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Koh Rong Sanloem and the Last Battle of the Vietnam War

How did a tiny Cambodian island come to host the Last Battle of the Vietnam War?

People travel to Cambodia for a whole heap of reasons, there’s the obvious, such as Angkor Wat, which pre-Trump virus received millions of visitors per year, lots of temples and of course dark tourism.

If you have interest in the Khmer Rouge and their brutal regime then Cambodia is a Dark Tourism heaven, with places such as Anlong Veng and S-21 proving must sees.

There are also more nefarious reasons to come here, such as drugs and girls! Which you can read about here.

Cambodia’s piece of Paradise!

Maybe you’ve heard of Koh Rong and Koh Rong Sanloem? These are two stunning island paradises that easily match or surpass what you will find in Thailand, or Vietnam when it comes to islands getaways.

Nowadays and particularly after Covid-19, both of these relaxed places are mostly filled with stoners and expats trying to escape real life, but few know that these sleepy islands were actually the last battlefields of the Vietnam War…..

The end of the Vietnam War

Lets make no bones about this the Americans lost the Vietnam War and there are few more compelling images than the last chopper out of Saigon.

The often unspoken part of the Vietnam War though is how the carpet bombing by America of Cambodia essentially led to the Khmer Rouge coming to power and all the devastation that was to follow that.

To read about the if America supported the Khmer Rouge click here.

The SS Mayaguez Incident

The SS Mayaguez was a U.S.-flagged container ship that was seized by the Khmer Rouge on 12th May 1975, merely just a month after taking control of the country.

The ship had allegedly strayed into the waters of the newly formed Democratic Kampuchea, so the navy seized the ship and its crew. Whether the ship had been in Kampuchean waters has been up for debate, but it obviously was to prove a bit of problem for the US of A. Yes they were trying to leave South-East Asia, but leaving your crew to the Khmer Rouge would also be a bit of a dick move.

Oh and as well as cargo the ship contained about $24 million dollars worth of secret cargo, so that was a bit of an issue too.

Dropping anchor at Koh Tang

Unable to reach the mainland the ship was ordered to drop anchor at Koh Tang, the biggest of the islands off of the coast of Sihanoukville. From here they were transported by fishing boat to the land.

Following this and unknown to the US military at the time, the crew were transported to a military base of the Khmer Rouge on Koh Rong Sanloem. By all accounts and initially at least they were treated very hospitably and were fed and looked after. Did they get to play on the beaches? No one really knows, but we certainly hope so.

The Marines invade the wrong island

The start of the last battle of the Vietnam War.

It was duly decided that 600 marines would retake the ship and rescue the crew from Koh Tang, but if you have been following you will realize that the crew were actually on Koh Rong Sanloem.

What the marines also didn’t know was that Koh Tang had 100 Khmer Rouge soldiers there to defend the island from a feared Vietnamese invasion.

The assault oh Koh Tang began and ended with huge losses on both sides, the Americans had underestimated the strength of the Khmer Rouge and the Americans had an Air Force that was quickly sinking the few ships that Democratic Kampuchea actually had. There was also the sore point that the crew were not even on the island. This was to prove to be the last battle of the Vietnam War.

Khmer Rouge ask the crew to do them a solid

On Koh Rong Sanloem the leader of the Khmer Rouge asked the captain of the American ship if he wouldn’t mind contacting the Americans and getting the whole bombing called off as they had already lost a lot of men and materials. It was agreed that they would contact the embassy in Bangkok and be returned to the ship on May 15th.

At 06:07 the Khmer Rouge  propaganda minister, Hu Nim, made a radio broadcast announcing that Mayaguez and her crew would be released. The section of his communique on the release was:

“Regarding the Mayaguez ship. We have no intention of detaining it permanently and we have no desire to stage provocations. We only wanted to know the reason for its coming and to warn it against violating our waters again. This is why our coast guard seized this ship. Their goal was to examine it, question it and make a report to higher authorities who would then report to the Royal Government so that the Royal Government could itself decide to order it to withdraw from Cambodia’s territorial waters and warn it against conducting further espionage and protractive activities. This applies to this Mayaguez ship and to any other vessels like the ship flying Panama flags that we released on May 7, 197”

Ironically the Khmer Rouge at this point still referred to themselves as the Royal Government. The CIA picked up the communique from Bangkok and passed it on to the White House, who responded that military operations would continue until the crew were released.

The Khmer Rouge might have been famously a little crazy, but having only just seized power they were not really in the mood to pick a fight with Uncle Sam either.

The crew were duly transported back to the ship and a last minute bombing by the Americans on the mainland was called off, but now they had to retract their marines from Koh Tang.

By 20.00 most of the marines had been evacuated, but not only had their been losses, but controversy remained over those that were left behind.

Marines left on Koh Tang

The Americans made overtures to the Khmer Rouge about being able to send an unarmed boat back to the island to retrieve the bodies of the dead, and any unconfirmed survivors. The Khmer Rouge never responded to the initiative and essentially the dead and dying were left on the island.

According to eye-witness reports in 1985 numerous bodies were found as well as one American survivor, who was ordered shot by the KR regime.

Casualties

The US estimated that at least 25 Khmer Rouge had been killed as well as numerous military equipment and what ended up being a large portion of the Democratic Kampuchean navy being destroyed.

Eighteen American servicemen died during the incident, inclusive of three missing in action presumed dead. One US helicopter was also destroyed.

Aftermath of the incident

To cut a long story short! Americans had grown weary of the Vietnam War and people were not up for a second front starting right away in the newly formed Democratic Kampuchea.

The Khmer Rouge got to claim a pyrrhic victory over the Imperialist Americans, but one in which they had taken huge material losses. In real terms they had also backed down heavily for fear of losing their newfound power.

Ironically within a few years the Americans and the Khmer Rouge would become tactical allies and the incident and indeed the bodies would not be discussed until the 1990’s.

There really were no winners in this very pointless affair, other than the fact that it was the last battle of the Vietnam War.

Nowadays though you can holiday on both Koh Rong and Koh Rong Sanloem without fear of Uncle Sam, or the Khmer Rouge shooting you.

Check out Treehouse Bungalows if you ever make it there…

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