The Cambodians opened fire on us from all points, the boats, the deck of the Mayaguez and the tree line. We could see the tracers in front of us, could see the rounds hitting the water and could hear three .50 cal. rounds penetrate the vertical stabilizer. "Those M***** F*****s are shooting at us, let's get outta here!"
On the recent 30th anniversary of the Mayaguez Incident (May 13, 1975), I tracked down old ZE-6 (152168). It was in the boneyard at Davis Monthan AFB slated for FMS (Foreign Military Sale) to the Brazilian Navy. So, I made a pilgrimage out there and visited the plane. I was very graciously hosted by Tim Horn of AMARC. I have attached some digital pictures showing the aircraft with some good close up shots of the tail. Apparently, after service with VP-17, 152168 was flown by VP-69, a reserve squadron out of Whidbey Island. Anyway, the old faded paint job is theirs and not the old White Lightning.
The amazing thing, as the AMARC guys pointed out to me (two former P-3 flight engineers), is that you can still see the metal patches on the vertical stabilizer where the three .50 cal. rounds penetrated. The three rectangular patches are just above the section of faded green paint. I was really surprised to see the actual damage repair, since I never thought there would be any tangible evidence of that day. The last time I was that close to the damage was when I was on a “cherry picker” in U-tapao after we landed, putting metal duct tape over the holes so we could re-fuel and fly back to Cubi with the film we shot of the Cambodians.
Here’s the story as I recalled it while taking pictures of old ZE-6 that day…......
On May 12, 1975, barely two weeks after the fall of Saigon, Khmer Rouge forces seized a U.S. flagged merchant ship, the S.S. Mayaguez.
On that same evening VP-17's Crew 9 was just finishing a 12-day I.O. circuit and were enjoying a few days off in U-tapao. Most of the crew were "out in town" enjoying the local flora and fauna (especially the fauna). Gary Ruffin (our 3P) and I were attending Harvey Wallbanger Night at the Air Force O-Club. Around midnight we were well into our cups when the duty officer walked in and told us we were flying. After laughing uproariously for a few minutes we realized he was serious. We pooled our money and Gary took a cab into town to round up the crew. I went down to Ops to get the brief. We fueled, filed and took off around 5 a.m.
Our brief was sketchy at best. We were told that a Mayday had been received from the Mayaguez, but the nature of the emergency was uncertain. We were to search southwest of Cambodia (last reported position) to locate and positively identify the ship and attempt to determine the problem (were they aground, on fire or what). After several hours of searching we received an HF message from Cubi (CTG 72.3) to disregard CPA restrictions to the Cambodian mainland. This was my first clue that something serious had happened to the ship. I only wish they had told us everything they knew or suspected; that the ship had been seized by several hundred Khmer Rouge soldiers and the crew was being held hostage on board.
At approximately 8:30 a.m. local time Jim Carlson spotted what looked like a ship anchored near one of the Poula Wai Islands (many of you may remember we called them the Peanut islands because that's what they looked like from the air). Radar never picked up the ship at all. We made our first pass up the starboard side from about 500 feet and saw no suspicious activity. We then circled and flew up the port side between the ship and the island. On the second pass, approaching the stern at about 250' altitude, we could read and photograph the name, making positive I.D. However, tied up amidships of the Mayaguez were two 1950's vintage former U.S. Navy Patrol Boats with deck mounted .50 caliber guns. Aboard the vessel and in the tree line were another 250 Khmer Rouge soldiers. As later documented in two books written about this event, the Cambodians opened fire on us from all points, the boats, the deck of the Mayaguez and the tree line. We could see the tracers in front of us, could see the rounds hitting the water and could hear three .50 cal. rounds penetrate the vertical stabilizer (the patches in the recent pictures show where they hit - luckily striking no control cables or the rudder).
The noise of the rounds actually woke up our flight engineer who was asleep on the galley floor at the time - that's how loud it was! In the seat at the time was Jim Carlson (left seat) and Gary Ruffin (right seat) and our second mech. I was standing behind Gary in the cockpit. Gary had a closer look at the firing and said "Those M***** F*****s are shooting at us, let's get outta here!"
He applied max power and pulled back on the yoke. It seemed to take forever for the engines to spool up and for us to climb clear of the firing. I reported the contact to Cubi and was quickly speaking with VP-4's XO, Brant Powell. We were told to keep visual contact with the ship until relieved. We replied that we would, once we determined if the aircraft was still safely flyable, and I also asked how high a .50 cal. could shoot. They said they would get back to me on that.
