The Mayaguez Incident

On this day, for some reason, the DO was not at the morning briefing at 0800. We all sat around the table, waiting. Nobody said anything. We just patiently waited. Finally, at 0830, Colonel Wilson entered the room, looking rushed. We all rose.

“Be seated, gentlemen. I’m sorry I’m late.”

He looked at Lieutenant Colonel Scoville.

“Scooter, I need you to pick your four best crews. They’re going to deploy in three hours.”

“Yes, sir.”

Colonel Wilson addressed all of us.

“Gentlemen, yesterday a container ship,” he glanced down at his steno pad, “the Mayaguez, was captured by the Khmer Rouge. The Third Mar Div is deploying to Thailand as we speak, aboard MAC C-141s. We’ll be providing mission support with four F-4s from Colonel Scoville’s squadron and with our T-39.”

The Third Mar Div was the short name for the Third Marine Division, based at Camp Courtney, also in Okinawa. They had a proud history. They had been the first combat unit sent to Vietnam, and they were the guys who had protected DaNang when I had been stationed there during my first tour. Altogether, 20 Marines from the Third Mar Div had received the Medal of Honor for their service in Vietnam.

I had celebrated the Marine Corps birthday with them, November 10th, 1969. I got to know some of those guys. If there was any group that could kick Cambodian ass, it was the Third Mar Div.

“We have a lot of work ahead of us,” Colonel Wilson continued, “Dismissed.”

We stood up as he left, and went back to our offices to get started preparing the wing for combat. When I arrived at my office, there was a note on my desk from Major Riner. I needed to call him back ASAP. I dialed his office and he answered on the first ring.

“Ham,” he said, “we have an urgent T-39 mission to Thailand, and I want you to fly it. Sam Johnson will be your copilot. We need to transport six Maintenance troops to U-Tapao in support of the Mayaguez rescue operation.”

“How soon do I need to leave?”

“Wheels up in four hours, one hour behind four F-4s from Lieutenant Colonel Scoville’s squadron.”

“Okay. I’ll be at Ops in three hours. Any idea how long I’ll be gone?”

“Probably about a week, but it could be longer. You never know.”

I put down the telephone receiver and thought back to a conversation I’d had with Major Withers, my Flight Commander, when I was on my first Vietnam tour, in 1969.

Let me tell you about what it was like at Kadena a few years ago, flying F-105s. Kadena was a great base, in Okinawa, the poor man’s Hawaii. Life was good. We had great flying, mostly weekends off, and all of us married guys had our families there, since it was an accompanied tour.”

Sounds pretty nice.”

It was. Then, one day, out of the blue, we had a no-notice squadron meeting, and we were told we would be leaving for Takhli Air Base, in Thailand, in 12 hours, for an indeterminate time period. Operation Rolling Thunder had just started, and we were going to be part of the initial effort to bomb North Vietnam into submission. I guess you know how that turned out.”

I nodded.

I went from the squadron to my house on base to tell my wife I would be leaving for combat. I walked into our house and she was giving our daughter a bath. As soon as she saw me, standing there in my flight suit, she knew exactly what was happening. She scooped up my daughter from the bathtub, I think she was about three at the time, and said, ‘Charlotte, Daddy has to go away for a little while. Give him a kiss goodbye.’ And then she helped me pack.”

My wife is a real fighter pilot’s wife,” he continued. “She was the squadron commander of our family the whole time I was away. Did everything. Even arranged to have the grass cut.”

I knew I could count on Sam to be that kind of fighter pilot’s wife. I went home to pack and tell Sam about my deployment.

She was giving Johnny a bath.

Funny how the more things change, the more they stay the same.