KOH TANG, Cambodia — Monsoon rains and fearsome waves pound Koh Tang, as they have since the last battle of the Vietnam War nearly 38 years ago. The earth gives away on the island’s west beach, revealing a bit of cloth and a zipper.
They could be leftovers from one of the 10 excavations carried out by Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command investigators; holes they have dug sit nearby. Or they could be remnants of the American troops who died during one of America’s greatest wartime failures in Southeast Asia.
Isolated by the rough waters in the Gulf of Thailand about 60 nautical miles from mainland Cambodia, Koh Tang has kept its secrets well, including what happened to at least three Marines who were likely executed after being left behind in the chaos of fierce battles that killed 38 servicemembers from the Marine Corps, Navy and Air Force in less than 24 hours.
The U.S. government has never come completely clean about the missing, either refusing to provide details of investigations or releasing inaccurate information on military websites about what the White House initially called a victory.
And the time to find any remains or other clues appears to be slipping away, with plans by a Russian consortium, Monarch Investment Co. Ltd., to build resorts, hotels and luxury villas that it hopes would draw an estimated 300,000 tourists annually to the island that currently is manned only by a small contingent of Cambodian military personnel in flip flops and shorts.
Despite multiple JPAC missions to the island, survivors and family members are tortured by the lack of answers and looming construction, which they see as a closing window to bringing the fallen home.
“We are very concerned” they will bulldoze over the remains and keep going, according to Dan Hoffman, who said he and other survivors have fought alcohol and PTSD while suffering in silence over the violent clash and revelations that the three were left behind.
Janet Hall Meadows’ brother, Pfc. Gary Hall, was 18 when he was left behind on Koh Tang. He was taken to the mainland and executed by Khmer Rouge forces, according to Em Son, the Khmer Rouge commander of the island during the battle who talked to Stars and Stripes last year. Meadows said she hasn’t heard from U.S. officials in years even though they claim to have excavated sites in 1999 where Hall’s remains were said to be.
“I have no closure for him and that’s all I really wanted,” Meadows said. “They say never leave anyone behind, but they left him behind and the other two boys.”
The ‘Mayaguez Incident’
The battle on Koh Tang occurred on May 15, 1975, three days into what would later be called the “Mayaguez Incident,” after communist guerrillas from the Khmer Rouge seized the American merchant vessel, the SS Mayaguez. Marines from 2nd Battalion, 9th Marines were sent from Okinawa, Japan, for a rescue mission.
Four U.S. helicopters were shot down and five more were damaged, with more than a dozen killed in the initial assault. In all, 230 Marines and airmen were involved in the operation on the east and west beaches during the 14-hour battle against a much larger and more disciplined force than poor intelligence told them to anticipate.
“Our intelligence said we would face small weapons, maybe an RPG, and about 15 enemy on the island,” battle survivor Steve Simoni said. “We were told it was basically a cake walk and we’d be home for lunch.”
Forces from the Khmer Rouge had been beefing up island defenses to keep the recently victorious Vietnamese in check. Former Khmer Rouge soldiers put their own numbers between 30 and 67; however, Marine survivors believe hundreds were waiting.
“I did not fear anything,” Son said with a smirk. “There was no place to run, no place to withdraw to.”
While the battle raged, the SS Mayaguez was recovered offshore and the crew was released from a different island. Air Force pilots braved enemy fire in barely functioning aircraft to evacuate the Marines from Koh Tang.
In the chaos of the withdrawal, the body of Lance Cpl. Ashton Loney was left behind on west beach. Others lay where they fell, in the sea, inside or around the felled helicopters, or on the beaches.
A Marine who was seen alive near helicopter wreckage on the east beach couldn’t be found. Khmer Rouge platoon commander Mao Run claimed in a 2011 Koh Tang/Mayaguez Veterans Organization report to have killed a lone exhausted servicemember — possibly a fourth man left behind alive — with a grenade in that area in the days after the battle.
‘We wanted to go back’
When the smoke cleared, 15 were killed in action, 23 Air Force personnel died in a support force crash in Thailand, three were missing in action and soon added to the KIA list, and about 50 were wounded, according to U.S. reports.
