Weeks after arriving in Vietnam in 1968, Korean War veteran Sergeant First Class Floyd Wilmoth- who enlisted in the US Army in 1953- stepped aboard the river vessel LCU1577 ‘Sunset Strip’. Days later, Wilmouth and his crew were unwittingly embroiled in an international incident between Cambodia and the United States.
The following is from selected extracts from a very long 2001 interview between Wilmouth and Wesley Michael. The order that the events were relayed have been changed for clarity, but the words are all Mr. Wilmoth’s own.
“I was assigned to the 5th Heavy Boat Company in Vung Tau. Upon arriving in Vung Tau, I was assigned to the Landing Craft Utility [LCU] 1577 Sunset Strip which was on a supply run to Saigon. I was in my company area for approximately five days before the vessel came in.
1577 Sunset Strip was the nickname of the vessel. I don’t remember the company commander’s name because I never saw him. I never saw the first sergeant for the five days that I was in the company area. I was never issued a weapon from the company. I was never issued a sheet to put on my bunk. I thought the unit commander and first sergeant had a very poor run company.
Once my vessel came in, I boarded it, and we had run two missions, one to Saigon, and I can’t remember the place of the other one. On Sunday, the 15th of July 1968, we loaded 250-55-gallon barrels of jet fuel on the well deck, and then early Monday morning proceeded to Tun Fae. We traveled until approximately 4 4 o’clock in the afternoon on the 16th of July and stopped at an ARVN [Army of the Republic of Vietnam] camp to spend the night.
There were eleven Americans, and one South Vietnamese; Donald Price, Lee Henry, Harley Kassel, and Harl Sims were deck hands. Winfred Crow was a sergeant first class assigned to one the ARVN camps. He was an advisor to the South Vietnamese military. John Chevalier was a cook aboard our vessel. Ralph McCullough was a warrant officer engineer. Cassias Shup and Donald Grigsby were engineers (and) one South Vietnamese soldier that was assigned to the AVRN camp along with Winfred Crow.
Lee was a little, short guy about 5’6″ or 5’7″. Real pleasant guy, easy going, easy to get along with, knowledgeable in his job. Cassias Shup was a German boy, real tall, very nice individual, very hard worker. Took pride in his work. Donald Grigsby was a tall, blond-headed boy, very heavy-set, kind of laid-back, wouldn’t volunteer, but would do his job once you told him what to do. Terry Kramer was about 5’10”, stocky good-built, nice individual, very out-going, good worker.
Donald Price was blond-headed, had blue eyes, wore glasses, was kind of thin, easy-going. As a matter of fact, the whole crew was very nice, just easy-going. Hardy Cassel was a little different than most of the crew, he was kind of reserved, he didn’t say much. But, still you would enjoy being around him. Good worker.
Winfred Crow didn’t know much about it at all as he was one of the guys we picked up. He was one of the advisors to the South Vietnamese troops. They were going to ride with us from where they were at to Cam Po to pick up supplies. John Chevalier was our cook, good hard-worker, go-getter, took pride in his work. Harl Simms was just a regular, everyday guy, someone that you would like to pal with. Ralph McCullough, laid-back, older fellow, kind of nervous.
We got underway early on the morning of the 17th of July. At approximately 2 o’clock in the afternoon, we observed a flag in a compound on the Mekong River that no one could identify. At about the same time we saw this flag, three shots rang out across the bow of our vessel. We couldn’t identify where these shots came from because they were small arms fire. So, we continued to travel and about 30 seconds later three more shots rang out.
This time one round hit the port side of the vessel and the other two hit the water. At this time, we observed small craft near the shore coming out to meet us. The first mate, who was in charge of the vessel because our skipper had gone the weekend prior to Hawaii to meet his wife, decided we should turn around and go back in the direction in which we came. Approximately two to three minutes after we had turned around and headed back south, I happened to observe a LCM [Landing Craft Medium] that had been converted to an armored vessel, approaching us from the stern.
There were two 20mm cannons mounted on the front of the LCM. The small craft was continuing to motion us to come ashore. When I mentioned to our skipper that the other vessel was approaching from the stern, it was decided by each of us that we ought to go to shore to see what was happening.
Upon arriving at the shore, warrant officer McCullough, who was our engineer, went ashore. The commander of the compound informed warrant officer McCullough that he should ask each member of our crew to come ashore.
We were told that we had been captured by the Cambodian government, and that they were waiting for a message from the headquarters in Phnom Penh to determine our status and what they were going to do with us. We remained in the compound till about six o’clock in the evening when we were then taken back out to the river where the LCM had since departed the area.
