Pham Minh Chien and many soldiers meet every year to commemorate their comrades who were killed when defending Vietnam’s sovereignty over Truong Sa (Spartly) islands in 1988.
Chien always make sure to leave a few empty chairs.
“It has been 28 years. You have become immortal with Truong Sa,” the former political chief of the Vietnamese Navy's Brigade 125 said on Sunday, during a requiem for the 64 Vietnamese soldiers who fought against the Chinese on March 14, 1988.
On that day, Vietnamese Navy's Brigade 125 mobilized three ships, HQ-604 and 605 and HQ-505, with nearly 100 officers and soldiers to the Gac Ma (Johnson South), Co Lin (Collins or Johnson North) and Len Dao (Lansdowne) reefs.
The soldiers were transporting construction materials from the ships onto Gac Ma when four Chinese vessels arrived.
Lieutenant Colonel Tran Duc Thong of the Brigade 146 ordered second-lieutenant Tran Van Phuong and two soldiers to use a small boat to rush to the island and protect the national flag.
The Chinese soldiers reportedly opened fire, killing Phuong on the spot.
HQ-604 Captain Vu Phi Tru ordered the soldiers to fight back, but their ship was damaged and sank.
Colonel Vu Huy Le, HQ-505 captain, said in a heroic act, his unit managed to plant a flag on Co Lin at 5:30 a.m. the same day. Chinese ships began to fire at HQ-505 but Le decided to run his ship aground and they successfully defended Co Lin.
The other ship, HQ-605 with 18 aboard, was also attacked soon later while defending Len Dao.
“I was on the watching tower and warned others after the Chinese ships opened fire at Co Lin and Gac Ma. They quickly turned to us after shooting at the HQ-505 and HQ-604,” said Nguyen Viet Hai, a former soldier on HQ-605.
Engineer Uong Xuan Tho on HQ-605 said he and the others had to leave the ship and did not have time to recover the body of a soldier who was shot dead.
Tho said after four hours floating at sea, they were rescued. But by then another soldier had succumbed to injuries.
"He was asking for water the moment before his death,” Tho recalled.
A total of 64 Vietnamese soldiers were killed in the battle.
Later on the same day, three other Vietnamese naval ships arrived at the site to support the defense of Co Lin and Len Dao. But Chinese forces managed to occupy Gac Ma.
Vietnamese soldiers meet in Ho Chi Minh City on March 13. Photo: Mai Thanh Hai