The Paracel Islands (Hoang-Sa) Sea Battle

Le Rinh

(Extracted from Doan Ket Magazine, Austin Texas)

Editor Note: Being a Vietnamese, one is always ready to shed blood to defend Vietnam from invasion forces. Currently, China, under the communist regime, has been pursuing its expansionism. They have occupied the Paracel Islands since 1974 by defeating the Republic of Vietnam Navy (South Vietnam). They have also occupied many islands from the Spratly Islands since 1978 after defeating the communist-ruled Vietnam Navy. This article, even though might not reveal facts our readers would like to know, has been published un-edited as a reminder from the editor: “a nation destiny is in the hands of its own people.”

  1. At the beginning of 1974, the Naval Headquarters of Riverine Mobile Operations just moved from Binh-Thuy (Can-Tho) to Cat-Lai for few months. Before that, Staff Sections used to have Sunday off only, after the move they were given extra Saturday afternoon off. I did not recall the reason why I stayed at the Headquarters on the previous Saturday before the battle between the Republic of Vietnam and the People Republic of China Navy.

Around two o’clock that Saturday afternoon, an on duty officer from Operation Center phoned me that a general from the Joint General Staff wanted to talk to me on a “hot line.” Despite of being a low-ranking officer, I was holding a pretty important position in the Naval Headquarters, therefore, once in a while, I had phone chats with those generals. But it seemed unusual that time. These generals only worked on the weekends in case of extremely urgent situations. Besides, the Naval Headquarters of Mobile Riverine Operations commanded the Naval Headquarters of the 3rd and 4th Riverine Zones, the Naval Headquarters of the Capital Special Zone, the Naval Headquarters of Patrol Forces, the Naval Headquarters of Amphibious Forces, the Naval Headquarters of Central Forces, as well as some infantry, artillery supported forces; therefore, the Naval Headquarters of Riverine Mobile Operations was responsible for operations covering the entire waterways of the 3rd, and 4th Military Regions, it seldom got direct order from the Joint General Staff . There ought to be something very important.

On the other end of the line, it was General Tran-Dinh-Tho, the Joint General Staff /J-3. After a brief conversation, I was ordered to report back to the Admiral (1) for dispatching 60 seal men to Tan-Son-Nhat airport immediately that afternoon. I called a “hotline” to the Admiral’s house but he was out. At that time, I had already planned to stroll downtown after work, and did not want to stay late, I was trying to unload my assignment to others. After telling the on duty officer to contact Commander Hiep, Commander of VNN Naval Commando (LDNN- Lien Doan Nguoi Nhai), to prepare men and weapons, I reported back to the Naval Headquarters, carefully wrote down on the daily log and the operation log, had Commander Anh, the on duty officer at the Headquarters, follow up the operation. After that, I delightedly drove back to Saigon.

A week later, through reports from the Operation Center, I learned that those 60 seal men had been flown to Da-Nang to join military units who guarded some islands of the Paracel Islands. Radio stations and newspapers started to comment about China intention. At the Naval Headquarters, people were pretty calm, they thought their navy was one of the top ten in the world with modern cruisers received from the US. Furthermore, the Seventh Fleet was nearby… nothing to worry about.

Around middle of that week, the Operation Center submitted a telegram from the Seventh Fleet. The telegram reported a China fleet of 42 battleships and 2 submarines were heading towards the Paracel Islands… The situation looked serious especially with those submarines. I myself learned combat technique against submarines and torpedoes; however, it was just a lesson, at that moment, I no longer recalled what I had learned. Probably, my brothers on the ships would not also remember much due to little exercise. I could imagine people from the Naval Headquarters on Sea were in such a tough time.

Finally, the Paracel Islands battle exploded. The frontier territory on the sea was seized upon by China. The loss caused a deep agony to the South Vietnamese. Ironically, the North communist Vietnam never said a single word of objection about the invasion. Their reaction was just like nothing ever happened. On the South Vietnam side, the American friend turned away. Even not helping the South Vietnam to rescue many soldiers who were drifting about for weeks.

