America’s Humiliations: Military Misadventures From Saigon to Tehran
20:32 GMT 09.09.2021 (Updated: 13:23 GMT 06.08.2022)
The rushed, chaotic and bloody US evacuation of its embassy and citizens in Afghanistan in August is not the first humiliating retreat by the world's leading superpower following an ill-advised foreign military intervention.
Those with an interest in history will know that the appalling scenes of chaos at Kabul airport last month are nothing new in the annals of US military history.
US President Joe Biden now finds himself in the dubious company of US Presidents Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter — both considered by some to have been sub-par presidents — following the widely-panned pull-out.
Taking office after Richard Nixon's resignation in disgrace over the Watergate affair, Ford was left to pick up the pieces of America's near-20-year intervention in the Vietnam War.
The capture of the South Vietnamese capital Saigon — now Ho Chi Minh City — by the People's Army of Vietnam (PAVN) on April 30, 1975, was preceded by a panicked and hasty evacuation of some 57,500 US and other foreign citizens and Vietnamese seeking asylum in the US. Photographs of people climbing onto the roof of the US embassy to board helicopters flying to US Navy aircraft carriers offshore became iconic images of the war's end.
But 49 US citizens and over 100 South Koreans were left behind and not evacuated until 1976, with the Americans transported to Bangkok in Thailand.
Vietnam was the worst defeat for the US military since the Japanese invasion of the Philippines in December 1941, which saw 25,000 US and Filipino servicemen killed, 21,000 wounded and 100,000 taken as prisoners of war. Up to 20,000 POWs, mostly Filipinos, died on the infamous Bataan death march to internment camps. In addition, thousands of US citizens in the country were interned for the rest of the war, many suffering from mistreatment, including starvation.
The Mayaguez Incident
The fall of the South Vietnamese regime was not the end of Washington's troubles in southeast Asia. Less than a fortnight after the evacuation of Saigon, US-flagged container ship the SS Mayaguez was seized off Cambodia
on May 12, 1975 by the Khmer Rouge — the guerrilla army that had taken the capital Pnom Penh just weeks earlier, deposing the US-backed Khmer Republic.
While Washington insisted that the vessel was sailing six nautical miles off the Cambodian coast en route from Hing Hong to Thailand, members of her crew later testified that she strayed as close as two nautical miles from the shore and was not flying a flag. Mystery still surrounds her cargo, which included 77 containers of US government and military property. Some of the containers held materials from the US embassy in Saigon, loaded on April 21.
The crew were transferred to nearby Koh Tang island after US Air Force and Navy jets fired warning shots at the ship to halt her. Two days later they were taken by fishing boat to Koh Rong Sanloem, as witnessed by Navy pilots who flew in low and dropped teargas in a bid to stop the boat. Ford approved a rescue plan that would combine boarding the abandoned Mayaguez with an assault on Koh tang to free the captured sailors.
The plan went disastrously wrong from the start, when a helicopter carrying 18 USAF security troops from Thailand crashed, killing them and five aircrew. The men had volunteered for an airborne assault on the ship, which was later found to be deserted during a subsequent naval boarding action.
As well as ignoring the evidence that the crew were no longer on Koh Tang, military planners underestimated the size of the force defending the island by a factor of three. Over 100 guerrillas were heavily entrenched with heavy machine guns, mortars and anti-tank rockets on the tiny strip of land. The helicopters carrying US Marines were a mix of two models — one with armour, self-sealing fuel tanks and extra defensive guns, the other without those additions and thus far more vulnerable to heavy ground fire.
Landing at dawn on May 15, the marines were quickly pinned down and began taking casualties. Three choppers were shot down, one crashing in flames taking 13 men with it, while most of the rest took damage. But minutes before the attack began, the Khmer Rouge leadership announced that they were releasing the ship's crew — prompting an order from Washington to halt all hostilities even as the battle was raging.
More troops were sent in to try and extract those now trapped on the beach, while airstrikes pounded the treeline with little apparent effect. After two failed attempts, helicopters finally began picking up troops just after 6pm. The last group of marines were airlifted out at 8pm, still taking fire.
But that last flight out had left three living marines and the body of Lance Corporal Ashton Loney, who was killed early in the battle, still on the beach. They radioed for help and were told to swim out to sea before contact was lost during a final airstrike. They were presumed dead.
In fact one of the men left behind was wounded and taken prisoner by the island's defenders on the night of May 15. A man matching the description of Lance Corporal Joseph Hargrove was executed after a Khmer Rouge soldier shot him just before his surrender. The two other men, probably Privates Gary Hall and Danny Marshall, hid on the island, scavenging leftover food from the guerrillas until they were captured a week later. They were taken to the mainland and kept prisoner for another week before orders arrived from the capital for them to be executed.
Ironically for the US, it was their old enemy the PAVN that finally overthrew Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge regime in 1979.
8 September 2021, 21:41 GMT
Hostages in Tehran
Jimmy Carter's hopes of a second presidential term were dashed by the Iranian
Islamic Revolution of of February 1979. In November of that year, student supporters of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini forced their way into the US embassy in Tehran and took over 50 Americans hostage — releasing black members of staff on the grounds that they were oppressed in their own country.
After US Secretary of State Cyrus Vance failed to diplomatically secure the hostages release, Carter's national security advisor, Zbigniew Brzezinski — who a year earlier talked the president into funding the Afghan Mujahideen in a bid to force a Soviet military intervention — won Carter's go-ahead on April 7, 1980, for an airborne commando raid to extract them.
The sheer distance from the Iranian capital to the coast, combined with the insistence that all four major arms of the military be directly involved, made the operation unnecessarily complicated.
C-130 Hercules transport planes carrying the Army Ranger assault troops and a newly-formed counter-terrorist Delta Force and aviation fuel would fly into a remote desert salt-flat site near Tabas in eastern Iran, where they would await eight large helicopters.
The choppers would refuel and fly to a second staging site near Tehran, where a CIA agent would meet them with trucks. The Delta Force, led by its 51-year-old commander Charles Beckwith, would drive into Tehran at night and attack the embassy and the Foreign Ministry building. They would free the hostages and drive them to a football stadium in the city where they would rendezvous with the helicopters with an AC-130 gunship from the first staging post providing cover.
Meanwhile the Army Rangers would take over the disused Manzariyeh Air Base southwest of the city, where two C-141 long-range cargo jets arriving from Saudi Arabia would land. The helicopters would bring out the whole entourage from Tehran for transfer onto the planes, before being destroyed and abandoned.
The mission ran into trouble early on, after one of the eight helicopters involved turned back in a sandstorm en route to the desert refuelling rendezvous inside Iran. Another made a forced landing and a third suffered mechanical problems.
After Carter approved the field commanders' request to abort the mission, one helicopter crashed into a parked C-130, causing an explosion that killed eight crew and injured four more.
An Iranian civilian was also killed when an Army Ranger soldier with an anti-tank missile blew up a fuel tanker truck that happened along the road, after its driver tried to get away.
Mission documents were left behind during the frantic evacuation and unsuccessful attempts to disable the remaining four helicopters. The charred bodies of the eight servicemen killed were also left behind.
The hostages were released on January 20, 1981, the day Carter's election rival, Republican Ronald Reagan was sworn into office.