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Mayaguez Incident (1975).On 12 May 1975, Cambodian gunboats seized the U.S. merchant ship Mayaguez near Cambodia's Koh Tang Island. Claiming the ship was spying, Cambodia's Khmer Rouge government imprisoned the forty‐member crew. President Gerald Ford labeled the action piracy. After the fall of Saigon that year and the unsuccessful end of the Vietnam War, Ford and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger believed that only forceful response to the Mayaguez provocation could bolster damaged U.S. credibility. Also, memories of North Korea's 1968 capture of the USS Pueblo, an intelligence‐gathering ship, and the year‐long incarceration of its crew, prompted quick action. Lacking diplomatic relations with Phnom Penh, Washington attempted to communicate demands for release of the crew through Beijing and the United Nations, but received no clear response from the Cambodians.

On 14 May, 179 U.S. Marines used helicopters to assault Koh Tang Island while a Marine boarding party retook the empty Mayaguez; U.S. aircraft bombed nearby military targets. The crew was not on the island, but the Cambodians on their own released the crew from the mainland as the operation began. The Marines on the island encountered strong resistance and could not be extracted until the 15th. U.S. casualties were fifteen killed in action, three missing, fifty wounded, and twenty‐three killed in a helicopter crash.

Heeding the War Powers Resolution of 1973, the Ford administration had notified Congress as it issued its military orders. Some legislators charged that the president had abused the law, and some historians have characterized Ford's use of force as precipitous and excessive. Ford insisted that the operation helped restore America's self‐confidence. Many editorial writers agreed, and the president's public approval rating surged 11 percent.
[See also Commander in Chief, President as; Korea, U.S. Military Involvement in.]


Roy Rowan , The Four Days of Mayaguez, 1975.
David L. Anderson , Gerald R. Ford and the Presidents' War in Vietnam, in Anderson, ed., Shadow on the White House, 1993.

David L. Anderson

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MAYAGUEZ INCIDENT. On 12 May 1975, Cambodian gunboats acting on the orders of a local Khmer Rouge commander seized the American cargo ship Mayaguez while it cruised in the Gulf of Thailand some sixty miles south of Cambodia. Forty American sailors were captured and taken to Koh Tang, a small island about seven miles away. The United States regarded this region of the Gulf as international waters, but the new Khmer Rouge government claimed a ninety-mile zone from the mainland and had been detaining foreign ships for the past ten days. The administration of President Gerald Ford saw the incident as a deliberate challenge to American credibility, badly weakened after the collapse of the pro-U.S. regimes in South Vietnam and Cambodia less than one month earlier. On 15 May a force of 175 marines assaulted Koh Tang to rescue the Mayaguez hostages, while the aircraft carrier USS Coral Sea launched air strikes against the Cambodian airfield at Ream and the port of Kompong Som. In the ensuing battle for Koh Tang, fifteen Americans died, three were reported missing (later declared dead), and fifty were wounded. The marines claimed to have killed fifty-five Khmer soldiers. Several hours after the battle began, the U.S. destroyer Wilson found and rescued the Mayaguez crew aboard a fishing vessel, which had been set adrift by the Cambodians earlier in the day. The Ford administration defended the use of military force as a necessary step to deter communist aggression.


Guilmartin, John F., Jr. A Very Short War: The Mayaguez and theBattle of Koh Tang. College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 1995.

Hersh, Seymour M. The Price of Power: Kissinger in the NixonWhite House. New York: Summit Books, 1983.

Isaacson, Walter. Kissinger: A Biography. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1992.

Erik B.Villard