The 40-Year Mystery Behind The Lost Marines Of Vietnam's Last Battle

Unidentified U.S. Marines run from a HH-53C helicopter during the SS Mayaguez operation. Photo credit Wikimedia Commons
Unidentified U.S. Marines run from a HH-53C helicopter during the SS Mayaguez operation. Photo credit Wikimedia Commons

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Terrell Jermaine Starr is a senior reporter at The Root. He is currently writing a book proposal that analyzes US-Russia relations from a black perspective.

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DISCUSSION

phillkesselrun
PhilKesselRun

This isn’t the only instance of POW’s that were abandoned in Vietnam by the US Government.

In 1981 we (elements of the United States government) knew that approximately 125 American prisoners of war were still alive and in the hands of the government of North Vietnam. The men were being held in secret camps located in Laos, so when North Vietnam would periodically say, “There are no American prisoners alive in Vietnam,” they were technically telling the truth. Immediately an intelligence effort was mounted to pinpoint the exact location of the prisoners. At the same time, Delta Force initiated planning to conduct a rescue operation. We 152 worked very rapidly and had gotten as far as completing a full-scale dress rehearsal of the proposed raid when the mission started to unravel. It was eventually scuttled. “Scuttled” is probably the wrong word to use. The rescue effort was methodically pulled apart, piece by piece, until the only thing left was the unpleasant rumor of live POWs.

Even now, some twenty years later, I am still stunned every time I think about it. I can only believe that some very powerful elements and people, both in and outside of the government, worked strenuously to scuttle the mission once it was learned that a rescue operation was under way. And when the information about American POWs being left behind began to trickle out, those same people and elements later worked hard to discredit it. To most of us, it is incomprehensible that any American would act in such a way. But sadly and reluctantly, I have come to believe it is true.

Excerpted from Eric Haney’s memoir Inside Delta Force.