One or two months after the battle, the Naval Headquarters formed a committee to investigate the Paracel Islands battle. Commodore Dinh-Manh-Hung, who was my direct commander, became chief of the investigation committee. I was appointed its secretary. The committee worked for few months, interviewed each soldier, examined each warship, and contacted involved departments, to collect details about the battle. Especially, the effectiveness of on board cannons, which were equipped with special electronic gears (considered as the most advanced at that time) to automatically adjust themselves while shooting; but it did not seem to fully utilize those advantages, as well as other problems during firing.

 Due to my duty in the committee, I could have known a lot more details about the battle. But at that time, I did not pay attention much about the work, I re-assigned most of the tasks to an assistant, Lieutenant Junior Grade Lan. It is such a shame on me. I was one of few persons who somewhat involved from the beginning of the battle until the end of the investigation. Unfortunately, I could only remember vaguely. However, in the course of investigation, there are few facts which I still remember. Those facts which have not been mentioned by an officer who directly commanded the South Vietnam Navy in the battle whose report has been partially covered in the second part of this article.

Few days before the battle, the enemy kept irritating the South Vietnam forces by intentionally steering their ships to hit the South Vietnam ships. We had to keep ours moving to avoid collision. Few times, both sides made physical contacts. The South Vietnam soldiers were eager to fight but had to wait for an order to open fire. They were on a 24 hour alert with guns trained to the enemy. Usually, during the stand off, both sides should keep the ships far apart but within the cannon range; on those days, both sides were very close within rifle range.

Finally, the South Vietnamese fired first before the enemy could have time to reinforce their fleet. It was 10:25 AM, Saturday morning, Jan 19, 1974. The first shell hit and set fire on one of the enemy ships. This incident was contrary to reports from the Saigon Radio and RVN Armed Forces Radio in which the enemy fired first, and the South Vietnam ships acted in self defense only. Because of military discipline, nobody dared to correct it. After the battle, except the HQ10 was sunk, the remaining 3 ships were hit by around a thousand bullets and shells. The least seriuos casualty (probably HQ16) got about 820 wounds. During the battle, HQ16 got a 127 mm friendly fired shell right at the engine compartment, fortunately the shell did not explode. Otherwise, HQ16 would have been sunk as well because the engine compartment was the most critical area of the ship.

Obviously, there are more to tell about the Paracels Battle. Those who participated in the battle could offer more details which had been expected from many people. During the recent New Year get together (1998) of Bach-Dang Club in San Jose, many details of the brief battle were told by an authority, a former Commander, also a scholar, Commanding Officer of Radar-Picket Destroyer Tran-Khanh-Du, DER – HQ4; a famous South Vietnam warship, which had sunk 14 North Vietnam ships, and was one of the South Vietnam ships which was participating in the battle from the beginning to the end.

Before getting deeper into the report from scholar Vu-Huu-San, it is worth while to mention about a plan to get back Paracel. In an intermediate staff training session for officers in Saigon, Navy Captain Do-Kiem, Deputy Chief of Staff for Operation, the Navy Headquarters, while answering questions from officers about the prospect of retaking the Paracel Islands and how, said that Vietnam Navy had not been ordered to. If it was going to happen, Vietnam Navy would rely on the advantage of outnumbering soldiers (in the battle area) and high speed of Patrol Craft Fast (PCF) boats to carry out the operation.

  1. This section has been extracted from the article “Twenty-Four Years after, in Remembrance of the Paracel Battle, in Commemoration of Lost Soldiers” of former Commander Vu-Huu-San. (2)

One foreign friend who had knowledge about Vietnam, asked: “in January 1974, with an underdog navy forces, why did the South Vietnam challenge the more powerful China fleet?”

This seems like a logical question.

Twenty four years ago, US Navy officers stationed in Vietnam also thought that the South Vietnam Navy would have quietly withdrawn. To further isolate South Vietnam, the US not only informed that they would stay out of the dispute, but also blocked the use of torpedoes, withdrew the US fleet and firmly refused to help rescue soldiers on the sea after the battle… They did never expect the little South Vietnam again to pick a fight with the giant China.

