Secrets of Koh Tang

By Col Ralph F. Wetterhahn USAF (Ret) - Originally Published May 2001

"They're all safe. We got them all. Thank God"
-President Gerald R. Ford's reaction to the news that the Mayaguez crew had been recovered. As he spoke, airmen, sailors and Marines were bleeding and dying on Koh Tang.

On Oct. 10, 2000, four Marine veterans disembarked on an obscure but familiar island 30 miles off the coast of Cambodia. These American veterans of what was the last official battle of the Vietnam War were the first of their number to return to Koh (island) Tang, the scene of a bloody, 14-hour battle that took place on May 15, 1975.

Retired Marine First Sergeant Clark H. Hale informally led the group, which included former Lance Corporal Larry Barnett and former Privates First Class Curtis D. Myrick and Alfred G. "Gale" Rogers. All had been members of a Marine force sent to Koh Tang in an effort to rescue the crew of a hijacked American container ship, SS Mayaguez.

Setting foot on Koh Tang more than 25 years later, the Marines felt as though time had been suspended. Ringing both beaches were fortifications, machine-gun pits, bunkers and trenches-overgrown with vegetation but easily recognized. Palm trees pocked with bullet holes surrounded a clearing where the Cambodian camp had been. One trunk had bullet holes running up its length from a machine gun and larger holes that went clear through. It had not survived.

The veteran Marines walked the beaches, located their fighting positions and collected brass from the ammunition they had expended in close combat that fateful day so long ago. At times, each stood alone with his thoughts, remembering.

On that May morning in 1975 an orange sun boiled up out of the sea as a pair of U.S. Air Force helicopters roared in toward the eastern beach. In the lead was a CH-53C flown by Air Force officers Major Howard Corson and Second Lieutenant Richard Vandegeer, call sign Knife-31. To their right was Knife-23, piloted by Air Force First Lieutenants John H. Shramm and John P. Lucas. In the cargo bay, LCpI Larry Barnett sat among other Marines on the floor, an M 16 clutched between his knees. As the helicopters slowed to a hover, Khmer Rouge gunners opened up with .50-caliber machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs). A deadly, moving grid of flaming tracers crisscrossed the landing area.

Inside Knife-23, Barnett heard a loud boom as an RPG slammed into the aft section and detonated. Simultaneously, to the left, Knife-31 burst into flames, barely remaining airborne.

Barnett's helicopter swung wildly out of control when the tail rotor separated from the aircraft. Shramm kept the machine level as it plummeted into the surf. Then he, his copilot, two gunners, an Air Force photographer, Barnett and 20 Marines of 3d Platoon, Company G, 2d Battalion, Ninth Marine Regiment, led by 2dLt Michael A. Cicere, rushed ashore. Miraculously, no one from Knife23 was killed as the helicopter disintegrated and bullets churned the surf.

Meanwhile, Knife-31 occupied Khmer Rouge attention. With his left auxiliary fuel tank on fire and RPG and machinegun rounds tearing through the fuselage, Corson tried vainly to reverse course. As the chopper swung away, Air Force Sergeant Randy Hoffmaster returned fire with his minigun from inside the cabin inferno while copilot Vandegeer fired an M16 out his side window. The nose of the helicopter was hit by an RPG. The impact tore the Plexiglas away and ripped the instrument panel from its mount, killing the copilot, 2dLt Vandegeer.

The CH-53 lost power and nosed into the water. Dazed, with nothing left in front of him, Maj Corson remained in his seat until Air Force crewmember Staff Sergeant Jon D. Harston banged on the cockpit door and brought him to his senses. Harston jumped out a forward hatch while Corson exited through the gaping hole in front of him. Corson saw no future in heading for the beach, so he turned seaward. "That's when I got hit in the back with shrapnel," he later remarked.

Inside the helicopter, Marines were dodging flames as tracers cut through the fuselage and ammunition cooked off in the intense heat. Then the magnesium rotorhead caught fire. The men inside saw no escape. They tried punching out windows until Harston, already shot in the leg, reappeared from the half-submerged forward hatch. He grabbed an M 16 and led some of the dazed Marines outside. Three Marines rushed the beach and were immediately cut down by machine-gun fire. The rest swam seaward. One swimmer was killed by Khmer Rouge fire while others commenced what was to be a 2112-hour, water-treading ordeal. These survivors were eventually saved, but six Marines and two Navy corpsmen never got out of the helicopter.

For Hale, Rogers and Myrick on May 15th, their turn on the deadly sands of Koh Tang would come later that same morning, during the second wave insertion on west beach.

