By this point, over three decades after the fact, relatively few readers are familiar with the Vietnam War. So it goes without saying that the Mayaguez Incident in May 1975 is even more obscure, unless you're part of the over fifty crowd that remembers that time period. The Last Boarding Party, written by Clayton K. S. Chun, is one of the latest entries in Osprey's Raid series and it covers the U.S. military operations to recover the SS Mayaguez and its crew from the Khmer Rouge. This is an action which should be remembered, since it helped to spur the United States toward initiating serious military reforms which led to joint doctrine in the 1980s. I'ld like to say this is a great book and that readers will learn a lot about the raid but unfortunately, this book is plagued by serious weaknesses. Foremost, The Last Boarding Party title makes this sound like a tactical account, but there are no first-person accounts incorporated into the narrative and in fact, much of the focus is on senior decision-makers in Washington. If you want a tactical perspective on this operation, read Ralph Wetterhahn's The Last Battle: The Mayaguez Incident and the End of the Vietnam War (2001). Although Chun mentions the names of most of the officers in the raiding force, he provides virtually no information (or photos) of them and the troops remain mostly nameless, faceless non-entities. Nor does the author even bother to list the names of the 18 American fatalities in this operation (but spends time telling us what Bush, Cheney and Kissinger were doing later) - how insulting! Amazingly, the author never bothered to consult with the very active Koh Tang vets groups, which has plenty of information - including better pictures - none of which was incorporated in the volume. As for the Khmer Rouge on Koh Tang, there is more information about their weaponry in the Wikipedia article on the Mayaguez than there is in this book. Finally, the author never even bothers to mention the on-going efforts to retrieve U.S. military remains from Koh-Tang. These return missions have added some detail about the raid, none of which is incorporated in this book. If the author had bothered to use the resources of the Internet and reach out to former members of the raiding force, he could have written a much better book, instead of relying on just high-level accounts. This book falls considerably short of the mark.
The volume begins with a high level section discussing the chaos in Indochina after the fall of Saigon and Phnom Penh and the US withdrawal. He then moves promptly into the seizure of the American cargo ship SS Mayaguez by Khmer Rouge forces in the Gulf of Thailand (suggesting that it was a local initiative without national-level authorization, but this theory is a weak one), followed by the Ford Administration's scramble to develop a military-diplomatic response, which led to the raid. About half the volume is spent leading up to the raid, discussing the planning and political discussions in the White House/NSC. However, the author failed to provide a breakdown of the raiding force as in other Raid-series volumes or provide much specific information on how these forces were pulled together at a moment's notice - this is where some first-person accounts would have helped. It also would have helped to have a map showing the airbases in Thailand where the helicopters were coming from and the approaching USS Coral Sea task force; readers will be find the force deployments difficult to understand without them. The recovery of the Mayaguez itself is covered in straight-forward fashion, because there was no resistance.
The author spends just under 30 pages on the fighting on Koh Tang island, which was the main event as far as this operation went. Up front, the BEV maps are close to useless and show less detail than the simple 2-D maps in Wetterhahn's book. Although the author puts a commendable level of detail into the opening moments of the assault, when three US helicopters were shot down in a matter of minutes, the level of detail abruptly evaporates once the US Marines are on the island and then shifts back to the strategic level. The author gives the impression that all of the Marines were pinned down for their 14 hours on the island, but photographs at the Koh Tang vets website indicate that the Marines captured a number of huts used by the garrison and some were lounging around with their helmets off and weapons by their side. Although one US platoon was isolated, no detail is provided about their ordeal. In fact, only a single US Marine was KIA on the island itself - Lcpl Ashton Loney - which is not even mentioned in this volume. Instead, the author was too focused on what Cheney and Kissinger were doing in Washington. There is also a lack of real analysis in this volume, although the author concludes with a section about how the raid contributed to the development of joint doctrine a decade later. Maybe. However, an equally valid claim can be made that we repeated many of the joint errors five years later at Desert One and then in 1983 on Grenada and only then, made an effort to reform. Overall, this volume provides only a very superficial overview of the raid itself and is too focused on high-level decision-making, but it would be a useful discussion piece for a seminar on the development of joint doctrine in a military seminar - apparently the intended audience.