Tuesday, September 04, 2012

TOP STORY >> First and last Vietnam casualties

Leader executive editor

Marine Pfc. James (Ricky) Maxwell of Center Ridge in Conway County was buried last week in Morrilton.

He was 18 years old when he was killed in May 1975 off the coast of Cambodia during an assault on an island to rescue the crew of the U.S. merchant ship Mayaguez. The crew was captured by communist Khmer Rouge in international waters.

It took 20 years to recover Maxwell’s remains and another 17 years to identify them after his brothers gave DNA samples to military investigators.

Maxwell was one of the last Americans to die in Southeast Asia.

Tim Tribble, one of the Marines who survived the fighting on the island, called Maxwell’s younger brother, Paul, before the funeral, and told him, “I waited 37 years to tell you. Your brother was a hero.”

Maxwell joined the Marines in 1974, when he was 17. In mid-May 1975, he and dozens of Marines were headed into the last battle of the Vietnam War.

The war ended for most Americans in April 1975. But U.S. forces had one more battle to fight on the island of Koh Tang to rescue the crew of the Mayaguez.

Eight Air Force Jolly Green Giant helicopters were carrying 179 Marines in the first assault on the island. More reinforcements were brought in during the three-day battle, but they met fierce resistance from some 200 Khmer Rouge, who shot down several helicopters and killed 18 Marines as they landed on the beach.

Maxwell’s helicopter was shot down on May 15 before it could land on Koh Tang. The pilot and co-pilot were killed, along with several others.

Paul Maxwell said Tribble told him how his brother had died. Despite earlier accounts, he wasn’t killed in the helicopter and washed out to sea.

“Ricky and Tribble and another Marine got out of the helicopter,” Paul Maxwell said.

The helicopter had landed in shallow waters, Tribble told him. The three surviving Marines shot at the enemy, but their weapons jammed. Maxwell was shot in the neck and died near the water.

Tribble and another Marine swam out to sea and were rescued by the Navy. Other survivors were also picked up in the ocean.

“My brother died saving lives,” Paul said. “He should have received the Medal of Honor instead of a Purple Heart.”

When the Marines finally reached the Mayaguez, they found it deserted.

According to the Air Force National Museum web site, besides the 18 dead, 50 others were wounded. In addition, “23 more Air Force personnel died in a support force helicopter crash in Thailand due to mechanical failure.”

The Mayaguez crew was later found on a small boat out in the sea.

The war lasted officially for 16 years. Two generations fought in the war. Maxwell’s father, William, was an airman stationed at Little Rock Air Force Base who was in Vietnam in the late 1960s. His family believes he died from bone cancer in 1970 because of exposure to Agent Orange in Vietnam.

James Maxwell’s remains were discovered in 1995, but it took several years to identify the men who were killed on the island. His family gave blood samples requested by the military, which helped identify the bones recovered off the island as Maxwell’s.

Remains that could not be identified through DNA will be buried at Arlington Cemetery later this month. Relatives of the fallen service members have been invited to attend the ceremony.

“I love my brother,” Paul Maxwell said. “Thank God he’s come home.”

The names of the fallen on the Vietnam Memorial Wall start from the beginning of the war in 1959 and end in 1975. James Maxwell’s name appears just before the last line. Ahead of him are the names of 58,265 Americans who were killed or are missing. Five more are listed under him.

If you go back to the first panel at the memorial, you’ll see the name of another Arkansan, Army Maj. Walter Hugh Moon, a Green Beret who was killed in Laos more than 50 years ago.

Moon, who was from Rudy in Crawford County, was a World War II veteran and a special forces commander in Laos. He was among the first group of military advisers sent to Southeast Asia during the Eisenhower administration. Hundreds more arrived after President Kennedy took office.

Moon’s name is among the first listed on the memorial — executed in captivity in Laos in July 1961.

Moon was the 14th American casualty of the war and the first Arkansan killed in Southeast Asia. Moon’s name appears on the third line of the Vietnam Memorial. The first name is that of Army Maj. Dale Richard Buis of Pender, Nev., an adviser to the Vietnamese military who was killed in July 1959.

Moon’s infantry unit came under attack deep in Laos in April 1961. Some of his men scrambled into the jungle and survived, but Moon and several others were captured.

Moon tried to escape several times and was wounded the last time he tried to get out of the POW camp. According to other POWs, he deteriorated physically and emotionally and was executed that summer.

He was 38. His body was never recovered.