All three leathernecks were members of Co E, 2/9 and, once on the island, were assigned the task of defending the southern flank where the heaviest fighting occurred on that side of Koh Tang. The Marines had now been awake for more than 36 hours.

Under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Randall W Austin, 2/9 had been immersed in a training exercise in the Central Training Area on the island of Okinawa when the Marines received the call to stand by for an operational commitment. The battalion moved from the field-training environment by 0200, May 14 and was reorganized at Kadena Air Base on Okinawa ready to fly out by 0545 that same morning. The battalion launched for Utapao, Thailand, on USAF C-141 aircraft at 0615. Throughout the remainder of the day, the battalion prepared for action only to be frustrated by continuous changes and a dramatic lack of intelligence on the military situation on Koh Tang.

On the island, the Marines were committed and fighting a well-armed, welltrained, coordinated and tenacious foe. Rescuing captured seamen was secondary to survival. The leathernecks were bone-tired but continued the fight in stifling heat, holding off repeated charges by the Khmer Rouge.

During the extraction that night, conditions were chaotic as the battle-hardened Cambodians tried to wipe out the last of the Marines. Exhausted troops moved across the beach onto the ramps of evacuation helicopters as the on-scene commander, Captain James H. Davis of Co G, withdrew what he thought was the last of the force. There was confusion regarding who was still on the island. Davis had no idea a three-man machine-gun team from Co E was still in position. In the fog of the battle, these men were inadvertently left behind. Because helicopters delivered the evacuated Marines to Thailand and to the decks of several U.S. Navy ships, it was not until later that night that the machine-gun team of LCpI Joseph N. Hargrove, PFC Gary C. Hall and Private Danny G. Marshall was confirmed missing.

With at least three men's status unaccounted for, reconnaissance efforts continued above the island. A daylight probe under white-flag of truce by an available Navy SEAL Team was not sent in to recover the dead and missing because the team leader and the Commander, Task Force-73, Rear Admiral R. T. Coogan, decided the risks were too high without some firm indication from the island that the men were still alive. None was received.

During the October 2000 return to Cambodia, the four veterans met Em Son, who had been the 23-year-old Khmer Rouge commander of the island garrison back in 1975. Wounded 18 times during his military career, Em Son showed all the markings of horrific combat. His face was burned on both sides, collarbone shattered, right arm shredded by shrapnel, left leg riddled by gunfire and right leg amputated just below the hip. His last injury was caused by a Vietnamese land mine in 1988. Clearly this man was no headquarters hack.

At the meeting in Phnom Penh, veteran Marine Gale Rogers asked Em Son whether he had found a body on the west beach. LCpl Ashton N. Looney had been killed early on in the fighting on the west beach.

"Yes," Em Son replied, "wrapped in a poncho." Em Son's troops buried the Marine near the beach. Then Rogers asked about the three missing machinegunners. Em Son repeated information that had been uncovered during an interview the previous evening.

Em Son told of how one of the Marines was encountered the morning after the May 15 battle. A Khmer Rouge squad came under fire from one man using an M16 and a grenade launcher. This Marine was captured and executed a short time later.

Em Son also related that two Marines were captured a week to 10 days after the battle near the Khmer Rouge compound while searching for food. These two were taken to the mainland and imprisoned in the Ti Nean Pagoda overlooking Sihanoukville. According to Em Son, these Marines were also executed after only a short term of imprisonment.

Upon return to the United States in late October 2000, Joint Task Force-Full Accounting (JTF-FA) in Hawaii was notified regarding the testimony of the former Khmer Rouge commander. Several weeks later, a team from Hawaii returned to Cambodia to interview Em Son in order to verify the details that had been passed along. The team interviewed other witnesses as well; some were not present at the scene back in 1975 but had heard about the burials. The JTF-FA team took their testimony and recommended a recovery operation to be conducted in 2001.

Upon arrival in Phnom Penh during January, it was discovered that the JTFFA witnesses had given testimony that was of dubious quality. The recovery team intended to dig a site on the east beach, far from where the four Marines were known to have been located.

The site the JTF-FA intended to work was determined from the hearsay testimony obtained from the other witnesses. Em Son had not repeated his story to the investigators because the Cambodian government had begun steps to try the notorious leaders of the Khmer Rouge. These included Khieu Samphan; Nuon Chea; leng Sary and his wife, Thirith; and army commanders Ta Mok and Ke Pauk. In an effort to avoid becoming a scapegoat, Em Son had been advised to remain silent regarding events on Koh Tang.

The efforts of the JTF-FA team would likely be wasted unless Em Son told his story.

