Dead Or Alive?

Lt. Jim Davis
In the second report in a two-part series, CBS News Correspondent Vince Gonzales reports on newly declassified documents that suggests three Marines might have been left behind, alive, after a military mission off Cambodia.

They are the last names on the Vietnam War Memorial; 15 men who died in a battle waged weeks after the war had ended, killed on the beaches of Koh Tang during an attempt to rescue the crew of a captured American merchant ship, the S.S. Mayaguez.

Remains are still being recovered on this Cambodian island and returned home for a proper burial. But nothing can put to rest the fear that three Marines who didn't make it out alive -- may have been alive when the last U.S. helicopter took off from Koh Tang Island.

"That's the worst possible scenario I could think of," recalls Lt. Col. Jim Davis (Ret.), U.S. Marine Corps.

Davis was the last officer on the island. In battlefield radio tapes obtained by CBS News, Davis can be heard as U.S. forces pulled out under heavy fire:

Davis: "They're all around us. What can you do for us? Over?"

Pilot: "We're coming! We're coming! How many people you gonna have left?"

Davis: "I just don't know. It's dark out here and I don't know who's going and who's here. I'm just going to have to do the best I can."

A short time later Davis got all his men out and he'd been assured other units were off the island.

Pilot: "Captain Davis advises that all Marines are off the island."

Pilot #2: "Outstanding. That's exactly what we're looking for."

But he wasn't told three Marines from another unit were missing: Gary Hall, Danny Marshall and Joseph Hargrove. Davis volunteered to go back. Request denied.

"If there would have been any inkling that they were alive, we would have returned. There would have been no doubt," says Davis.

Even though the Pentagon concluded the Marines were killed in action, (click here to read the report in .pdf format) CBS News has learned that right after the battle, military investigators talked to four Marines who saw one of the men alive, "on the beach," just "ten minutes" before "the last helicopter" took off (click here to read their statements, .pdf).

And from the crew of that helicopter, more evidence men were left behind alive.

Pilot #1: "Some of the Marines on board say there are still Marines on the island at this time."

Pilot #2: "OK there is still Marines on the island, in the LZ? Is that affirmative?"

Pilot #1: "That's affirmative. That's what was passed on to us by the Marines on the chopper at this time."

Pilot #2: "OK, find out if they were in the LZ or whether they were maintaining a perimeter defense position?"
And then later:

Pilot #1: "Sir, we are told by the people in here that there are more Marines on the beach."

And since the 1980s, the military has collected numerous reports from Cambodians describing Marines who "survived for days or weeks" before being "captured, executed and buried." Some describe "three Americans...killed in a firefight" (click here to read a sampling of their statements, .pdf).

"They were not in my rifle company. What I regret and what makes me feel bad about the situation is I was the last commander on the island. So, regardless of who those Marines belonged to, I still share the guilt of those missing Marines. I think about it every night," admits Davis.

So does Gail Hargrove, who lost her husband, Joseph. "For years you know you think hopefully he's alive, then I decided the best thing to do was pray him to heaven."

She'd only been married to him for 33 days before he was sent into battle; she's been grieving for 25 years. "Everything you want is right there. And all of a sudden you open your eyes and boom. Just like the snap of a finger and everything you got is taken away," explains Gail.

Recently, the widow and the officer met for the first time as the remains of an Air Force pilot, another casualty of the Mayaguez Incident, were buried.

After the ceremony, Gail Hargrove had comforting words for Jim Davis. "If you're losing any sleep over my husband-- don't. Cause he's in heaven."

They have a special bond, the agony felt by those who carry the memory of men whose fate is unknown.

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