EVANSDALE - May 15, 1975 was the longest day in Fred Morris' life.
It was two weeks after the fall of Saigon and the end of the Vietnam War. The American merchant ship SS Mayaguez had been seized by the Cambodian government. Barely out of boot camp, Morris and about 180 other Marines were sent to Koh Tang Island off the coast of Cambodia to rescue the ship and crew.
They were told the Cambodian force was about 20. Instead, it may have been as many as 600 - all seasoned Khmer Rouge communist guerrillas.
The Marine force was under fire all day. "I was on the first helicopter to land, and was on the last one off the island 14 hours later," he said.
Before the day was over, the Mayaguez and its crew were rescued, but 41 Americans were dead and another 50 were wounded.
One of those injured was Morris, who took a piece of shrapnel through the leg. He's still waiting for his Purple Heart, 30 years later.
Now, Morris and others involved in the Mayaguez incident will tell their story on a History Channel television documentary to air at 9 p.m. Iowa time Friday. The Discovery Channel also previously aired a similar documentary.
Morris, a 1974 graduate of East High School and now co-owner of People's Appliance in Waterloo, gave a 90-minute interview for the History Channel documentary in January.
"I was supposed to be mop up" during the operation, Morris said, but the helicopter he was on took the first hits. He and the other untried Marines were taken completely by surprise.
"We land and we're really expecting nothing," he said. "This was supposed to be a cakewalk, we're supposed to be home by noon. All of a sudden you hear these snaps" and muzzle flashes from gunshots. The helicopter is "just being shredded. They're Air Force helicopters, so they don't have armor plating like the Marine helicopters do."
The pilot "comes in and he starts hovering like he's looking for a landing spot. As he's going around, you're seeing the rounds (bullets) going through this thing - it was just unbelievable," including rocket-propelled grenades and other ground fire.
The green troops initially hesitated when ordered off the helicopter. "About that time a round went through and a mist started spraying all over the inside of the helicopter. It was pretty obvious it was safer outside than inside."
The helicopter "got shot up so bad he just made it off the coastline and crashed and sunk," Morris said. "He lost an engine when he dropped us off. The crew chief rescued the pilot and the co-pilot, and didn't make it out himself."
"We ended up landing in their (Khmer Rouge) parade field. The rest of the island was nothing but jungle," Morris said.
"We were alone on the island for like an hour and a half. There was like 20 of us," Morris said.
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Many helicopters were damaged or destroyed that day. One helicopter lost a tail section and crashed on the beach; the Marines on board that ship were stranded. The Khmer Rouge "used them as bait" to fire on would-be rescuers, Morris said. "They lost eight helicopters that day trying to rescue them."
A C-130 Hercules heavy transport plane started knocking out enemy positions as they fired on the U.S. helicopters. One Khmer Rouge gun position, heavily dug into a network of tunnels, was on a bluff above where Morris and his comrades landed. The C-130 dropped a 15,000 pound "daisy cutter" bomb, similar to those used in 2001 in Afghanistan against Taliban and al-Qaida forces.
"We knew they were dropping something, because the gunnery sergeant came around and said 'OK, at such and such a time, you be dug in because we don't want anything above ground.' This thing takes every thing about 18 inches above the ground."
That cleared away the resistance for a time. Morris and his fellow Marines, under-equipped and out of ammunition themselves, approached a hut on the beach that has been used by the Khmer Rouge. "They had every type U.S. ammunition and gun in there you can imagine," apparently captured from U.S. forces earlier, during the Indochina war.
The resistance quieted as Morris and a couple of his sergeants paused for a smoke on the beach, the noise from the surf roaring in their ears. Morris had taken pictures of the scene with a small camera he had in his flak jacket. It was a momentary respite.
They saw sand kicking up from the beach and thought it was a crab or some other animal digging. It was fire from Cambodian troops up the shoreline. The surf noise had drowned out the report from their guns.
"They just backed up and regrouped," Morris said. "Other than that one lull, you were pinned down most of the time."
The tide of battle turned. As Marine reinforcements hit Koh Tang Island, "we finally got word that the crew had been released. So now we have no reason to be there" Morris said. The rescue helicopters had to fly to Thailand to refuel, return, and evacuate the Marines to the Coral Sea. Night was falling on the jungle island.
"Triple canopy jungle during the daytime is dark. At night, it is just nothing but flat-out scary, especially when it's alive," Morris said. "All you can hear is people crawling through. As they would evacuate each time, all you could do is shoot at muzzles, (muzzle flashes), because it was totally dark."
So many U.S. helicopters were shot down or damaged in the attack that many were not deemed flight-worthy. It appeared Morris' group, the last on the island, was lost. A crew took a helicopter which was not deemed flight-worthy from Thailand into the fray and eventually saved Morris and his comrades, still under enemy fire.
A member of that helicopter crew was U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Lynn Riley of Oskaloosa, a flight engineer and door gunner.
"We were doing check flights to see if we could make it flyable, mission-worthy," Riley said. "We heard over the radio that there were so many helicopters shot down, and we decided it was good enough to fly. Those are our buddies out there, so it's time to go. We landed and the rest is history. We just did our job."
The walls of the helicopter were shaking, as the Marines dumped equipment out to get the craft aloft, but Riley told him later the defective craft was shaking when it left Thailand empty for the island. Morris recalls that Riley told the Marines on board, "It's only by the grace of God you guys are here."
Contact Pat Kinney at (319) 291-1484 or Pat.Kinney@wcfcourier.com.