C2-S-AJ1 (U.S. Maritime Commission) built by North Carolina Shipbuilding Company of Wilmington, NC.

After World War II, she was renamed Santa Eliana. In 1960, she was lengthened and widened by Maryland Shipbuilding and Drydock and converted into a container ship. She could carry 382 containers below and 94 on deck. She was the first all-container U.S. flag ship in foreign trade. She was renamed SS Sea in 1964, and SS Mayaguez in 1965.

SS Ponce, sister ship of the SS Mayaguez
SS Ponce, sister ship of the SS Mayaguez [photo from Sawyer and Mitchell]

On May 12, 1975 the SS Mayaguez was in a regular shipping lane in the Gulf of Siam about 60 miles from the coast of Cambodia, but only about 8 miles from Poulo Wai (Kao Wai), an island claimed by Cambodia, Thailand, and Vietnam. There were many small boats about. Suddenly, a few American-made PCF Swift gunboats headed from Poulo Wai towards the Mayaguez. At 2 PM, a 76-mm shot was fired across her bow.


map of Southeast Asia Detail of Cambodian coast
Southeast Asia. Planned route of SS Mayaguez Hong Kong, Sattahip, Thailand, Singapore Detail of Cambodian coast showing Poulo Wai, Kaoh Tang, Kampong Saom

Captain Charles T. Miller heeded the warning and at the same time sent out a Mayday message. Cambodia had fallen in mid-April, and the gunboats were in the control of the Khmer Rouge, who had captured 27 crewmen of 7 Thai fishing boats, shot at a South Korean freighter, captured 7 South Vietnamese vessels, and held a Panamanian ship for 35 hours.The crew of the SS Mayaguez received no warning about these events before Khmer Rouge naval forces boarded the SS Mayaguez.

Captain Miller, of Fountain Valley, CA, stalled as long as he could, pretending not to understand, and telling his captors his radar was malfunctioning. Finally, he was forced to follow the gunboat into Kampong Saom (Kompong Som, formerly Sihanoukville) on the mainland.

Around noon on May 13, the ship anchored off Kaoh Tang (Koh Tang or Kach Tang), a small island 30 miles off the Cambodian coast. U.S. Air Force P-3, Orion, F-4E Phantom, F-111A, A-7D Corsairs, and AC-130H "babysat" the Mayaguez. Just before 4 PM, pilots saw smoke coming from the stack of the Mayaguez. Two Corsairs strafed across her bow and the smoke died down. Many small boats milled around the Mayaguez, making it hard for the airmen to determine exactly what was happening. They saw the 39 man crew board a fishing boat at 7 PM on May 13 and saw people disembarking fishing boats at Kaoh Tang island. They assumed - incorrectly -- the Mayaguez crew was on the island.

President Gerald Ford denounced the seizure as an "act of piracy" and demanded immediate release of the ship. Diplomatic efforts were unsuccessful and at 5:45 PM on May 14, the President ordered military action. A Marine Corps detachment at Subic Bay was given the assignment. They were to board a ship at sea -- the first such manuever since 1826.

Mariners volunteer
Rear Adm. Sam H. Moore, Military Sealift Command, asked for volunteers from MSC ships in Subic Bay to accompany Marines during recapture of the ship to help get her underway. Late on May 13, Captain Raymond Iacobacci of USNS Greenville Victory found 6 volunteers among his crew for the dangerous mission [USNS stands for United States Naval Ship -- Navy controlled with civilian crew]:

Clinton Harriman Karl Lonsdale Robert Griffin Michael Saltwick  Hermino Rivera Epifanio Rodriguez
Clinton Harriman,
First Officer
Karl Lonsdale,
Third Officer
Robert Griffin,
Yeoman Storekeeper
Michael Saltwick,
2nd Asst. Engineer
Hermino Rivera,
Epifanio Rodriguez,

Volunteers from USNS Greenville Victory [photos from Sealift]

The volunteers were briefed at 11 PM and at midnight were aboard an Air Force C-141 on their way to Utapao Air Base in Thailand where 1,100 Marines landed after flights from the Philippines and Okinawa. U.S. Air Force planes sank three Cambodian gunboats to prevent their taking Mayaguez crew to the mainland.

The Marines showed the MSC mariners photos of the Mayaguez and discussed plans to retake the ship. First Officer Harriman told the Marines they could have the ship under way within 2 to 6 hours after boarding -- if nothing was damaged.

In a three pronged attack:

  • Marines were to overpower Cambodian soldiers believed to be aboard the Mayaguez, allowing the MSC crewmen to prepare and sail the ship to safety.
  • Marines in helicopters were to make an amphibious assault on Kaoh Tang island.
  • Navy aircraft from the carrier USS Coral Sea were to strike military targets in the mainland Kompong Som area.

discussing strategy re SS Mayaguez
Just before boarding the SS Mayaguez, USNS Greenville Victory First Officer Clinton Harriman (left) Second Engr. Michael Saltwick (right) discuss the boarding operation with USS Holt skipper Cmdr. Robert Peterson (center) [U.S. Navy photo from Sealift]

At 3 AM on May 15, the Marines, an Army linguist, 6 volunteer USAF bomb disposal experts, 6 sailors from USS Duluth, and the 6 MSC mariners boarded 3 helicopters bound for the USS Harold E. Holt, which was to provide a boarding platform for the assault. The CH-53s were too big for the Holt's helicopter pad, so the men in one helicopter clambered down rope ladders; others went down the cargo ramp as the helicopters touched down only their rear wheels.

