The Last Battle:

The Mayaguez Incident and the End of the Vietnam War


As commanding and revelatory as the recent best-sellers Flags of Our Fathers and Black Hawk Down, this new volume on the Vietnam War ranges from an obscure Cambodian island in Southeast Asia to the Oval Office of the White House as it chronicles one of the most overlooked incidents and heartbreaking episodes in America's costliest foreign conflict. On May 12, 1975, barely two weeks after U.S. helicopters lifted off the roof of the American embassy in Saigon, the S.S. Mayaguez was seized by Cambodian forces. Four days later, President Gerald Ford ordered a raid to free the ship, even though American diplomacy had already successfully negotiated its release. The U.S. Marine strike force took flight. The ensuing battle, the last of the war, took fourteen hours and the lives of forty-one Americans, including three soldiers who were unwittingly left behind when the U.S. choppers flew off. Vietnam veteran Ralph Wetterhahn has spent more than five years investigating what happened that day in the Cambodian jungle: how the abandonment of the three men who guarded the flank of the vulnerable Marine position occurred; why they were left to their tragic fate; and how -- from unprecedented interviews with the Khmer Rouge captors -- they met their grisly deaths. His spellbinding account redeems to our national memory these three entirely forgotten young Marines and their brave deeds under fire.
"Ralph Wetterhahn has the eye of an historian and the doggedness of the finest reporters. The author, who has spent years putting together the pieces of this hidden tale, grittily digs out the details of the fierce air, sea and ground battle, paints telling portraits of the three abandoned marines by going back to their hometowns and even tracks down the Khmer Rouge commander who ordered their executions. His book, written with a remarkably even hand, is in many ways a template for much of the Indochina conflict--secrets kept from the public, men taken prisoner and neither recovered nor honored, a government too often dedicated to face-saving and image. Not until the very end of the 1990s did the Pentagon finally provide some of the truth about the fate of the three marines. One has to think that Wetterhahn's in-the-works book had something to do with that brief burst of candor."

--Sydney Schanberg, Pulitzer-prize winning journalist and author of The Death and Life of Dith Pran, basis of the Oscar-winning film "The Killing Fields"

"Like the Vietnam War, the Mayaguez Incident is often recalled only for its mistakes and not for the lessons of duty and honor exemplified in the conduct of the men who fought it. This gripping account of the battle for Koh Tang, and the unwitting abandonment of three American marines on her shores, redeems the glory of all who fought to free the captured crew of the Mayaguez -- and resolves the fate of the men we left behind. As Wetterhahn shows, in the fog of a hard battle gone wrong, they held high a lantern of courage and faith that illuminated the way home with honor."

--Senator John McCain, author of Faith of My Fathers

"An absorbing story of incredible bravery and sacrifice by marines, airmen, and sailors in battle, and a depressing account of leadership failure from the White House down to senior commanders in the field. This is a cautionary tale about leaders who bring disaster when they micromanage military crises half a world away. It should be read by all Americans concerned about their nation's military forces."

--Bevin Alexander, author of How Hitler Could Have Won WWII

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