The Vietnamese, even though not directly participated in the battle, many of them would give the same answer as following:

To defend the country, even death, the South Vietnam Navy determined to fight. The Paracel Islands is a part of Vietnam territory, the Vietnamese vow to defend it. The South Vietnam Navy exchanged fire with the invaders, fought with all his strength. Many worldwide observers, at first were wondering, later were admiring the Vietnamese courage.

China was not beaten that time; however, worldwide newspapers and magazines did report that event with favorable commentaries toward South Vietnam.

On those days, we defended the land on behalf of millions Vietnamese. It was nearly 200 years after the Dong-Da victory of King Quang-Trung in 1789, the South Vietnam Navy stood up to fight again the northern invaders. Unfortunately, the South Vietnam Navy was an underdog in comparison to China Navy. So we could not defeat the enemy as our ancestors had done before. As the result, the Paracel Islands have been taken by the enemy.

Being the most senior Commodore (3) at sea in those years of 1973-1975, Field-Commander of the operation to defend the Paracel Islands at the earlier stage, and Captain of the destroyer Tran-Khanh-Du, DER- HQ4, I myself recognized the courage and fight-until-death determination of many soldiers. Therefore, the South Vietnam small fleet had caused heavy casualty to the enemy fleet: two ships sunk and two heavily destroyed.

Today, being here in front of you, on behalf of many soldiers, I would like to share with you several viewpoints:

– First, to have a silent moment dedicated to lost heroes while they were defending the Paracel Islands.

– Secondly, to affirm the determination of the South Vietnam Navy to carry out their duty in 1974.

– Lastly, to confirm that the South Vietnam Navy fleet HQ4, HQ5, HQ16, HQ10 did fire at the enemy first.

The moment of silence to remember lost soldiers at the Paracel Islands battle was observed. We, the survivals, would like to share our thought with those lost soldiers:

Fallen friends! We were together on the same fleet heading toward the Paracel Islands that year. You did not come back to see your families as we did.
You sacrificed your lives to protect our fatherland. You fought until death. You did fulfill your duty. Glory to the departed heroes whose bodies lie resting forever in the Vietnamese waters.
To commemorate your sacrifice, we were praying for your souls:
To our lost soldiers, who sacrificed their lives in the Paracel Islands battle,
Eastward are hungry devils competing for oil and wishing to dismenber our bodies.
Don’t go northward where filthy red fiends are showing their fangs and claws.
Westward is the world of craziness and materialism and money grubbing.
Southward used to be our promise land now lost, our people fled our land for every corner of the globe.
So please follow the wind, go to the farthest horizon.
Where cloud and water met to unite you with our ancestors.
We, the survivals, still determined to continue to walk our unfinished path. When the time came we would reunite after death in the next few decades.

On the second viewpoint, we heartily agreed with former Commander Pham-Trong-Quynh, Commanding Officer of the HQ5. Even though, everybody knew that the South Vietnam Navy participated in the battle, however, Commander Quynh and I would like to bring up few details which had not been mentioned before.

In the Paracel Islands battle, 1974, we fired until all the cannons became inoperable and we had no more ammunitions.

We faithfully obeyed the orders from our commanders. We fought when we were ordered to. Even in a desperate attempt, we were ordered to crash the ships into the islands to claim our sovereignty with their wreckage . We did steer our ships towards the suicide act.

Twenty four years after the battle, we, the survivals, have searched numerous books in many libraries, but could not find a loftier image where destroyer Tran-Khanh-Du and cruiser Tran-Binh-Trong were preparing to carry out the order to crash the ships without protest. Until late afternoon that day, another order to withdraw from the Paracel Islands was issued, we steered our wounded ships back to Da-Nang to bury the dead, send the wounded to hospitals, and fix the ships, …

On the third viewpoint, we would like to report the incident where our battleship fired first:
24 years ago, it was about the end of the Year of the Ox and beginning of the Year of the Tiger, 01-17-1974, I, commander of HQ4, appointed by the Admiral, Commander of the Navy Coastal Force of the 1st Military Region, to be the commander of Operation Paracel Islands to protect the islands. It was the only signed document about the operation. All the subsequent orders had been transmitted by radio.