At approximately 7:00 or 7:30 we (last) saw the LCM. They had confiscated the craft, beached it on the shore, and probably stripped what they wanted off of it before they took it on in to Phnom Penh to incorporate it in their gallery of watercraft.
We were put on the small craft that had initially got us to come to shore, and we traveled north on the Mekong to a landing approximately 15 miles from where we were first captured. After coming ashore, we were put on two 2½ ton trucks that took us into Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia.
They held us at the ministry of foreign affairs for approximately an hour while they decided whether they were going to keep us. We were taken down the Mekong to the Cambodian Navy training center where we were held for the entire five months and two days.
When we were captured, we were held at the Cambodian Navy training center, which was located right on the Mekong, just outside of downtown Phnom Penh. We could observe heavy traffic going south towards Vietnam. The traffic included small craft Sampans that were struggling to pull 3 to 4 long bamboo poles downstream. It is our belief that these heavy poles were floating ammunition and other supplies underneath the water because of the struggle the Sampans had pulling these poles downstream. We also feel that was one of the reasons that Prince Sihanouk insisted that we be sent back to the United States and not back to our units in South Vietnam was because we had seen too much traffic on the Mekong.
Having served in Korea a couple of times, you know that these people are erratic and they have no sympathy for life. They don’t care about life, apparently. That’s the impression that they give you, so, you don’t know from one minute to the next if they are going to line you up in front of a firing squad or what they’re going to do. It makes you concerned. But, then, once they got us to the navy training center compound, we became, I don’t want to say close friends, but some of the instructors could speak English, and they would listen to the news on the radio tell us some of the things that were going on.
They would tell us about the Prince going to different hamlets and what he did at each. One time, some of the government staff came over and they had four or five pictures of what they indicated were dead Cambodian bodies laying on straw mats cluttered with straw mats. All you could see was looked like feet hanging out from the bottom of them. They indicated that these people had been killed by aircraft strikes over the rice patties, and they wanted us to write a letter condemning this type of thing.
So, Sgt. Crow, McCullough, Price, Kramer, and myself all got together and we come up with a letter. In the letter, we did not condemn the United States being in the war nor condemn the actions that were taken, but we did say that we were sorry that things like this had to occur. We went this letter to the Prince and it seemed to pacify him. So, on the three occasions that we were questioned, this is the only thing that we did while we were there as far as any communication, written or spoken, about the war.
Some of the questions that they asked me were how many sons I had, and what high school I graduated from. They also asked how many weapons we had aboard, and where we came from, which are military-type questions that I refused to answer. I can’t remember any more. I didn’t feel that questions of a personal nature, such as what town I came from and what high school I graduated from, were military-type questions. So, I answered those questions to the best of my ability. For any military questions we answered, we gave our name, rank, and serial number. Once we didn’t answer their military questions, they just skipped over and went on, they didn’t press us for any answers
The place that we were held, being from the country and a farm boy, looked like a normal farm feed barn in ruins that was partitioned off. The walls were approximately 8 foot high, and from there to the ceiling it was just open. In each of these different rooms, we knew they were giving the Cambodian troops navy personnel training, because I knew Morse code and we could hear them using the telegraph for Morse code training. They also had navy cadre who lived with their families in steel homes that were located in the courtyard. Some of them could speak English and we became pretty good friends with a few of them. We were able to talk to each other and they informed us that they were instructors.
There were three different occasions that Prince Sihanouk took us out and put us on display in Cambodia for special affairs. When the North Vietnamese presented Cambodia with a new indoor theater, we were taken down for the dedication.
They also took us to the international film festival that was held in Cambodia that same year. On the 9th of November, which was Cambodian Independence Day from the French rule, the prince insisted that we be his special guest.
His personal tailor was sent down to the navy training center, measured each one of us individually for a complete suit, shirt, tie, shoes, and socks, which we were required to wear on the Independence Day celebration. We were taken up to the rotunda on which he laid a wreath and made a speech. Then we were taken to a French restaurant for lunch, and to the stadium at about six o’clock in the evening for a two-hour pageant acting out the progression of Cambodian economics from the time that they were released from French rule up until the present day.
At approximately 10 o’clock they had a fireworks display. We were then taken down on the Mekong River to a floating restaurant where there were 11 prostitutes waiting for our enjoyment and pleasure if we so desired to participate.
At approximately 2 o’clock in the morning, we were boarded back on the bus and were taken back to where we were being held. Prince Sihanouk had tried unsuccessfully to get what he wanted for our release.
