Deadly fight against Chinese for Gac Ma Reef remembered

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Survivors talk about the battle and their deceased fellows, 25 years on

Phan Van Duc burns incense for his fellow soldiers who died in the Gac Ma (Johnson South) skirmish in 1988

Phan Van Duc's shoulder hurts whenever a cold spell hits his hometown Da Nang.

It was a gift from the Chinese 25 years ago - he survived a bullet from a Chinese soldier when his unit was defending the Gac Ma (Johnson South) Reef in Vietnam's Truong Sa (Spratly) Archipelago in 1988.

The 46-year-old constantly thinks about his comrades who sacrificed themselves to defend the reef, especially with the approach of the 25th anniversary of the event (March 14).

Early in the morning every day he walks to the shore near his house to look at the sea, recalling the skirmish when 64 Vietnamese soldiers were killed and many others were injured.

After joining the army in 1987, Duc was assigned to the Navy Zone 3's Artillery Regiment 83 based in Da Nang.

In March 1988 they were sent to Khanh Hoa Province where they boarded the transport vessel HQ 604 headed for Truong Sa. It carried personnel from the Engineering Corps, 22 soldiers, and construction materials.

They reached the place at around 3:00 p.m. on March 13 and began to carry the construction materials to Gac Ma Reef.

About an hour later a Chinese ship arrived and sent boats to stop their work and order them to leave.

But the Vietnamese carried on with their task, and at around 3 a.m. on March 14 planted a flag on the reef.

"That night we did not think about survival if a fight broke out because the Chinese had a modern ship," Duc says.

At around 4 a.m. he and more than 20 others swam to the reef but with just two AK 47 guns.

"We did not bring many weapons because we wanted to defend peacefully."

But the Chinese began to fire at them.

"Many Chinese soldiers surrounded us. Second Lieutenant Tran Van Phuong, deputy chief of the island was protecting the flag when a Chinese soldier gunned him down.

"We fought with our hands because we thought losing the flag meant losing the reef."

Duc asked the others about the two guns and was told they were hidden to avoid giving the impression the Vietnamese wanted to fight.

"I think we would have killed at least a few dozen Chinese soldiers if we had the guns."

The Chinese began heavy firing and dozens were killed. Duc took a bullet in his shoulder but swam to the ship. However, it had been sunk by the Chinese vessel.

Duc was later rescued by his fellow soldiers while nine others were arrested by the Chinese and taken to Guangdong and held for more than three years.

The Chinese managed to occupy Gac Ma Reef.

But two other Vietnamese ships protecting the Len Dao (Lansdowne) and Co Lin (Collins) reefs that were also attacked by Chinese ships managed to hold out.

No surrender

Among the Vietnamese soldiers surviving the clash was Tran Thien Phung of the north-central province of Quang Tri. He was among the nine arrested by the Chinese.

"I was on the deck of the HQ 604 and was injured in the arm when the Chinese ship began to fire at us," Phung said, adding that the Vietnamese ship sank quickly following heavy firing.

Phung managed to hold on to a log but was taken by the Chinese later that day.

"The Chinese soldiers pointed guns at me and asked me to surrender, but I just shook my head.

"Later, during interrogation, they asked me why I didn't surrender. I told them a Vietnamese soldier does not know how to do so."

Truong Van Hien of Ha Tinh Province, who was also arrested, said they were tortured by the Chinese.

"In the first three months the Chinese tortured us often and asked us about military bases and weapons"¦ I told them I was a new soldier and knew nothing about that."

More than three years later the Red Cross was allowed to visit them and they were able to write to their relatives in Vietnam. It was only then that their families knew about their survival.

Phung's wife Le Thi Thien said she would never forget the evening when she received his letter from China.

"A local official ran into my house and shouted that it was a letter from Phung. I cried in happiness."

On September 2, 1991, China released the nine Vietnamese soldiers.

By then Phung had been declared as missing and his family had set up an altar for him.

Unforgotten deaths

Hien said people would never forget his fellow soldiers who died to defend Gac Ma.

"I was luckier than others to survive and come home. I hope that surviving soldiers would visit Truong Sa to burn incense and offer flowers to our deceased comrades."

Duong Van Dung of Da Nang, one of the soldiers arrested by the Chinese, said the first thing he did upon returning home was to burn incense for Pham Van Loi, a neighbor and childhood friend who was killed in the Gac Ma clash.

"My greatest wish is to return to Gac Ma to burn incense for my comrades. If I have another chance to be assigned to build a facility on the reef again like 25 years ago, I will not hesitate to go."

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