When we returned to the island 45 minutes later the ship and patrol boats were gone. After a rapid square search, we found them heading for the Cambodian mainland at 12 knots! We kept close surveillance from 5,500 feet and they shot at us every time. Eventually we made a few passes across their bow and they pulled in and anchored at Koh Tang Island. This is the island the Marines would assault two days later.
After five more hours of surveillance we were now approaching PLE and STILL awaiting relief from VP-4's Ready Alert aircraft from Cubi. We were actually told to disregard PLE and remain on station until relieved. We sort of did that (full story to be told only in person over a beer) and landed at U-tapao. We refueled, developed the film, patched the holes with metal duct tape and took off for Cubi.
Our route back to Cubi took us very near the action at Koh Tang Island, which was now under air assault by an AC-130 gunship, Air Force F-4's and F-111's from Thailand, and Navy A-7E's and A-6A's from the Coral Sea. Attacks were also being made at Kompong Song Harbor, and Ream airfield on the Cambodian mainland.
It was this bombing that convinced Phnom Penh to release the crew. They were sent out to sea along with a captured Vietnamese sailor in a fishing boat and would have been blown out of the water by Coral Sea's A-7's had not a sharp eyed P-3 pilot spotted what he thought looked like a beard on one of the crew! The attack was called off and the entire crew was rescued.
The sad epilogue to the story is the extremely high casualty rate of the Marines who assaulted the island. Forty-one Marines were killed within the first few hours of the assault. Of those 41 Marines who gave their lives, only 32 bodies ultimately were recovered and sent home for burial, nine of them recovered only five years ago as a result of the work of POW/MIA teams. However, the greatest tragedy was, of the nine bodies never recovered, three Marines were left alive on the battlefield, still manning their machine gun position—forgotten in the confusion by the Marine captain in the last evacuation helicopter. These three Marines, L/CPL Joe Hargrove, PFC Gary Hall and PVT Danny Marshall were eventually captured alive, tortured and killed by the Cambodians.
LCpl Joe Hargrove, PFC Gary Hall and Pvt Danny Marshall
The names of these three Marines are on the last panel of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.
The Mayaguez herself remained in service for only four more years. She was cut up for scrap in 1979.
The Vietnam Veterans Memorial
Panels 1W and 1E meet at the vertex.
The names of the three abandoned Marines appear on Panel 1W above
The memorial wall is made up of two parts, the east wall and the west wall, which meet at an obtuse angle in the middle forming a vertex. Each wall consists of 70 engraved panels.
The first panel, 1E, "dated" 1959, is immediately to the right of the vertex.
The last panel, 1W, is immediately to the left of the vertex.
Thus, the panels containing the names of the last and first casualties of the war are adjacent to each other at the vertex, the common point where the complete list of 58,249 casualties begins and ends.
For more information on the Moving Wall, including its travel schedule, click on the link below:
AND FOR MORE ABOUT P-3s IN THE BONEYARD AT DAVIS MONTHAN...
Aug 3 1970: ZE-06, Buno 152159, and all hands aboard lost in crash over Nevada (see story on IN MEMORIAM page).
18 May 1972: ZE-6, Buno 152167, flown from Cubi Pt to Naha to rejoin the squadron after a rare six-week patch procedure to repair a corrosion crack in the main spar of the left wing. The spar of a P-3 wing is basically a big aluminum I-beam which is attached on a dihedral to a similar horizontal I-beam that runs straight through the fuselage. The attachment is a large aluminum plate bolted across the abutment of the horizontal and dihedral sections, essentially a splice that holds the wing on. On ZE-6, a corrosion crack developed in the lower half of this splice on the left wing. The fix was to cut the splice in half horizontally, manufacture a new lower half, bolt that in place and then add a smaller splice across the two pieces of the main splice. Thus, the wing was now connected to the aircraft by a splice that was considerably smaller than the original. Having watched these pieces get bolted in place in Cubi before test flying ZE-06 to ensure the left wing would actually stay on and then flying it back to Naha, I was especially relieved when the squadron finally got rid of 152167 in the spring of '73 and Buno 152168 took its place as ZE-6.* However, 152168 was not new to the squadron. It had flown with us for some time as ZE something else (ZE-4 perhaps?) before being repainted and reborn as ZE-6. My log book shows that I flew both 167 and 168 in Feb 1972, when I joined the squadron in Naha, and last flew 167 in March 1973 before we deployed to Cubi.
* At last check, both 152167 and 152168, each once designated ZE-6, were scheduled for sale to Brazil. If those sales occurred as scheduled, neither aircraft would still be in the Boneyard today.