Koh Tang Island Veterans Visit NSWC Crane

Story Number: NNS080814-18Release Date: 8/14/2008 3:34:00 PM
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By Mary Camacho, Crane Division, Naval Surface Warfare Center Public Affairs

CRANE, Ind. (NNS) -- A group of Vietnam veterans who participated in the last battle of the Vietnam War visited and toured Crane Division, Naval Surface Warfare Center (NSWC) Crane on July 30. The visit to NSWC Crane was part of a week-long reunion and celebration in Indiana.

The group, named the "Koh Tang Beach Club," consists of Navy, Marines and Air Force personnel who played a major part in the recovery of the SS Mayaguez on Koh Tang Island on May 15, 1975. The SS Mayaguez had been seized in international waters by the Cambodian Navy on May 12.

The veterans toured a Ground Mobility System high mobility multipurpose wheeled vehicle demonstration by Jack Terrell of Expeditionary Systems Engineering. Following the vehicle tour, the group participated in a small arms briefing by Scott Johnson and an electro-optics technology briefing by Bill McGannon.

The members of the Koh Tang Beach Club who visited Crane included Air Force veteran Bob Blough; and Marine veterans Larry Barnett, Dan Hoffman, Al Bailey, Fred Morris, and Jerry Gettelfinger and Navy veterans Eddie E.J. Oswalt and Tom Noble.

In addition to the tour of Crane, the veterans rode in a float in the Old Settlers Parade in Odon, Ind., visited a memorial wall for Indiana veterans, and participated in a ceremony at a memorial marker in DePauw, Ind. dedicated to the 38 U.S. servicemen killed and three missing in action in the May 1975 rescuing of the SS Mayaquez.

While at the Mayaguez Memorial marker, the group buried a "challenge coin" and toasted the memories of their fellow service members who died or are listed as missing in action.

"We leave this coin forever for the spirits of those who can't come home," said retired Lt. Cmdr. Tom Noble, of Odon, Ind., who took part in rescue operation of Mayaguez, which was seized by Cambodian Khmer Rouge gunboats.

Noble, who was stationed on USS Henry B. Wilson (DDG 7), boarded a gig along with eight other Sailors, and helped rescue 13 Marine and Air Force personnel who were shot down while attempting to land on Koh Tang Island, where they believed the SS Mayaguez crew to be. Henry B. Wilson's crew then proceeded to intercept a fishing boat and discovered the occupants were the crew of SS Mayaguez.

The ship rescued 40 members of the crew, along with five Thai fishermen. But there were still U.S. forces on the island who were unaware that the Mayaguez crew had been rescued, so Noble's ship proceeded toward Koh Tang island and provided gunfire support to the Marines who were engaged in close combat on the island.

HH-53 helicopters flew to the island to rescue the Marines, who were then flown to USS Harold E. Holt (FF 1074) or USS Coral Sea (CV 43). By the evening of May 15, it appeared that all Marines on the island were rescued.

"We were told that all of the people that were alive had been extracted from the island," recalled Noble. USS Henry B. Wilson patrolled the coast of Koh Tang Island, "...looking for any sign of Americans who might have been left on the island, but none were sighted," he said.

In actuality, three U.S. service members were unaccounted for. Three members of a machine-gun team, Army Pfc. Gary L. Hall, Pvt. Danny G. Marshall and Marine Lance Cpl. Joseph N. Hargrove lost radio contact with rescuers, and a final sweep of the beach with helicopters and gigs were unable to locate them. They were subsequently declared Missing in Action.

Jerry Gettelfinger was a friend of the three service members and served on a machine-gun team with them. "We have every reason to believe they maintained their gun position during the battle," he said.

"It was Gettelfinger who had the memorial marker built and erected in DePauw. "I wanted a memorial to honor them, my friends."

Dan Hoffman, a Marine Corps lieutenant, said that 33 years ago he didn't know where he was going or doing, but he did it. "All of us know the three we left behind. I want them to know that none of us would have left you there if we knew. I would like to think that at least a part of their spirits is at this memorial."

The Koh Tang Beach Club veterans said they enjoyed the reunion and the NSWC Crane tour. The parade however, was the highlight of the visit.

"There was such spirit of enthusiasm and pride in the parade," said Dan Hoffman. "I saw a lot of senior citizens, World War II veterans and young people. Everyone stood up and waved a flag as we passed."

But Al Bailey summed it up the best. "It took 33 years, but we finally got our parade. This was the parade I never had."

For more news from Crane Division, Naval Surface Warfare Center, visit www.navy.mil/local/crane/.

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