This incident was the first military action after Vietnam. The U.S.S. Mayaguez was overtaken my a group of Khmer Rouge militants of Cambodia. The 39 man crew of the ship was taking hostage. After an unsuccessful attempt at diplomacy, then President Gerald Ford ordered that military action be taken. The rescue attempt was quickly planned. It was reported that the Khmer Rouge had taken the crew to the island of Koh Tang and for this reason the military invaded the island. Unfortunately the military underestimated the military capabilities of the Khmer Rouge and the extent of the islands defenses. The Khmer Rouge barraged the helicopters that were dropping troop off on the island with heavy caliber machine gun fire, mortars, and rocket propelled grenades from hard to target bunkered positions. Multiple helicopters were shot down and more were seriously damaged, throwing a wrench the Americans' plan to overtake the island.
Meanwhile, American troops took back the U.S.S. Mayaguez but to their surprise the crew was not present. However the crew was later released by the Khmer Rouge unharmed. It is believed that Khmer Rouge compliance was a result of American bombing of the Cambodian mainland.
Number of Crewman Captured: 39
Number of Americans Killed: 41 (Three of which were initially reported missing, but after a Department of Defense Investigation were ruled to be dead.)
Number of Americans Wounded: 50
The first attempt to redeem the credibility of the United States military post-Vietnam was another failure. Hasty planning and faulty intelligence resulted in the deaths of 41 men and the maiming of 50 others. In addition, a great deal of money was lost with the damage done to the helicopters. It is one thing to simply die in battle, but it is different if you die in battle because you were sent into a death trap by your superiors. That's what Koh Tang was to those troops- a death trap.
The helicopter crews were totally unaware of the capablities of the enemy and for this reason the mortars, RPG's, and machine guns of the enemy were able to wreck havoc as the troops tried to land on the island.
Unlike many U.S. interventions there was a valid reason to strike. However, a tell tale sign of a failure is when more rescuers die than hostage are held captive. It's like watching Saving Private Ryan all over again. The best course of action here would have been an extended attempt at diplomacy. The window for diplomatic action was too short.
Many considered that attacking mainland Cambodia was too harsh a punishment for the actions of a few pirates, I disagree. The Khmer Rouge was completely aware of the actions of some of its patrol boats and they should have been held responsible. The attacks were not done on civilian targets, but on military targets.
The Bottom Line:
The U.S.S. Mayaguez rescue attempt had good intentions, but it was performed with faulty intelligence. I doubt that President Ford would have delayed military action had he known the fierceness of the ensuing firefight. The failure of the invasion Koh Tang only threw salt on the wound of the failure in Vietnam.