The missing included Hall, Lance Cpl. Joseph Hargrove and Pvt. Danny Marshall, members of a west beach machine gun team that had been guarding the evacuation’s right flank as darkness quickly closed in. When last seen by Sgt. Carl Anderson Jr., they were out of ammunition and scared, according to reports. Anderson said he told them to evacuate and saw them making preparations to do so as he left their position.
Immediately after the battle, when it became apparent that not all of the Marines were accounted for, Navy SEALs and Marines asked to make a rescue attempt for the missing but were denied, and U.S. Navy ships were recalled from the area, closing the chapter on U.S. involvement in Southeast Asia.
Then-President Gerald Ford’s administration touted the operation as a victory.
“We wanted to go back [and rescue them] and the answer was no,” said survivor Larry Barnett, who founded the Koh Tang/Mayaguez Veterans Organization to help survivors heal. The group launched their own independent investigation in 2011 into the Marines left behind and the burial sites of their comrades.
“It was an embarrassment to a lot of powerful people. Somebody was responsible for saying, ‘We’re not going to go back and get those Echo [Company] Marines.’ And we’ll never know who it was. … You can’t fight the White House.”
Years later, after the Khmer Rouge fell and outsiders once again trickled into Cambodia, reports surfaced suggesting that Hall, Hargrove and Marshall survived the battle and were captured, then executed.
Donald Rumsfeld, then a chief adviser to Ford, said through a spokesman that he never heard that Marines were left behind alive on Koh Tang. He said he doubted Ford had ever been told either.
Marine officials declined comment on the three Marines, and referred Stars and Stripes to reports that say the Marines could have been killed in the battle. The Navy web site does not name them, but says that three Marines died in the fighting or were left behind and killed within days, then buried on the island.
Son’s story has changed over time, but the Special Forces commander of Khmer Rouge Battalion 450 3rd Division told Stars and Stripes that Hargrove was caught about a week after the battle trying to steal food. He said Hargrove was kept overnight and spoke of two more surviving Marines.
The next day, Hargrove tried to escape while being marched to another holding area. Son said he shot him in the leg, then came over and shot him in the head. Son ordered his men to bury him there.
Later that day, Hall and Marshall were found and captured. They were taken to the mainland, to a place now called Sihanoukville, and held at Wat Inn Nhean, a temple turned Khmer Rouge prison whose inhabitants today are birds and robe-clad monks.
Son said he was also transferred to Sihanoukville. There, he saw Hall had been beaten to death. He ordered his men to bury him.
Later, he said he heard of a body that kept washing up on shore at Koh Puos, a secluded beach near where Hall was buried. He said it was Marshall and he ordered his men to pull him in between some rocks on shore.
Today, both sites are peaceful. Dom Ak Sdach was bulldozed after Hall’s burial to make way for Khmer Rouge facilities meant to entertain VIPs. At Koh Puos, someone has erected a small shrine for the dead on the rock above where Marshall was said to have been left.
Hargrove’s cousin, Cary Turner, as well as battle survivors, said Son’s accounts must be taken with a grain of salt because he could be downplaying the details to avoid being tried for war crimes. Other former Khmer Rouge soldiers have offered differing accounts. Turner believes Hargrove was possibly wounded by friendly fire while evacuating, caught after a shootout, tortured and executed.
The lack of answers regarding the three has hurt their families and fostered conspiracy theories. Turner, who has visited Koh Tang looking for his cousin, believes the government wants to find those who fell in battle but not Hall, Hargrove and Marshall because it would essentially be admitting they were left behind alive to die. He’s convinced that JPAC has Hargrove’s remains.
There have been 10 excavations looking for the missing and 20 investigations, according to Missing Personnel Office spokeswoman Maj. Carie Parker, but JPAC declined to provide further details of those investigations with Stars and Stripes.
JPAC spokeswoman Elizabeth Feeney confirmed that JPAC excavated three sites where the remains of Hall, Hargrove and Marshall were said to be and collected remains: Hall and Marshall on the mainland in 1999, and Hargrove on Koh Tang in 2008. JPAC officials said the remains recovered in Sihanoukville in 1999 were “preliminary analyzed but due to their degraded condition need further analysis.”
“Oftentimes, identifications can span from a few months to several years, depending on the condition of the remains and the additional physical evidence that accompanies the remains,” she said.
So the families await word, even as they are reminded about their lost loved ones every day.
“Life goes on and you don’t hear nothing,” Meadows said. “I have a son, and I see Gary in him.”