(John Napolitano Napalon Productions)

A moment of closure

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Thirty-eight years after they made the ultimate sacrifice in what is known as the last battle of the Vietnam War, 13 U.S. servicemembers have come home. Fragments of their remains were laid to rest together, in one casket, May 15 with full military honors at Arlington National Cemetery in northern Virginia.

"They may be gone, but they’re back on American soil," said Marian Boyd of Norfolk, Va., whose son, U.S. Marine Pfc. Walter Boyd, was among those remembered at the service. "He’d always told me in his letters to keep the faith. I put it in God’s hands."

Families of the 10 fallen Marines, two Navy corpsmen and one U.S. Air Force chopper pilot gathered with surviving veterans of the operation and others to pay homage to their fallen loved ones and comrades.

Veterans of the May 15, 1975, military mission to rescue the crew of the merchant ship S.S. Mayaguez came from across the country. Their association – the Koh Tang Mayaguez Veterans Organization – is named for the 5-mile-by-1-mile island off the coast of Cambodia where a 14-hour battle occurred less than three weeks after the fall of Saigon. Members of the club have been dedicated to the identification and repatriation of all who lost their lives in the joint operation, which involved U.S. troops of every service branch.

Nearly 200 Americans directly participated in the rescue attempt after Cambodian Khmer Rouge guerrillas captured the U.S.-flagged Mayaguez in the Gulf of Thailand on May 12, 1975. U.S. officials believed the ship and crew were held captive on Koh Tang Island, and three days later, President Gerald Ford authorized military action to free them.

Nine helicopters loaded with Marines and Navy corpsmen were deployed to the island. Two destroyers and an aircraft carrier moved into the waters surrounding it.

The first CH-53 chopper to go down – code-named Knife 13 – claimed all 23 onboard near the border of Laos and Cambodia. They were the first casualties of the mission. Eighteen more were killed in the assault, including the 13 who were shot down in the CH-53 Sea Stallion called Knife 31, off the shore of the well-fortified island.

Those who fought that day estimate that between 300 and 700 Khmer Rouge combatants were waiting in ambush as the U.S. forces, mostly young Marines, were inserted.

"We did not know the full scope of what was going on," said Dick Keith, a Marine first lieutenant at the time who had command of the U.S. troops from 7 a.m. until noon the day of the incident. "We were just flown in, given a quick brief, and were told that it was an area lightly defended."

That information proved wrong, as was intelligence that suggested the crew was held on Koh Tang. The Mayaguez and her crew were never on the island. The ship had been seized in the Gulf of Thailand, and the crew was held hostage on a fishing boat until released to the USS Henry B. Wilson after the destroyer took out Khmer Rouge gunboats that were guarding the captives.

The Americans who landed on the island were immediately pinned down by the larger force of well-armed guerrillas. With no way to fly back to extract them in broad daylight, the U.S. troops fought until nightfall when they were finally retrieved in a daring operation performed by Air Force pilots of HH-53 "Jolly Green" helicopters.

All U.S. personnel except three – Marine Lance Cpl. Joseph N. Hargrove, Pfc. Gary C. Hall and Pvt. Danny G. Marshall – were delivered to U.S. ships or accounted for that night. The fates of the three Marines remain unknown. They are believed to have either died fighting or were taken captive and later executed by the Khmer Rouge. "Until their bodies are recovered, it’s all speculation," said Al Bailey, president of the Koh Tang Mayaguez Veterans Organization. Those three, along with one other Marine and one Air Force pilot, who lost their lives that day are now the only members of the insertion force who remain unaccounted for. The operation put the last 41 names on the Vietnam War Memorial Wall in Washington.

The Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command conducted no fewer than 10 recovery efforts between 1991 and 2008 to find and retrieve the remains of the 13 who went down with Knife 31. Another 13 who were shot down in the chopper survived were rescued at sea. The JPAC efforts involved underwater retrieval of remains from the crash site off Koh Tang Island and DNA testing to confirm the last of the fallen men, U.S. Marine Pfc. Daniel A. Benedett of Seattle, in January 2013.

"It’s final closure ... they finally are at peace in American soil," said Dan Hoffman of Columbia, S.C., who addressed the 94th American Legion National Convention in Indianapolis last year. The story of the battle and the organization’s persistent search for answers and reconciliation appeared in the August 2012 American Legion Magazine. (Click here to see video)

"There really is no such thing as closure with a missing person," said Judy Vandegeer of Massachusetts, whose husband, Richard, was the pilot on Knife 31. At the service, she was seated next to Max Cleland, former U.S. senator and VA secretary, who lost three limbs in the Vietnam War. "In my private life, PTSD happens in strange ways," she explained after the service, noting that loud noises late at night can still disturb her in the way they do combat veterans who suffer from the condition. "It’s almost like having a double personality."

She, like all 13 families represented at the service, was greatly appreciative of the ceremony at Arlington, attended by approximately 200. The funeral included flag presentations to all the families, a flyover by an EC-130J, rifle volleys, the playing of Taps, and the "President’s Own" U.S. Marine Band. Marines conducting military honors were from the Marine Barracks Washington, known as the "8th and I," which was founded by President Thomas Jefferson and is the oldest post active post in the Marine Corps.

"I think everyone here felt greatly honored," Vandegeer said. "It was beautifully done."

Among the families was 24-year-old Erik Neff, an Air Force veteran inspired by the sacrifice of his uncle, Andres Garcia, who was among the 13. "To be that young and give your life for something greater than yourself is something to look up to," he said after the service.

His mother, Sara Johnson, was so moved by her brother Andres’ sacrifice that she joined the Navy and served nearly eight years. She was 14 when word came of her brother’s death. She received the U.S. flag on behalf of the family at the Arlington ceremony. "We always thought of him as a hero," she said.

Veterans of the Mayaguez operation continue to search for answers about the three who were unaccounted for and the other two whose remains have not been located. "It’s kind of like being in a bad plane crash and surviving," said Bailey, who was 19 when he was one of the first Marines on Koh Tang Island. "We all have a form of survivor’s guilt."

The camaraderie of the club and its efforts to reconcile the battle and its effects have helped Bailey cope with his own PTSD, he said. "When you almost die together, you never forget one another," he added. "It’s a bond that cannot be replaced. It’s a brotherhood. What I want most is to find the rest of my brothers."

The remains of the 13 were buried in one casket, together, as they had died. "They’re going to have 13 names on one headstone," Hoffman said. "There’s nothing else like it in Arlington."

The 13 buried at Arlington on the 38th anniversary of their sacrifice were:

U.S. Marine Pfc. Daniel A. Benedett

U.S. Marine Pfc. Lynn Blessing

U.S. Marine Pfc. Walter Boyd

U.S. Marine Lance Cpl. Gregory Copenhaver

U.S. Marine Lance Cpl. Andres Garcia

U.S. Marine Pfc. James J. Jacques

U.S. Marine Pfc. James R. Maxwell

U.S. Marine Pfc. Richard Rivenburgh

U.S. Marine Pfc. Antonio R. Sandoval

U.S. Marine Pfc. Kelton R. Turner

U.S. Navy Hospital Corpsman Bernard Gause Jr.

U.S. Navy Hospitalman Ronald J. Manning

U.S. Air Force 2nd Lt. Richard Vandegeer


To read more about "The Last Battle," click here. For blog coverage of the May 15 burial, click here.