USS Harold E. Holt alongside the SS Mayaguez
USS Harold E. Holt alongside the SS Mayaguez [U.S. Navy photo from Sealift]

Boarding the SS Mayaguez
Air Force planes dropped tear gas on the Mayaguez in advance of the boarding. USS Holt maneuvered alongside and 48 Marines stormed over the side like swashbuckling pirates. They found no one aboard.

About 8 AM the MSC mariners, wearing gas masks, boarded the Mayaguez . Within 5 minutes, they had the emergency diesel generator running. At 8:20 AM the Marines raised the American flag

.Marines wearing gas masks board the SS Mayaguez
Marines wearing gas masks board the SS Mayaguez [U.S. Navy photo from Sealift]

Marines raised the American flag aboaard SS Mayaguez
Marines raised the American flag [U.S. Navy photo from Sealift]

The volunteers hauled out tow lines and cut the anchor chain with an acetylene torch. At 10:45 AM, USS Holt began her tow, while MSC engineers worked to get steam up.

Release of the Mayaguez crew
About that time, a Thai fishing boat approached the USS Wilson which was off Kaoh Tang island supporting the amphibious assault. Aboard the boat, which was captured by the Cambodians a few days earlier, was a Thai crew and the 39 men of the Mayaguez. They had been set free by their captors after being moved earlier in the day to Kompong Som in a small Cambodian gunboat. They had then been moved again to tiny Kach Island and had been freed there.

At noon, all Mayaguez crewmen were back aboard their own ship. The volunteers continued to assist until 7:30 PM, when they climbed into an Army tug boat and then were flown to the MSC office in Sattahip.

Marine Assault on Kaoh Tang
Meanwhile, on the northern tip of Kaoh Tang, the marine assault force arriving at 6 AM on the east and west beaches met heavy fire. Khmer Rouge held their fire until the CH-53 helicopters were close in. Machine guns, mortars, and rocket propelled grenade launchers devastated the helicopters. At 7:30 AM only 109 of the planned 180 marines were on the island in 3 separate locations, with Khmer Rouge infantry entrenched in bunkers in the 1000 feet of jungle between them. A-7D Corsairs provided cover, but the Mayaguez crew was thought to be in a building directly by the gun emplacements.

At 11:30 AM, 100 more marines landed. The plan called for 250 marines in the second wave, but by then there were only 4 helicopters available. Then word came of the safe arrival of the Mayaguez crew on the USS Wilson and the marines planned their withdrawal. Khmer reinforcements coming in from the south were stopped by 15,000 pound BLU-82 bombs.

After the last helicopter left around 8 PM, a head count showed 3 marines were left behind on the island. In 1999, Department of Defense investigators found evidence to indicate one of the Marines was killed a few days later while trying to steal food from the Khmer Rouge. The other two were captured within a few days, executed, and buried on Kaoh Tang island.

The final U.S. tally for the assault:

  Killed Wounded Missing Non-battle deaths
Army 0 0 0 0
Navy/Marine Corps 13 44 3 0
Air Force 2 6 0 23*
U.S. total 15 50 3 23

* Crash of helicopter carrying Combat Security Police Squadron in Thailand -- due to mechanical failure

The 6 volunteers from the USNS Greenville Victory were awarded the Merchant Marine Distinguished Service Medal and the Navy Distinguished Civilian Service Medal.

In accepting his medal, Hermino Rivera stated, "I'm glad to have been able to do something for my country, and I wouldn't hesitate to volunteer in the future."

The reason for the unexpected release of the Mayaguez crew has never been fully understood; among the many theories are successful intervention by China or Israel.

The SS Mayaguez was scrapped in 1979.

"Six Brave Men," Howard L. Rosenberg, Sealift, July 1975, U.S. Navy Military Sealift Command Magazine
"Medal Winners," Sealift, September 1975, U.S. Navy Military Sealift Command Magazine
"Khmer Rouge reveals fate of forgotten Marines," Gregg Jones (Dallas Morning News), reprinted in San Francisco Chronicle, May 16, 1999
Americans at War: 1975 -1986, Daniel P. Bolger, Novato, California: Presidio Press, 1988
From America to United States: The History of the long-range Merchant shipbuilding Programme of the Unites States Maritime Commission (1937-1952) Part 2, L.A. Sawyer and W.H.Mitchell London: World Ship Society, 1981
Maps adapted from Perry-Castañeda Library Map Collection, University of Texas at Austin

Further reading:
SS Mayaguez article in Seafarers Magazine
members of mariners union were aboard SS Mayaguez. Lists names of crew.

Past Features

06/05/00 ©1998, 1999, 2000. You may quote material on this web page as long as you cite American Merchant Marine at War,, as the source. You may not use more than a few lines without permission. If you see substantial portions of this page on the Internet or in published material please notify @