A Military Mission Gone Wrong

cpl. Hargrove
In a two-part series, CBS News Correspondent Vince Gonzales reports on new information that casts doubt on the declared success of a 25-year-old military mission.
At the motel where she works, the graveyard shift can be lonely. But Gail Hargrove has had 25 years of practice being alone.

On the day of her wedding, she was 18, and her bridegroom was 23.

Just 33 days later, she said goodbye to her new husband, Cpl. Joseph Hargrove, as he shipped out for the Far East.

Two months later, in April 1975, the war in Vietnam ended. As Americans fled Saigon, Joseph Hargrove was thousands of miles away on a Marine base in Japan, writing love letters to Gail: "I love thinking of you. There's nothing I'd rather do. And when this year is up, my love, I'm coming back to you."

But he never came back.

Just two weeks after the humiliating defeat in Vietnam, Cambodia seized an American merchant ship, the S.S. Mayaguez. U.S. intelligence said the crew was taken to the island of Koh Tang.

Cpl. Hargrove was part of a rescue mission ordered by President Ford. It was hailed as a success.

At the time, President Gerald Ford announced, "The vessel has been recovered intact, and the entire crew has been rescued."

But, according to military documents and films obtained by CBS News and also according to interviews with veterans of the Mayaguez incident, the operation was an intelligence disaster that needlessly cost American lives.

A Last Love Letter
Just For You

The day of the battle, May 15, 1975, was the last day Joseph Hargrove was seen alive. It was also his birthday. His last love letter to Gail, which she received a few days after he disappeared, was postmarked May 15, 1975. It included the following poem.

I'd walk 1,000 miles.
I'd swim across the ocean.
I'd work all day and all night, too.
These are just a few of the things I'd do just for you.
I'll make you as happy as anybody could be.
I'll make you a queen because a queen you are to me.
I'll do anything you ask.
I would steal.
I would lie.
I'd be blue.
I'd do anything you ask, darling.
I would even die...just for you.

Your loving husband,

Jim Davis and other Marine officers planned the assault, even though no maps of the island were available. They didn't even havproper aerial photos. Davis actually went up in a Navy plane and took his own photos, using a camera and film bought at a base PX. But the plane was too high and the fuzzy images were not much help.

The Marine officers were told to expect 14 to 40 lightly armed pirates on Koh Tang Island. Instead, hundreds of heavily armed Cambodians were waiting.

Incredibly, intelligence reports prepared two days before the assault accurately estimated as many as 300 heavily armed Cambodian soldiers on the island. But the Marines never saw those reports.

Just before the assault began, as he was boarding his helicopter, Davis was finally handed spy-plane photos of the island. They showed fortifications and a Cambodian force that was dug in and ready for battle.

Most of his Marines had never been in combat. Davis, as one of the few combat veterans, knew they were in trouble. He recalls, "Having been in Vietnam, I'll be honest with you, what went through my head was, 'Oh, Lord! Here we go again.'"

Planes circling the island in the days before the attack took anti-aircraft fire and saw 30 to 50 campfires in the jungle below. Again, the information was not passed on.

And the Mayaguez crew wasn't even on Koh Tang Island. The men had been released at a different location before the Marines had even landed.

As the U.S. Air Force helicopters carrying the Marines prepared to land on Koh Tang, the Cambodians opened fire.

Most of the rescue mission's helicopters were severely damaged. Three of them were blown out of the sky.

The final toll: 15 dead, 50 wounded, and three missing, including Joseph Hargrove.

"A few good men can't do their job if you don't give them a few good facts," says Gail Hargrove.

"It still wears very heavy on your mind, those that did not make it out, especially the missing. That part was a disaster," says Davis.

"It was a bad day," concludes Gail Hargrove. "A real bad day."

The widow and the officer recently met at the funeral of another casualty of the Mayaguez incident. And they discovered they are bound together not only by sorrow but by a fear -- fear that the three missing Marines were left behind.


"I worry about the worst scenario, the fact that they could have survived for days," says Davis. "They could have been captured."