1975 was a turbulent year for South East Asia. The Vietnam War was drawing to a close, bringing an end to more than 8 years of the most unpopular war in US history. And in spite of the thousands of lives and millions of dollars sacrificed, the thing that US planners feared most, the thing that had brought them into the war in the first place, had come to pass. Communist revolutions were sweeping across the region. In April, the North Vietnamese communists marched into the streets of Saigon, leaving them in complete control of the country.
And in Cambodia, the Khmer Rouge was advancing on the capital as the government forces rapidly ran out of ammunition. By the end of the month, the Khmer Rouge had come to power. What followed was one of the worst periods of mass-killing in human history. The Khmer Rouge wanted to transform Cambodia into a society without class. Farmers were forced off of their land and onto collective fields. There, they were forced to work 12-hour days with little food. Anyone who tried to gather food to survive was shot for practicing “capitalism.” Even wearing glasses was seen as a sign of being an intellectual and was grounds for execution.
But as the SS Mayaguez steamed through the Gulf of Thailand, the crew would have had little idea of what was going on in Cambodia. Still, they were giving the country a wide berth. The Mayaguez was a cargo ship registered to an American company. Obviously, this would have made them unwelcome in the waters of Cambodia. But the captain, Charles Miller, hoped to avoid trouble by sticking to the international waters off the coast. Unfortunately, as the ship steamed through the waves on the afternoon of May 12, 1975, trouble is exactly what he got.
The first sign that anything was wrong came when the crew spotted several small boats approaching the ship. One of the ships pulled up alongside the Mayaguez and fired a warning machine gun round across the bow. Captain Miller immediately ordered the ship to slow down. But when this didn’t happen soon enough for the men on the boats, one fired another warning shot. But this time, it came from a rocket-propelled grenade. Captain Miller then stopped the ship, and seven men from the boats boarded the Mayaguez with machine guns at the ready.
The men were from the Khmer Rouge, and they informed the captain that his ship had crossed into their territory. Gesturing at a map, their commander ordered the Mayaguez to sail to Poulo Wai island, which was controlled by the Khmer Rouge. After the ship anchored at the island, another group of Khmer Rouge soldiers boarded the ship to take control of the crew. Their leader told Captain Miller to sail to the city of Ream on the Cambodian Mainland. Miller now had a choice to make. Should he sail to Ream as a well-guarded prison cell, or was there some way he could save his ship?