On Mar 14, 1988 a fierce sea battle took place between Vietnamese soldiers and Chinese troops around Cô Lin, Len Đao and Gạc Ma, which are part of the Trường 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 Gạc Ma Island has been illegimately occupied by China.
The immediate cause
In response to the imminent, illegitimate occupation of Trường 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 Cô Lin, Len Đao and Gạc Ma, where they built fortifications and other infrastructure during the CQ88 campaign, which was a relentless attempt to maintain Vietnamese ownership of Trường Sa.
Plastic sandals, bowls, clothes, and weapons found in the HQ-604 in 2008
The imbalanced, bloodstained battle
25 years have passed since the fight, yet that morning has been firmly imprinted in the mind of Nguyễn Văn Lanh, a naval soldier who took part in the battle.
Late in the evening of March 13, HQ-604 arrived at Gạc Ma, while the other two ships headed for Cô Lin and Len Đao, Lanh recalled.
The group led by Second Lieutenant Trần Văn Phương was in charge of pitching and safeguarding the Vietnamese national flag on the island.
Nearby, the Vietnamese flag was also flying on Cô Lin island.
Lieutenant-colonel Trần Đức Thông 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 Gạc Ma corals.
To counter this, on Gạc 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 Phương’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 Phương, who was holding onto the flag for dear life.
Phương and Lanh struggled with all their might to keep the flag until Phương 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 Văn Hải, 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 Vũ Phi Trứ dashed into the engine room, planning to land the ship on the Gạc Ma corals.
All of a sudden, the engine room was hit and burst into flames, engulfing Trứ, leaving the ship unable to land, Hải added.
Hải then tried to see Lieutenant-colonel Trần Đức Thông and Captain Phong right as they were fired upon with heavy machine guns.
Thông 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 Trần Thanh Tâm explained, 25 years later.
Immediately after finishing off HQ-604 off Gạc Ma, the Chinese warships turned to bombard HQ-605 with heavy weaponry.
The ship burst into intense flames, and Captain Sơn of HQ-605 ordered everyone on board to evacuate.
The map of atolls Gạc Ma, Cô Lin, and Len Đao in Trường Sa archipelago in the Việt Nam’s East Sea