So, on the 19th of December 1968, he finally went on radio and informed the people of Cambodia that he and the Buddhist religion were going to show the Christian religion that they, too, had heartfelt sympathy for loved ones being with each other during the holy season of Christmas. Therefore, he was going to release the prisoners to go back to the United States to be with their families.
Approximately two hours later, he finally received a letter from President Johnson requesting our release. So, he then went back on the radio and informed the people that he had received such a letter requesting our release and that we would be released and sent back to the United States.
It was a political situation that we were in rather than being with the VC or North Vietnamese. Prince Sihanouk used us as a political basketball. He initially asked for a bull dozer for each one of us for our release. He did not receive that. He in turn requested a farm tractor for each one of us. He didn’t receive that. In the third request, he wanted some property down in the fish neck area. Since he didn’t get that, his last request was a letter from the Head of State of the United States, addressed to him, asking for our release.
Our government took that to mean that he wanted a letter from the Department of State. So, Dean Rusk wrote him a letter requesting our release. He wrote back indicating that it was not good enough because since he was the president of his country, he wanted a letter from the President of the United States. So, on the 19th of December he received such a request from President (elect) Nixon through the French Embassy.
We were released to the Australian ambassador and his staff. We were captured on the 17th day of July 1968. It took the Australian ambassador eight days to get permission from the Cambodian government to come down to visit us, ask us about our capture, and to see if anyone was injured, sick, or needed anything.
From that day forward, someone from the embassy, mostly the Vice Consul Neal Manton, came down at least once a week, for the five and a half months that we were held there, and looked after us on behalf of the United States government. I think that the Australian embassy should be commended very highly for the outstanding work that they did and the treatment that they gave us.
We were all kept together in rooms approximately 30 to 40 foot long by about 14 foot wide. We had nine bunks in 18 the room with mosquito netting. The Australian embassy got us blankets and food supplements. They would go around to the other embassies and pick up different types of food supplies. They would go out to the market and get fresh vegetables and eggs and stuff of this nature that we could cook ourselves. They also brought us down a two-burner camp stove so that we could cook part of our own food or at least heat it up. The Cambodian government also brought us three meals a day, which the Geneva Convention calls for. They didn’t mistreat us in any way, as a matter of fact the commandant of the school, who could speak broken English, was very sympathetic toward us. We were treated with respect and were not harmed or mistreated in any way.
Everybody’s spirits were very high, even though those that were scheduled to go home prior to our release. I know they were down and out, but they did maintain their highest spirits and knew that someday we would be released.
I hold my head up high, I respect the Cambodian government, I understand why, and I hold no animosity or ill feelings toward those people. I feel as being a career man, war is heck, and things like this occur, and that’s all a part of it, and you have to accept that fact. Of course, I’m a Christian, and I know that God works miracles, and I just feel that this is one of the miracles that He had His way in.
Upon arriving back in the States, we were taken to Walter Reed Army Hospital for approximately two hours for medical checkups, winter clothing, and transportation to our homes. After a two-day vacation, I reported to Fort Bragg, NC, for two weeks. The first week was in the hospital making sure that I had not contracted any disease while I was there. The other five days was a CIA debriefing.
I was then reassigned to tug boat at Fort Eustis, VA, with the 7th Transportation Group. I applied for and got my 250-ton master’s license. I remained at Fort Eustis from 1969 to 71, then I was reassigned to the Panama Canal Zone. I spent four years in the Panama Canal Zone, 2 ½ years of this with the first log, which involved taking combat troops deep sea fishing four days a week on the J boat. After I made my promotion to Master E8, I was reassigned to my secondary MOS, the Military Customs Division. Then on the 1st of July 1975, I applied for and received my retirement for 22 years.”
Floyd Allen Wilmoth passed away on August 15, 2013, aged 78. He was buried in Yadkinvill, N.C. with full military honors.
In the Jane’s edition of 1976-1977 is reported that she was the former American LCU 1577. Transferred to Cambodia in November 1972. Displacement 320 tons (full load) and as dimensions 119’ (over all) x 32.7’x 8’ or 36,3 x 10 x 1.5 metres. The armament consisted of 2-2cm guns. The horsepower of 675 bhp allowed a speed of 10 knots. Her crew in Khmer service numbered 13 men. According to Navsource.com laid down in 1943 as part of the LCU-1466 class landing craft tank, by the US Navy on 1967 handed over to the US Army and serving in Vietnam and finally handed over to Cambodia around 1969-1970. With a speed of 7 knots was her range 700 nautical miles. Displacement 180 (light)-360 (full load) tons. Her armament in US navy consisted of 2×2-2cm anti aircraft guns and 2×0.50 machine guns.