At that time, HQ16 who had been at the Paracel Islands earlier, reported many Chinese warships, landing-craft, disguised as fishing boats. The Chinese already occupied Drummond, and Duncan. The Chinese fleet patrolled the surrounding area. HQ16 also sent 15 persons to guard Money.

On 01-18-1974, HQ4 sent 13 persons to guard Robert.

On 01-19-1974, when HQ5 and HQ10 joined the South Vietnam fleet at the Paracel Islands, Navy Captain Ha-Van-Ngac, who was the Commander of Sea Patrol Flottila, took over the commanding post.

The South Vietnam fleet tried unsuccessfully to use seal men to recapture Duncan from the Chinese. After that, the South Vietnam ships were ordered to prepare for the battle.

The Chinese side had 11 warships, with many more behind and 300,000 sailors, planes, and many types of missiles. The South Vietnam side had only 4 ships: Destroyer Tran-Khanh-Du (DER) HQ4, two cruisers (WHEC) Tran-Binh-Trong HQ5 and Ly-Thuong-Kiet HQ16, Patrol craft escort (PCE) Nhat-Tao HQ10.

Those were only South Vietnam warships thrown into the battle at that time. Other ships were too far away. South Vietnam Air Forces with F-5 fighters could not fly that far from their base. We realized that we had to fight alone.

The battle lasted from 10:25 AM to 11:00 AM. When HQ10 fired on the island, HQ4, HQ5, and HQ16 together fired at the enemy ships. HQ4, with two 6,000-horsepower engines, ran at full speed and fired cannons, heavy machine guns non-stop.

Most of the cannons on board were rapidly firing capable. HQ4 was about 1,600 yards from the nearest enemy ship. Therefore, most of its shots hit the enemy ship.

The first 5 or 6 minutes of the battle would decide the fate of engaging ships. Enemy ships sank, our ship sank. Two enemy ships and our HQ10 were put out of action during this short period.

Our ships, with speed of 20 knots, and enemy ships, with speed of 25 knots, moved away from each other at 45 knots, about the automobile speed of 60 mph or 85 km/h on highway. From the distance about 6 miles or 8-9 km, it was getting more difficult to shoot at the target because enemy ships became smaller and the ship’s decks were only 2 meters above the water.

The Paracel Islands battle was a pretty unique battle. Both South Vietnam and China fleets intertwined while exchanging fire. An 127mm shell from HQ5 accidentally hit HQ16. Section 2 with HQ4, and HQ5 was just luckier than Section 1 with HQ16, and HQ10. My ship, HQ4, could inevitably get hits by others. “Friendly fire” at the Paracel Islands battle was different from one in a similar case of the US Navy in Operation Desert Storm, that meant the South Vietnam fleet accepted the risk. It proved that the South Vietnam fleet was not afraid of the enemy instead they wanted a good fight. That attitude might scare off the Chinese. You all had heard other stories which our troops requesting artillery fire right on their positions to kill the enemy and also themselves when they were outnumbered by the enemy and could no longer hold on to their positions. The Paracel Islands battle was also similar.

The South Vietnam fleet planned to have an upper hand by a “swift attack and swift victory” before the enemy could be reinforced for counter-attack. After half an hour of fire exchange, both fleets got further away. As predicted earlier, there were 4 glaringly white waves moved towards the Paracel Islands from the Northeast. They were 4 more missile ships coming to reinforce the enemy fleet.

The next day, the Chinese occupied the entire Paracel Islands.

There is no fear now to deny the fact that the South Vietnam fleet opened fire first. When enemy invades our country, everybody has to fight against them. Being a soldier who participated in the battle 24 years ago, I would like to recall that:

The destroyer Tran-Khanh-Du HQ4, while trying to stop the enemy from occupying more islands on the afternoon of 02-18-1974, rammed the side of a Chinese ship. No matter how obstinate they could be, they had to step back when seeing a big hole on the upper side of their ship.

