Four Days in May: Responding to the Mayaguez Incident

One of the most dramatic international incidents of the Ford presidency was when the Cambodian Khmer Rouge attacked then seized the American container ship the SS Mayaguez on May 12, 1975.

As Deputy Secretary of Defense, William P. Clements, Jr. worked with the rest of the members of the Ford National Security Council (NSC) to plan the rescue operation.  The policy makers took a strong stand against the attack.  The operation started with constant reconnaissance, followed by efforts to isolate the vessel and prevent it from approaching the Cambodian mainland.  Eventually, the policymakers gave the orders to attack and sink small boats in the vicinity.

On May 14, the Marines conducted an assault to rescue the SS Mayaguez, now docked near Kaoh [Koh] Tang Island, and its crew. When the Marines boarded, no one was found aboard, but “food found on the dining table and a warm kettle on the stove suggested a recent, hasty departure.” The Marines conducted operations against the Island in the meantime, with the intent to “ensure the island was not reinforced, to put pressure on the Cambodians to release the crew and to ensure the safe withdrawal of the Marine Ground Support Force.”

At 10:23 PM on May 14, a boat with a white flag waving approached the American destroyer, the USS Wilson, delivering the crew of the Mayaguez. Two hours later, the USS Wilson returned the crew of the Mayaguez to their ship. The Marines continued their assault against the island through May 15.

The correspondence highlighted here is from the Center for Legislative Archives. On May 23, 1975, Clements wrote to the Chairman of the Armed Services Committee, John C. Stennis, to give Stennis a comprehensive overview of military actions taken in regards to the Mayaguez incident.  The overview includes specific times of actions taken over the four days of the incident.  Upon the launch of the Clements Papers Project website, researchers will have the opportunity to review this document alongside the policy documents produced by the NSC to see how the the policy decisions coming from the NSC led to military actions in real time.

Photo Citation: Gerald R. Ford Library. White House Photographic Office Photographs, 1974-77; Series A and B.  Photo Descriptions and Contact Sheet Images, 1975. 10:40 pm National Security Council Meeting regarding the SS Mayaguez (1)