Commentary: No matter which regime that the military is serving under, its primary responsibility is to defend and protect the integrity of the nation. Their sacrifices should be remembered by all generations for their bravery.
Therefore, the People’s Army’ s primary mission is its absolute loyalty to the people and the nation. The People’s Army is from the people, serves the people and protects the people. In order to be able to accomplish this sacred mission, the People’s Army cannot be used as an instrument of any political party. This would put the interest of a special interest group above the nation’s interest.
Any attempt to impose the allegiance of the Army to any leader or political organization is an usurpation of the power from the people.
For the second time since the John South Reef – Gac Ma skirmish twenty-five years ago, the largest daily newspapers in Vietnam have written special columns commemorating sixty-four martyrs sacrificed to defend their homeland’s sovereignty at the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea.
Vietnam and China have been known as neighbors and brothers like “lips and teeth”. However, bearing the same pressure as other China’s “unhappy neighbors”, Vietnam had to fight against its big brother China to protect its sovereignty. The skirmish on March 14th, 1988 at John South Reef – Gac Ma (Spratly Islands) is a recent Sino-Vietnamese naval confrontation. The site lies at 4 nautical miles (nm) to the northwest of Vietnamese-controlled Collins Reef. Chinese gunboats sank and damaged three Vietnamese vessels. Sixty-four Vietnamese soldiers were killed and many others injured, while one Chinese was wounded.
Despite many conflicts in the past, Hanoi and Peking always maintain their “16 golden words and four cardinal principles” for example regarding the bilateral consensus to actively guide public opinion on the South China Sea disputes, a ‘sensible’ subject to Vietnamese government-controlled media (aka. “right side” media, in comparison to the free “left side” one) for long time. But the anti-China sentiment in public has been on the rise since the cable-seized incident of Vietnamese ships on May 2011.
In the past two recent years, there have been remarkable improvements of media in Vietnam on the South China Sea issues, especially with the development of new media with blogs, forum or the social networks where everyone may express and share easily their opinions to the world.
However, the John South Reef skirmish is a poorly titled subject in Vietnamese “right side” media. On May 7th, 2012, the Vietnamese government organized for the first time a commemoration day for sixty-four martyrs sacrificed in navel battle at John South Reef. This year, Tuoi Tre, one of largest “right wing” newspapers, focuses on the topic with a series of touching stories about killed soldiers, live witness and remains of the battle that create actually a tacit movement that heats up the anti-China sentiment in the Vietnamese communities and social networks.
It’s also important to mention that the Sino-Vietnamese naval battle on January 19th, 1974 at Paracels Islands was officially commemorated for the first time last January 19th 2013 by Thanh Nien News, another government-controlled daily newspaper.
Both Vietnam and China have declared the historical sovereignty in the South China Sea (including Spratly Islands and Paracels Islands) where five other countries (Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Taiwan) also claimed their territory or territory rights.
On Mar 14, 1988 a fierce sea battle took place between Vietnamese soldiers and Chinese troops around Co Lin, Len Dao and Gac Ma, which are part of the Truong Sa (Spratly) archipelago
However, few people know the details of this battle.
The Vietnamese soldiers’ extraordinary gallantry and dogged determination to safeguard the nation’s territory was defeated by Chinese state-of-the-art weaponry and ruthlessness. Since then Gac Ma Island has been illigimately occupied by China.
The immediate cause
In response to the imminent, illegitimate occupation of Truong Sa by the Chinese invaders, prior to March 14, 1988, the Vietnamese transport ships HQ-505, HQ-604 and HQ-605, under the command of the 125 and 146 Brigades and the E83 Military Engineering Regiment, were immediately sent to the atolls of Co Lin, Len Dao and Gac Ma, where they built fortifications and other infrastructure during the CQ88 campaign, which was a relentless attempt to maintain Vietnamese ownership of Truong Sa.
The imbalanced, bloodstained battle
25 years have passed since the fight, yet that morning has been firmly imprinted in the mind of Nguyen Van Lanh, a naval soldier who took part in the battle.
Late in the evening of March 13, HQ-604 arrived at Gac Ma, while the other two ships headed for Co Lin and Len Dao, Lanh recalled.
The group led by Second Lieutenant Tran Van Phuong was in charge of pitching and safeguarding the Vietnamese national flag on the island.
Nearby, the Vietnamese flag was also flying on Co Lin island.
Lieutenant-colonel Tran Duc Thong commanded that the soldiers focus on the task despite the Chinese warships lurking in the vicinity.
At dawn on March 14, Chinese ships closed in on HQ-604. These ships were fully equipped with advanced firepower and lethal weaponry, whereas the Vietnamese vessels were merely designed to carry soldiers, food and construction materials.
The majority of the Vietnamese soldiers were sappers who specialized in carrying out construction work on the islands.
Despite the serious imbalance in power, the Vietnamese captains and soldiers unwaveringly resolved to safeguard the islands.
At around 6 am, the Chinese force sent small boats filled with armed-to-the-teeth soldiers to close in on the Gac Ma corals.
To counter this, on Gac Ma, the Vietnamese soldiers formed a circle, which was later respectfully named ‘the immortal circle’, in an unwavering attempt to guard the Vietnamese flag in the center.
As there were few Vietnamese naval soldiers on the island, Lanh and all the other sappers, armed with merely hoes and shovels, were immediately summoned to aid Phuong’s regular group.
The battle became heated in an instant. The Chinese troops landed in large numbers and tried to break the circle, but failed.
After a firefight the Chinese troops were able to approach Second Lieutenant Phuong, who was holding onto the flag for dear life.
Phuong and Lanh struggled with all their might to keep the flag until Phuong was suddenly shot in the head. He collapsed, but still tried to hold onto the bloody flag.
