During the final official battle of the Vietnam War, three Marines went missing. The military officially claims the men disobeyed orders during the battle and were likely killed, but a Newsweek investigation pokes holes in that conclusion. A lot of them.
On May 15, 1975, Scott Standfast, a Lance Corporal and squad leader with an infantry battalion for the U.S. Marine Corps, fought in a battle referred to as the Mayaguez Incident on a small Cambodian island known as Koh Tang, Newsweek reports. It started when Khmer Rouge troops took control of a U.S. container ship and its crew. While the military came to the servicemen’s rescue, dozens died in the process, although then-President Gerald Ford called the mission a success and it resulted in a spike in his approval rating.
But the story says that during the chaos of battle, Marine Private Danny Marshall, Private First Class Gary Hall, and Lance Corporal Joseph Hargrove went missing. How that happened is highly disputed, the story details. But a SEAL mission was planned to search for the men until it was cancelled by the highest levels of government, possibly by Secretary of Defense James Schlesinger and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, because “the risk was too high,” the story said.
As in much of the Vietnam War, the cherished ideal of “no man left behind” clearly wasn’t honored in this case.
For the past 40 years, the military has been hiding details on exactly what happened and how those men were left behind on May 15, according to Newsweek. Whether the men are still in captivity or dead was a question Standfast didn’t have an answer to, but was determined to know. The report takes you on Standfast’s journey to find the truth of what happened to his men that day. (Marshall, Hall and Hargrove’s names are among the last put on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall in Washington, D.C.)
One account of what happened to the missing men is that a Khmer Rouge solider, Em Son, found the men and killed them:
In the days following the Mayaguez battle, Son claimed he and his comrades noticed food was missing from a hut near the east beach. They accused each other, then set a trap to nab the thief.
Later that evening, they caught Hargrove and held him overnight in a makeshift cell, where he told them about the two other surviving Marines. (Son said Hargrove gave up that information without being tortured.) The next day, as Son and several Khmer Rouge soldiers marched Hargrove to another holding area, the Marine tried to escape. Son said he shot him in the leg, and Hargrove fell. Then Son said he walked over to him and fired again, killing him on the spot. (He said killing him was humane, because there was no medical treatment for miles.)
The Khmer Rouge, Son says, buried Hargrove by a mango tree nearby. Later that day, they caught Hall and Marshall, Son says, and took them to the mainland, where they handed them over to Khmer Rouge navy chief Meas Muth. The Communists held the Marines at a temple converted into a prison, but eventually, Son says, the guards marched the two Marines out to the beach, where they beat them to death. (Muth declined a Newsweek interview request through his lawyers.)
The U.S. government has steadfastly disputed Son’s claims, which have changed slightly over time, perhaps to avoid charges at the ongoing United Nations war crimes tribunal at Phnom Penh.
But the passage above doesn’t tell the complete story of why the men’s whereabouts have been in dispute going on four decades now.
Check out Newsweek’s investigation to learn more about this heartbreaking chapter of the final days of the Vietnam War.