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The Mayagüez incident was the first major foreign policy crisis that United States President Gerald R. Ford encountered.

The crisis began on May 12, 1975, when Khmer Rouge naval forces operating in the territorial waters of Cambodia seized the U.S. merchant ship SS Mayagüez and removed its crew for questioning. President Ford was determined to end the crisis decisively, believing that the recent withdrawal of the United States from the Vietnam War had severely damaged the country's reputation. Ford also wished to avoid echoes of the USS Pueblo, an American naval ship captured by North Korea in 1968.

Negotiations were not feasible, as the United States had no diplomatic contact with the newly installed Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia. President Ford ordered a military response to punish the Khmer Rouge and retake the ship and crew, thought to be on an island known as Koh Tang, approximetely 50 miles off the southern coast of Cambodia near that country's shared border with Vietnam. Ford ordered the aircraft carrier USS Coral Sea into the area, and moved a substantial number of Marines from Okinawa to U Tapao Airforce Base in Thailand.

On May 15, eleven U.S. Air Force helicopters launched from U Tapao, transferred seventy men to the USS Holt which subsequently came alongside the Mayagüez in the first hostile ship-to-ship boarding since the War of 1812—they found the SS Mayagüez empty.

Eight helicopters carrying approximately 200 men assaulted the eastern and western beaches of Koh Tang's northern neck; four of the helicopters were shot down in the opening minutes of the battle and only one escaped undamaged. Thirteen survivors were rescued from the water after swimming four hours to the USS Wilson offshore and three isolated contingents of U.S. Marines were left on the island: the largest numbering only sixty men. Unknown to the U.S. leaders of the attack, the Khmer were well entrenched in anticipation of a Vietnamese attack over an ongoing territorial dispute.

As the remaining helicopters organized as a second wave, the Mayagüez crew was freed from an island forty miles away. The desperately needed second wave was nearly recalled by the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff before the Marine assault commander on Koh Tang persevered in arguing that the second wave be landed before the western beach was overrun and the Marines there wiped out.

As darkness closed fourteen hours after the initial landings, the last available helicopter rescued the final group of Marines. In all phases of the operation, fifty service men were wounded and forty-one killed, including three men believed to have been left behind alive and subsequently executed, and twenty-three Air Force personnel killed earlier while enroute to the staging area at U Tapao. It is believed that approximately sixty Khmer Rouge soldiers were killed out of a land and sea force of about 300.

The Mayagüez incident had an indirect effect on the politics of Thailand. The U Tapao airbase was used by American forces despite an explicit refusal by the Thai government to allow this, and there was considerable anger towards the United States as a result. The Thai government called the act a violation of Thailand's sovereignty, and many Thai groups called for the withdrawal of all American forces from the country. There was also heightened distrust in Thailand of the Thai military, which was presumed to be complicit in the use of its airbase.

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