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West Beach of Koh Tang in September 2012, 37 years after U.S. Marines landed here and fought entrenched Khmer Rouge guerrillas in what would be the last battle in Southeast Asia. Thirty-eight American servicemembers died in aircraft mishaps and fighting and at least three were left behind and executed in an effort to rescue the crew of a kidnapped U.S. merchant vessel, the SS Mayaguez.

West Beach of Koh Tang in September 2012, 37 years after U.S. Marines landed here and fought entrenched Khmer Rouge guerrillas in what would be the last battle in Southeast Asia. Thirty-eight American servicemembers died in aircraft mishaps and fighting and at least three were left behind and executed in an effort to rescue the crew of a kidnapped U.S. merchant vessel, the SS Mayaguez. (Matthew M. Burke/Stars and Stripes)

West Beach of Koh Tang in September 2012, 37 years after U.S. Marines landed here and fought entrenched Khmer Rouge guerrillas in what would be the last battle in Southeast Asia. Thirty-eight American servicemembers died in aircraft mishaps and fighting and at least three were left behind and executed in an effort to rescue the crew of a kidnapped U.S. merchant vessel, the SS Mayaguez.

West Beach of Koh Tang in September 2012, 37 years after U.S. Marines landed here and fought entrenched Khmer Rouge guerrillas in what would be the last battle in Southeast Asia. Thirty-eight American servicemembers died in aircraft mishaps and fighting and at least three were left behind and executed in an effort to rescue the crew of a kidnapped U.S. merchant vessel, the SS Mayaguez. (Matthew M. Burke/Stars and Stripes)

Marine Lance Cpl. Ashton Loney was killed in an ambush May 15, 1975, during the last battle of the Vietnam War on Koh Tang in Cambodia. Loney is one of five servicemembers still missing from the battle.

Marine Lance Cpl. Ashton Loney was killed in an ambush May 15, 1975, during the last battle of the Vietnam War on Koh Tang in Cambodia. Loney is one of five servicemembers still missing from the battle. (Courtesy of Loney Family)

Marine Lance Cpl. Ashton Loney was killed in an ambush May 15, 1975, during the last battle of the Vietnam War on Koh Tang in Cambodia. Loney is one of five servicemembers still missing from the battle.

Marine Lance Cpl. Ashton Loney was killed in an ambush May 15, 1975, during the last battle of the Vietnam War on Koh Tang in Cambodia. Loney is one of five servicemembers still missing from the battle. (Courtesy of Loney Family)

A site on west beach dug by JPAC looking for the remains of Lance Cpl. Ashton Loney could still be seen in 2012.

A site on west beach dug by JPAC looking for the remains of Lance Cpl. Ashton Loney could still be seen in 2012. (Matthew M. Burke/Stars and Stripes)

The body of Marine Lance Cpl. Ashton Loney lies on West Beach covered in a poncho after he was killed in action during the battle of Koh Tang. This photograph was taken by Marine Fred Morris during a lull in the fighting. Loney remains unaccounted for after his body was left behind during the confusion of the evacuation and fighting.

The body of Marine Lance Cpl. Ashton Loney lies on West Beach covered in a poncho after he was killed in action during the battle of Koh Tang. This photograph was taken by Marine Fred Morris during a lull in the fighting. Loney remains unaccounted for after his body was left behind during the confusion of the evacuation and fighting. (Photo Courtesy of Fred Morris)

Today, Em Son, 63, lives in the remote jungle near the border with Thailand with many other former Khmer Rouge soldiers and officials. He claims to have executed Lance Cpl. Joseph Hargrove despite previous statements to the contrary and to having shot down Knife 31 on the East Beach with a rocket, resulting in heavy loss of American life. In recent years, Son has worked with American officials to repatriate the missing from Koh Tang and said that Hargrove's body has been recovered. Despite credibility issues, Son claims to know where additional American bodies are located on the island. Son is hobbled after losing a leg to a land mine in battle and gets around with a crutch.

Today, Em Son, 63, lives in the remote jungle near the border with Thailand with many other former Khmer Rouge soldiers and officials. He claims to have executed Lance Cpl. Joseph Hargrove despite previous statements to the contrary and to having shot down Knife 31 on the East Beach with a rocket, resulting in heavy loss of American life. In recent years, Son has worked with American officials to repatriate the missing from Koh Tang and said that Hargrove's body has been recovered. Despite credibility issues, Son claims to know where additional American bodies are located on the island. Son is hobbled after losing a leg to a land mine in battle and gets around with a crutch. (Matthew M. Burke/Stars and Stripes)

Since January, the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency has been excavating a site on Koh Tang, an island off the coast of Cambodia where officials believe they might find the remains of one of three Marines who were executed following the last battle of the Vietnam War.

Since January, the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency has been excavating a site on Koh Tang, an island off the coast of Cambodia where officials believe they might find the remains of one of three Marines who were executed following the last battle of the Vietnam War. (Special to Stars and Stripes)

Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency workers has been excavating a site on Koh Tang, an island off the coast of Cambodia where officials believe they might find the remains of one of three Marines who were left behind and later executed following the last battle of the Vietnam War.

Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency workers has been excavating a site on Koh Tang, an island off the coast of Cambodia where officials believe they might find the remains of one of three Marines who were left behind and later executed following the last battle of the Vietnam War. (Special to Stars and Stripes)

An excavation site sits quiet on Feb. 12, 2015 on the island of Koh Tang. The Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency has been excavating the site where officials believe they might find the remains of one of three Marines who were executed following the last battle of the Vietnam War.

An excavation site sits quiet on Feb. 12, 2015 on the island of Koh Tang. The Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency has been excavating the site where officials believe they might find the remains of one of three Marines who were executed following the last battle of the Vietnam War. (Special to Stars and Stripes)

The newly established Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency has dispatched a remains recovery team to the Cambodian island of Koh Tang, where three Marines were left behind following the final battle of the Vietnam War.

The excavation site is believed to hold the remains of Lance Cpl. Joseph Hargrove, Pfc. Gary Hall or Pvt. Danny Marshall, according to official documents from DPMAA’s predecessor, the Joint Prisoners of War, Missing in Action Accounting Command.

The three-man gun team was left behind in the confusion of a troop withdrawal following a brutal May 15, 1975, battle between about 200 U.S. Marines and entrenched Cambodian Khmer Rouge soldiers in what became known as the “Mayaguez Incident.”

The dig began Jan. 14 and is expected to run through the end of March.

The location of excavation site has not been made public, but it’s likely to be one of two areas where the heaviest fighting occurred. In 2013, a seven-member JPAC investigation team spent a week on the island’s east and west beaches.

Months later, JPAC told Stars and Stripes that the team did find enough evidence to bring one site before the administrative body that decides whether to allocate funds for a dig.

A recovery operation, such as the one ongoing on Koh Tang, means that the site was approved by the board, and the likelihood of finding remains is high.

Officials have declined numerous requests from Stars and Stripes for information related to the excavations.

“This is an ongoing mission and details can’t be discussed at this time,” DPMAA spokeswoman Lt. Col. Melinda Morgan said.

However, the Defense POW/Missing Personnel Office has declassified some of the documents since the investigative dig occurred. Heavily redacted copies are housed in Texas Tech University’s Vietnam War archives.

According to a document dated November 2013, investigators found a water well where former Khmer Rouge soldiers claimed they killed and buried an American soldier after the battle.

Any American remains found there would likely belong to Hargrove, because most accounts say that Hall and Marshall were taken to the mainland and executed.

In additional to Hargrove, Hall and Marshall, two other servicemembers remain missing from the battle.

Lance Cpl. Ashton Loney’s body was left behind on west beach in the haste of the withdrawal, and former combatants claimed he was buried on the beach. There is no public record of his body being recovered, or his remains identified.

Air Force Staff Sgt. Elwood Rumbaugh was lost at sea near a downed helicopter.

Although that site has been located, according to the Texas Tech documents, it was not explored at the time due to inclement weather. No other recovery operations have been announced.

Left behind In May 1975, Khmer Rouge forces captured the SS Mayaguez, an American container ship, several nautical miles off the coast of the Cambodian island of Poulo Wai. It didn’t take long for President Gerald Ford to authorize a rescue operation.

In the one-day battle that followed, 38 U.S. servicemembers were killed and approximately 50 were wounded. The ship and crew were released shortly thereafter.

Immediately after the battle, when it became apparent that Hargrove, Hall and Marshall were unaccounted for, Navy SEALs and Marines asked to make a rescue attempt for the missing but were denied. U.S. Navy ships were recalled from the area, closing the chapter on U.S. involvement in Southeast Asia.

While accounts of enemy combatants differ, most say that Hargrove was captured on Koh Tang and executed. Hall and Marshall were taken to the mainland and executed there.

Since the early 1990s, documents show that JPAC investigators have excavated sites, both on the mainland and on Koh Tang, and have collected numerous fragments and sets of remains, including as recently as 2008.

During an excavation in 2008, a set of remains that was unearthed was determined to likely be Caucasian, according to Charles Ray, former ambassador to Cambodia and deputy assistant secretary of defense for POW/Missing Personnel Affairs.

JPAC documents state four samples were sent for analysis. It’s not made clear in the documents if the samples are something as small as bone fragments or as large as full sets of remains.

No results from any of the excavations on Koh Tang and subsequent analysis have been made public.

Running out of time Members of Hargrove’s family hope his remains soon will be returned.

“By them being on the island, I hope it is a good sign that we will be receiving Joseph’s remains soon,” said Hargrove’s cousin, Cary Turner. “I’ll keep praying they will do the right thing and send Joseph home.”

But, the time to recover the remains is running short.

A Russian consortium leased the island from the Cambodian government in 2008, and construction has already begun on what will one day be a casino, resorts, a seven-hotel complex and luxury villas aimed at drawing 300,000 tourists annually from China, Korea and Japan.

“POW/MIA investigators will lose access to the island once the investment company moves in full-time to develop the resort,” an accounting document from March 2013 said. “A Cambodian POW/MIA committee member emphasized the urgency of conducting Tang Island investigations as soon as possible.”

burke.matt@stripes.com

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Matthew M. Burke has been reporting from Okinawa for Stars and Stripes since 2014. The Massachusetts native and UMass Amherst alumnus previously covered Sasebo Naval Base and Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni, Japan, for the newspaper. His work has also appeared in the Boston Globe, Cape Cod Times and other publications.
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