The SS Mayaguez
was the first all-container US merchant ship
used in foreign trade. Launched originally in 1944 as the SS White Falcon
, after World War II
she was renamed the Santa Eliana
. She was modified in 1960 to make her an all-container vessel and was renamed the SS Sea
in 1964 and SS Mayaguez
The Mayaguez is remembered for an incident with Cambodia right after the fall of Saigon and the end of the Vietnam War. The Mayaguez was the last merchant ship to leave Saigon. On May 12, 1975 she was seized by Khmer Rouge naval forces and 40 American crew members were held hostage. She was seized by the Cambodians for what they claimed was violation of their territorial waters.
President Gerald Ford quickly ordered the military to mount a rescue mission. Early on May 15, 1975 a company of US Marines landed on an island where the hostages were believed to be held -- Kaoh Tang (alternately; Koh Tang, Kao Tang). Unfortunately, the hostages were not being held on Kaoh Tang and Cambodian military resistance was greater than expected. 18 marines would die on the island and four aircraft would be lost. Earlier, as they had prepared the operation in Thailand, 23 Americans had died in a helicopter crash. So, a total of 41 American lives were lost in the mission.
Ironically, the Khmer Rouge had released the Mayaguez crew members before the assault even took place. They had been moved several times (though never to Kaoh Tang) and eventually were released from Kach Island and placed aboard a Thai fishing boat. By the time they were able to make contact with US forces in the area the assault was already underway.
The story would not be complete without mentioning that of the 18 marines who died on Kaoh Tang, only 15 died in the assault and ensuing retreat. Three marines were left behind. These three were eventually captured by the Khmer Rouge and summarily executed. The story of the Mayaguez is told in The Last Battle: The Mayaquez Incident and the End of the Vietnam War, by Ralph Wetterham. The full accounting of the Mayaguez incident was only revealed more than twenty years after the fact.