EVANSDALE | Fred Morris wanted to go back. He had to go back. He needed to go back.
Back 40 years. Back to an island off the coast of Cambodia. Back to a defining moment in his life. Back with his fellow Marines -- those still living, and those who didn't come back.
"It's been on my bucket list for a long time," said Morris. "It was a very rewarding trip. I left a lot of demons on that island."
Morris, a 1974 East High School graduate and co-owner of Peoples Appliance in Waterloo, was among a force of U.S. Marines who landed on the Cambodian island of Koh Tang on May 15, 1975, to rescue the American freighter SS Mayaguez.
The ship was hijacked by the Communist Khmer Rouge government -- the Democratic Republic of Kampuchea -- which took over the country as neighboring South Vietnam fell a few weeks earlier. The Americans encountered a well-armed veteran Khmer Rouge force.
It is generally considered the final battle of the Vietnam War. The Mayaguez crew of about 40 was released and the ship recovered, but the operation resulted in the deaths of 41 Americans in helicopter crashes and combat, including three Marines who were left behind. Morris was wounded by shrapnel and received a Purple Heart in 2009.
Morris returned to Koh Tang on the 40th anniversary of the battle. His fellow veterans have reunited in recent years.
"We're having reunions now, and we said 'Let's go back,'" Morris said.
He and comrades got to meet the leader of the Khmer Rouge force that opposed them, Em Son -- himself now being investigated by a United Nations-backed Cambodian tribunal for war crimes for separate incidents.
"That was kind of an eye-opening experience," Morris said of the encounter with the enemy commander. "You had to filter through what he said -- he's up under possible war crimes. He was real careful about what he said."
Morris said he and other veterans of the incident estimate the size of the Khmer Rouge force to be several hundred -- maybe 200 to 600, based on intelligence gathered before and after the incident.
"He says 60, and they only lost 13 guys," Morris said. "I said 'Listen, I was on one tiny spot, and from where I am I saw half that many die, and others say the same thing.'" But Em Son stuck to his contention.
"Our intelligence officer intercepted a radio message that they got maybe 125 casualties," Morris said.
Some of Em Son's story matched up with the recollections and research of Morris and his fellow Marines, but they suspect he may have been less than truthful on other points, possibly because he's under investigation in connection with the deaths of Vietnamese held as slave laborers during the Cambodia-Vietnam border war in the late 1970s.
Em Son did say he personally executed one of the three Marines who were separated from their comrades and left behind on the island. The others, captured after about a week, were taken to the mainland. According to one account, Morris said, "They interrogated them and, instead of wasting bullets, bludgeoned them to death with an M-79 grenade launcher," using the captured American's weapon as a club.
That kind of death was a common practice of the Khmer Rouge regime under dictator Pol Pot, notorious for the slaughter of millions depicted in the movie "The Killing Fields." "Bullets were expensive," Morris said.
However, Morris said, the conversation with Em Son was civil, not adversarial. The old guerrilla had softened somewhat with age, even smiling and laughing occasionally. He lost a leg in 1992 stepping on an old land mine.
Shortly before the American veterans made their trip, a team from the Joint POW-MIA Accounting Command was in Cambodia searching for remains of Americans lost in the engagement.
In previous Courier interviews, Morris, in one of two companies of Marines on the island, noted he was barely out of boot camp at the time of the engagement. The enemy strength was underestimated, and Morris said he and comrades were pinned down most of the day during the fight. A heavily armed AC-130 gunship took out many of the opposition positions and they were extricated by helicopter. The Cambodians released the Mayaguez crew before much of the operation had begun.
"We rescued 43 guys" on the Mayaguez "and we lost 41. So we traded numbers," Morris said. U.S. politicians hailed the operation as a victory, wanting to save face after the collapse of Vietnam and Cambodia following the withdrawal of U.S. ground forces two years earlier.
Morris and his comrades dedicated a memorial on the island to those lost in the battle. Em Son had his photo taken with the Americans at the memorial. Their names also are on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. Morris also participated in a memorial service at the U.S. Embassy in Phnom Penh, the Cambodian capital.
The group also toured the Cambodian mainland. Its government professes to be Communist, but Morris reports capitalism is alive and well there, with hard-working street vendors, shopkeepers and small businesses. "I was so impressed," he said.
He also saw the bulk of the island on which he fought 40 years ago -- now marketed as a resort area.
"I just saw one tiny section of the island, being pinned down for 14 hours," Morris said. "Getting to walk the island and see where the other guys were at their positions, and the beautiful beaches, this is going to be a huge destination.
"It was like a big weight lifted," Morris said. "The island, it's beautiful, but I didn't see it as that. But going back and getting to look at it and walking the beaches, it's just a beautiful island. And I left all those bad thoughts on it. I don't need them any more."