SASEBO NAVAL BASE, Japan — Thirteen servicemembers who were killed when their helicopter was shot down during the final battle of the Vietnam War will be buried together Wednesday in Arlington National Cemetery with full military honors.
Their CH-53 Sea Stallion helicopter — known as Knife 31 — had been among those tasked with rescuing the American merchant vessel SS Mayaguez and its crew, who were detained by Cambodian Khmer Rouge forces several days earlier in what became known as the “Mayaguez Incident.”
The chopper, with 26 servicemembers aboard, crashed in waist-deep surf just east of Koh Tang — a Khmer Rouge-controlled island in the Gulf of Thailand about 60 nautical miles from mainland Cambodia — as it approached to offload Marines on May 15, 1975.
Thirteen survivors, some with severe burns, were forced to swim out to sea for two hours to escape a hail of bullets before they were rescued. The other 13 were listed as missing after either dying in the explosion and crash, being shot or drowning, reports state.
They were Air Force 2nd Lt. Richard Vandegeer of Cleveland; Navy Hospital Corpsman 1st Class Bernard Gause Jr. of Birmingham, Ala.; Hospitalman Ronald Manning of Steubenville, Ohio; Marines Lance Cpl. Gregory Copenhaver of Lewistown, Pa.; Lance Cpl. Andres Garcia of Carlsbad, N.M.; Pfc. Lynn Blessing of Lancaster, Pa.; Pfc. Walter Boyd of Portsmouth, Va.; Pfc. James Jacques of La Junta, Colo.; Pfc. James Maxwell of Memphis, Tenn.; Pfc. Richard Rivernburgh of Schenectady, N.Y.; Pfc. Antonio Sandoval of San Antonio; Pfc. Kelton Turner of St. Louis and Pfc. Daniel Benedett of Seattle.
Since 1991, the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command has conducted 10 excavations and 20 investigations looking for the missing from the battle, according to Missing Personnel Office spokeswoman Maj. Carie Parker. On three occasions, Cambodian officials turned over remains believed to belong to American servicemembers, a Missing Personnel Office statement said Friday.
In 1995, a joint U.S. and Cambodian team conducted an underwater recovery of the crash site and located remains, personal effects and aircraft debris, the statement said. Twelve of Knife 31’s 13 missing were accounted for between 2000 and 2004. The last — Benedett — finally was accounted for on Jan. 30, with scientists using circumstantial evidence and DNA process of elimination.
In all, 15 were killed in action during the battle, 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 reports. Today, five servicemembers remain unaccounted for from the operation.
In addition to Lance Cpl. Ashton Loney, whose body was left behind on the beach in the confusion of withdrawing from the island, and Air Force Staff Sgt. Elwood Rumbaugh, whose body is believed to be near another felled aircraft in the sea about a mile north of Koh Tang, three Marines were left behind and later executed by the Khmer Rouge: Pfc. Gary Hall, Lance Cpl. Joseph Hargrove and Pvt. Danny Marshall.
JPAC plans to return to the island this summer to continue their search for the missing, a spokesman told Stars and Stripes last month. The mission was postponed in February due to contracting issues.
On Sunday, members of the survivor’s group, Koh Tang/Mayaguez Veterans Organization, laid a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in their honor.