Fortunately, he agreed to meet with the JTF-FA public affairs officer, U.S. Army LtCol Franklin Childress, and interpreter Noma Sarvong as long as his location in Phnom Penh was kept secret. Em Son retold his account, changing only the circumstances of the Marines' deaths from "executions" to "died from wounds."

After hearing the comments, LtCol Childress then contacted his headquarters in Hawaii. Em Son's two burial locations were subsequently approved for excavation, time permitting.

The JTF-FA team anthropologist, Richard Wills, was provided a photograph obtained from Gale Rogers that showed the body of LCpI Looney as it lay on the west beach awaiting evacuation back in 1975. In the confusion of heavy ground fire and in the dark, the Marine was never loaded aboard a helicopter. The photo clearly showed the location where the body had been left. Em Son was taken back to the island, and he pointed to that same spot. Then he indicated where he remembered the body had been buried. Later, he also found the spot where in 1975 he had ordered a second body to be buried.

Due to the requirements established by the JTF-FA headquarters, the team had to work on the east beach site before moving to the west side of the island. Three weeks later, the team leader, USAF Capt Angel Velez, sent the following message:

"We found him by the beach, just like the witness said. We were on our last dig day. By luck, I was doing the final touches on the grid and spotted bone. I thought it was turtle-I had seen turtle bone earlier-but then, long bones were surrounding it. We found him just as the witness indicated."

It will be several months before DNA and dental tests are complete and verified, but if the remains turn out to be those of their brother Marine, it will mean that almost 26 years after the battle, four former Marines had taken the time, undertook the expense, and made the journey to help bring one of their number home. Marines don't forget. Semper Fi.

The Mayaguez Incident
SS Mayaguez, a merchant ship carrying 274 thirty-five-foot containers, was plying the seas in international waters off Cambodia on Monday afternoon, May 12, 1975, when it was hijacked by Khmer Rouge naval forces. For four days, Mayaguez and the plight of her crew of 40 merchant-seamen captured the attention of the world. Thus began three days of intense negotiations between Washington, D.C., and Phnom Penh. When diplomacy failed, President Gerald R. Ford ordered a military rescue operation.

A ship-seizure team from USS Harold E. Holt (DE-1074), a destroyer escort, assaulted Mayaguez. The team found it abandoned and took control. Simultaneously, a helicopter assault on Koh Tang's two northern beaches was launched to free the crew who was thought to be held there.

At the same time, the Cambodian authorities pulled a major surprise. They released the crew from yet another island where they had been kept overnight. Ironically, as the Marines were landing on Koh Tang, the hostages boarded a fishing trawler and began making their way to Mayaguez. They were quickly spotted, and the guided-missile destroyer USS Henry B. Wilson (DDG-7) moved in to recover them. Then began the arduous task of withdrawing U.S. ground forces from heavily defended Koh Tang.

Mitochondria DNA Analysis
There are two kinds of deoxyribonucleic acid in most human cells. DNA from an individual's mother and father is found in the nucleus. A second kind of DNA is found in the energy center of a cell, called the mitochondria, and is identical to that of the individual's mother only.

As human remains age, cell DNA begins to fall apart. There are hundreds of mitochondria, each with many copies of the maternal DNA, but only two copies of chromosomal DNA in the nucleus of each cell. The chromosome decays rapidly, but the mitochondria are hardier. Analysis of the mitochondria DNA is usually the only possible method for identification of aged remains. Generally, only about one dense inch of preserved bone matter is needed to conduct an evaluation.

DNA is extracted from remains in a complex procedure using enzymes and chemicals which break open the cell membrane and release the DNA strings. From the extracted DNA, regions of mitochondria DNA that change frequently (and are thus good for identification) are made using a process known as polymerase chain reaction. PCR amplifies the DNA region of interest.

Then blood, saliva or skin samples are taken from the subject's maternal side of the family. Specimens from brothers, sisters, grandmother, grandchildren or mother all are useable. A sample from a child of an uncle, for example, would not be. The amplified sequence of the deceased's DNA is then compared to that of maternal relatives. If a match occurs, the percentage of similar sequences in the general population is calculated to determine the significance of the match. Thus, high probabilities can be obtained regarding the identification of missing individuals.

Using this technique, laboratories can determine family background regardless of how long a subject has been deceased-even after hundreds of years. In May of 1998, the Unknown Soldier from the Vietnam era was exhumed from Arlington National Cemetery. Mitochondria DNA analysis proved that the remains were that of First Lieutenant Michael J. Blassie, an Air Force pilot shot down in 1972. His remains were turned over to his next of kin.