15 May 2015
THAILAND, 14 MAY 1975
We boarded trucks at Camp Schwab at about 0300 on on 14 May and were taken to Kadena AFB, (located in the middle of Okinawa). There we boarded C-130s and took off for Utapao Royal Thai AFB at about 0500. We were crammed in and nobody got any rest on the trip. Our flight landed about Noon local time. I reported to the Battalion XO and the S-4 pointed out an empty hangar where we could billet the troops out of the sun. The USAF had grudgingly agreed that Marines needed the shade more than a couple of beat up old U-2 spy planes! (It was the first time I ever saw one up close. Of course, I was old enough to remember when the Soviets shot one down in 1959 and captured the pilot, Francis Gary Powers.)
The CO was already out on a flight to recon Koh Tang. When he returned later that afternoon, he sent for me and asked “How many first class swimmers do you have in Fox Company?”
Pulling out my notebook, I replied “43, Sir, counting all the officers.”
He nodded. It turns out that there was a question about how we were going to retake the ship which was anchored just off the end of the island. Someone realized that the flight decks of the destroyers we had in the area were too small for the UH-53 helicopters the Air Force was using. One proposal was for me and my ”foxy sharks” to load our weapons, flak jackets, helmets, gas masks, and other gear into cargo nets and to then board the choppers. The nets would be dropped on the destroyer and then the bird would hover alongside while the Navy put whaleboats in the water. We would then jump from the choppers into the sea, be picked up by the whaleboats, and hoisted back aboard the ship. The next morning, we would pull alongside Mayaguez, board her and recapture her. (Fortunately, a platoon from 1/4 was able to get to a ship that could then rendezvous with a destroyer and be transferred feet dry. But it would have been a helluva good story!)
At about 2100, we had a briefing for the next day’s operation. I could tell it was going to be one of those!
First, we had no maps. Koh Tang was so insignificant that no one had ever mapped it. We did have some pictures that Captain Jim Davis (CO, Golf Company) had taken with his personal camera out of the side window of some sort of Beechcraft airplane that the USAF flew past the island with Jim, the Colonel, and the S-3 on board. Jim’s pictures were developed, a grid system was superimposed over them, and they were then classified and issued to us as “maps.”
Intelligence, such as it was, indicated that there was an enemy force of 20-40 guerillas on the island. We were also told that Koh Tang had no permanent residents, but fishermen from the mainland of Cambodia often sailed out a couple of hundred miles to the island for several weeks at a time. They would set up temporary camps and then fish on out into the ocean. They would return to Koh Tang to salt and dry their daily catches and would not return to the mainland until the end of the fishing season.
The plan was for Company G, reinforced with the Battalion CP group (S-3, Air Officer, and communicators) to fly out in 11 Air Force H-53 aircraft. They would land on narrow beaches on each side of a narrow neck that ran between a jungled hill and a mangrove swamp and capture the island so the enemy forces could not fire on the ship during the boarding and recovery. Because the trip from Utapao to the island took two hours one-way, the most basic precept of amphibious warfare—the rapid build-up of combat power ashore—was being knowingly set aside. I'll have more to say about that later.
The helicopters would return to Utapao, refuel, and take Echo Company in on the second wave. Fox Company would go in on the third wave in the afternoon, followed by Hotel Company under the command of Captain John Gutter.
When it came time for Lieutenant Colonel Randall W. Austin, the Battalion Commander, to give us his commander’s guidance, it was typical of that most excellent and precise officer. Randy Austin was another of those men who other men will happily follow into the Valley of the Shadow of Death for the simple pleasure of being there in the company of such a warrior, intellectual, leader, and what we in the Mid-West have always referred to as “a good man.” We trusted "the Old Man," and he trusted us. He was a Marine’s Marine.
“Look,” he said. “I know this looks tricky. Get your people ready, but remember this. We do not know who is on that island. Keep control of your people. Be aggressive, but use your heads. We will get the crew and the ship back, but I do not want to go in there and shoot up a bunch of itinerant fishermen. I will not have a My Lai in my battalion.”
We left to make sure that our troops were cared for, bedded down, and ready for the morrow. It was late Wednesday night and I had not slept since early Tuesday morning. The First Sergeant, the Gunny, the XO and I sat down to begin our planning for the operation.