Vietnamese solders have a meal while defending an island in the Truong Sa (Spratly) Archipelago against Chinese invasion in May 1988. Photo by Nguyen Viet Thai.
On June 26, 1988, Bui Van Thanh of Hai Phong City returned home and recognized that his family had placed his photo on the altar, assuming that he died at sea.
Thanh and other Vietnamese soldiers successfully defended the Co Lin (Collins or Johnson North) Island in Truong Sa (Spratly) Archipelago against China’s invasion on March 14, 1988.
Over the past 26 years, Thanh and other survivors of such batttles have gathered together on the last Sunday before March 14 every year to remember the struggle and commemorate their deceased comrades.
After defending Co Lin Island, Thanh continued to stay at a military base on the island for more than three months before going home and surprising his family.
“My mother said she heard that dozens of people [Vietnamese soldiers] were missing and assumed that I was among them and set up an altar after I didn’t go home,” said the 47-year-old veteran.
“She had cried for more than three months before seeing me again and removing the altar,” he said.
In 1988, Vietnamese Navy's Brigade 125 mobilized two ships, HQ-604 and HQ-505 to carry nearly 100 officers and soldiers assigned to the Gac Ma (Johnson South), Co Lin and Len Dao (Lansdowne) islands in the Truong Sa Archipelago.
On March 14, 1988, the soldiers were transporting construction materials to the Gac Ma Island from the ship HQ-406 when four Chinese ships arrived.
Lieutenant Colonel Tran Duc Thong of the Brigade 146, the highest officer at the battlefield, ordered second-lieutenant Tran Van Phuong and two soldiers, Nguyen Van Tu and Nguyen Van Lanh, to use a small boat to rush to the island and protect the national flag.
The Chinese soldiers opened fire, killing Phuong on the spot.
HQ-604 Captain Vu Phi Tru ordered the soldiers to counterattack, but the ship was damaged and sank in the ocean. A total of 64 Vietnamese soldiers were killed in the battle.
Colonel Vu Huy Le, HQ-505 captain, said his unit managed to plant a flag on the Collins Island at 5:30 on March 14, 1988.
An hour later, Chinese ships began to fire at HQ-505 but Le managed to take his ship to the narrow water on the island and they successfully defended Collins.
Duong Hai Nam, 55, a Youth Union secretary on the HQ-505 who survived the battle, was among six soldiers sent to rescue others on the HQ-604 that sank under Chinese attacks while defending Gac Ma Island.
“We were determined to save our comrades and sacrifice our lives to defend for every span of the nation’s sovereignty,” he said.
They managed to rescue 44 others but failed to defend Gac Ma.
To defend Co Lin Island, captain Le, Thanh and eight other soldiers stayed on the island under the pressure of Chinese ships.
Thanh said they had to catch small fish in shallow water for survival: “One time, five of us were poisoned after eating inedible fish and only recovered after several days.”
Thanh said his only properties on the island were an AK-47 rifle and two pairs of underpants that he used for more than three months.
Meanwhile, Le Minh Thoa of Binh Dinh Province and eight other Vietnamese soldiers on the HQ-604 were arrested by Chinese ships.
Thoa said he managed to find a floating pumpkin from the sunken ship to use as a lifebuoy until being arrested by Chinese soldiers the following day.
In 1992, nine soldiers were released by China through the Huu Nghi Border Gate in Lang Son Province.
Thoa is now living at a small eatery back in his hometown in Binh Dinh.
“I only wish that I could visit the former battle field in Truong Sa and burn incenses for my comrades,” he said.
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