The forgotten battle in South China Sea - Truong Sa sea battle

Teh transport ship HQ-603 was taken photo on March 10, 1988 -- four days before it was sunk at Gac Ma Atoll in Truong Sa archipelago Photo: Archives photo of Brigade 125
(Tuoitre News) 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.

Plastic sandals, bowls, clothes, and weapons found in the HQ-604 in 2008 (Photo: Tuoi Tre)

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.

The Spratly Islands are a group of more than 750 reefs,islets, atolls, cays and islands in the Southeast Asia Sea. In 1998, those Chinese attacked, stole Vietnamese islands and killed their soldiers there.
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.

The map of atolls Gac Ma, Co Lin, and Len Dao in Truong Sa archipelago in the East Sea (Photo: Tuoi Tre)

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