Lanh managed to keep the flag until Chinese soldiers stabbed him from behind and finally shot him with an AK-47.
The battle continued to rage. The Chinese ships fired heavy machine guns and 37 mm cannons at the unyielding Vietnamese soldiers.
The fight was also ferocious aboard the HQ-604 ship, which was incessantly bombarded with long-range fire power, Mai Van Hai, one of the survivors, recalled. B-40 and B-41 on the Vietnamese ship couldn’t reach the enemy.
Right after the battle began, Captain Vu Phi Tru dashed into the engine room, planning to land the ship on the Gac Ma corals. All of a sudden, the engine room was hit and burst into flames, engulfing Tru, leaving the ship unable to land, Hai added.
Hai then tried to see Lieutenant-colonel Tran Duc Thong and Captain Phong right as they were fired upon with heavy machine guns.
Thong and Phong both perished, and the HQ- 604 ship gradually sank into the sea, taking down with it dozens of soldiers.
“A normal transportation vessel, the HQ-604 could only fire from 500 meters at most, while it was roughly 3.6-5.4 km away from the enemy ships. They were perhaps trying to steer the ship nearer to the Chinese ones to get into firing range, but it couldn’t withstand the enemy barrage,” colonel Tran Thanh Tam explained, 25 years later.
Immediately after finishing off HQ-604 off Gac Ma, the Chinese warships turned to bombard HQ-605 with heavy weaponry.
The ship burst into intense flames, and Captain Son of HQ-605 ordered everyone on board to evacuate.
During the high-profile, one-sided sea battle around the Truong Sa (Spratly) archipelago between Vietnamese soldiers and well-equipped Chinese troops on March 14, 1988, 64 Vietnamese soldiers perished, and many were injured while their comrades valiantly fought on to safeguard Vietnamese control of Truong Sa.
Immediately after finishing off HQ-604, one of the three Vietnamese ships sent to fortify Truong Sa, off Gac Ma, the Chinese battleships turned to bombard HQ-605, one of the two remaining ships, which was guarding Len Dao island, with heavy weaponry.
The ship burst into intense flames, and Captain Le Lenh Son ordered everyone on board to promptly evacuate.
“If we had stayed on board, we would all have been killed, while the nation’s ownership remained at stake. I allowed everyone to jump into the sea, with the conviction that each soldier would later become a living witness and an unwavering flesh-and-blood flag in the quest to maintain Vietnam’s ownership of Truong Sa,” explained Captain Son, 25 years after the fight.
However, the soldiers stayed put in Len Dao waters, defying the incessant shower of heavy fire, until the Chinese warships returned to Gac Ma, Hoang Van Nam, a survivor, tearfully recalled.
After the enemy vessels left Len Dao, the soldiers from HQ-605 headed for Sinh Ton (Survival) island.
Nam then found Doan, HQ-605’s mate (a deck officer of a rank below the master of the ship). Though he was suffering from critical burns on his whole body, Doan remained strangely conscious and kept staring at the Vietnamese national flag pitched on Co Lin island, muttering indistinctly as if to remind his comrades to carry out their duty at any cost.
By midday, 17 soldiers, both deceased and injured, had been found. Some bodies couldn’t be recovered, Nam added.
Captain Son ordered the few unharmed soldiers to row a rescue boat with their hands to Sinh Ton island. As they approached the island around 3 pm, mate Doan breathed his last breath.
The situation on Gac Ma island was also highly tense. After HQ-604 was sunk, the Chinese ships stopped firing but lingered in the Vietnam-owned waters.
Bodies of soldiers from the ship were drifting in the bloodstained sea water.
Earlier, HQ-505, the other Vietnamese ship, had beached on Co Lin atoll, with the ship’s stern seriously burned. The ship’s intrepid soldiers turned into an unsinkable fortification, with the Vietnamese national flag flapping vigorously on the atoll.
Twenty-five years later, Captain Vu Huy Le recalled in tears that after HQ-505 arrive on Co Lin, he split his soldiers into two groups, one that remained on board, ready to fight back, and one that was sent to rescue sailors from the sunk HQ-604 off Gac Ma.
This was an extremely daunting, dangerous task, as the enemy threatened to shoot even unarmed soldiers providing rescue and medical relief. Yet they were resolved to come to their injured comrades’ aid, Le further recalled.
Lieutenant-colonel Pham Van Hung, of HQ-505, who was in the rescue team, remembered that they had to hold back tears at the horrifying sight on Gac Ma.
Loyal to the cause
The surviving soldiers were determined to safeguard the national ownership of Truong Sa.
After taking the deceased and injured to Sinh Ton island, Captain Le of HQ-505 reported to the commanding headquarters that they had managed to defend the national flag, ship and force. They insisted on staying in order to fulfill the task and were willing to fight to the death on this nearly suicidal mission.
The commanding headquarters agreed to the request.
An urgent meeting was summoned that night, during which Captain Le selected nine among many volunteers to stay with him.
The team was well aware of the dangers awaiting them, as their ship was nothing more than an immobile, metal hunk on Co Lin.
“I’ve dreamt of this moving sight again and again. The young soldiers cried at not being selected to stay,” said captain and political commissar Vo Ta Du, who also remembered promising to recount the entire battle with tales of the soldiers’ great heroism.
The team, led by Captain Le, was then split into five smaller groups, ready to sacrifice their own lives to defend Truong Sa.
POW Trần Thiện Phụng and his wife reading his old letters from prison.
Mr. Văn Hiền
Mr. Trương Văn Hiền with military medal for the battle at Gạc Ma – Ảnh: T.N.Quyền
Former POW Trần Thiện Phụng shows his wounds
Letter of POW Trần Thiện Phụng to his family while in detention in China.
9 POW released by China
Sources Tuoi Tre, Eurasia Review and Thanh Nien