After the failed landing attempt to retake Duncan Island, our fleet had no choice but to fire first at the enemy. Even though we knew that we could not protect the Paracel Islands afterward, we still wanted to sink as many enemy ships as possible.

It was sad to learn that in 1988, the communist Vietnam troops could not return any fire while the Chinese troops defeated them at the Spratly Islands, but their lleaders submissively came to the negotiation table with the Chinese instead. Any devoted soldier all knows that one has to fight in order to have peace talks…

III. Re-evaluating the Situation of South Vietnam:

After the Paracel Islands battle, even though the South Vietnam Navy did not bring back victory as their ancestors had done, people were still welcoming the returning soldiers as heroes. As a tradition to honor country heroes and heroines, a street in Saigon was named after Commander Nguy-Van-Tha, commander of Patrol craft escort Nhat-Tao HQ10 who died in action at the Pracels.

After the North Vietnamese Communists overran South Vietnam in 1975, the street named after that hero no longer existed. Many others who participated in the Paracel Islands battle were thrown in re-education camps. The betrayers who exchanged our land for weapons to suppress his own people were referred to by Frank Ching, a reporter of the Far East Economic Review, in the article “Reassessing South Vietnam” on 02-10-1994.

“Very few governments are prepared to admit their mistakes, no matter how obvious they are. Such as that of the Vietnamese Communists.

Even though the Vietnam Communist rulers no longer follow Marxist-Leninist socialism except for the name, they are not willing to admit it. However, their market economy policy is itself an admission.

The Vietnam Communist Party (VCP) was fighting on behalf of socialism to conquer South Vietnam. During the war, they had aids from all communist-ruled countries, especially Moscow and Beijing. The bloody war killed many innocent people, severely devastated the country. The toll is very high, until now they are still paying for that, they have no choice but to switch to a market economy as a late comer to stimulate the economy. However, they still cling on the old ideology. Because of that ideology, in the past, Hanoi had been carrying out many policies which now do not make any sense at all.

Hanoi used to madly slander the South Vietnam government as an “Americans’ puppet”, which was “cheaply selling national interests.” Those accusations are unfounded, and gradually, people have realized that those accusations should have been attributed to Hanoi. Looking back at the events 24 years later, it was obviously the Saigon government that many times stood up for the sake of the country, not Hanoi. The Paracel Islands dispute is an example.

In the recent years, the Indonesian government has sponsored conferences to discuss the South China Sea issues. In every such conference, the VCP government once again awkwardly tried to explain their silence when the Chinese invaded those islands, which now it claims possession of.

According to the VCP government, China took advantage of the unrest political and social situations in Vietnam and in the world at the time to use military forces to invade the Paracel Islands. The reason was very weak and also did not explain Hanoi silence at the time. Twenty years have passed, history has corroborated many facts. It is time to recognize the South Vietnam government’s merits. Hanoi should recognize that too, and admit the fact that while South Vietnam bravely standing up to resist the Chinese invasion, Hanoi was still busy flattering China. Hanoi has to admit the fact that the South Vietnam government cared for the country more than Hanoi has ever done.

Based on many ancient historical documents to prove the ownership of two archipelagoes, especially the document “Phu Bien Tap Luc” by Le-Quy-Don, Vietnam has a sound and legitimate claim. Vietnam has called the two archipelagoes as “Hoang-Sa” and “Truong-Sa”, where China has called “Xisha” (Tay-Sa) and “Nansha” (Nam-Sa) respectively.

In the Paracel Islands battle, the South Vietnam fleet sank two Chinese ships and caused damage to two others, whereas on the South Vietnam side, one Patrol craft escort was sunk, 40 soldiers were captured. In 1988, when China invaded the Spratly Islands, Hanoi forces let China sink 3 ships, kill 72 soldiers and capture 9 others.

The reasons for those invasions have been known far earlier. It is part of the “Survival Space” Program, because China has foreseen the two main national resources in Manchuria and Sinkang will soon be dry up. To carry out the program, China started the easiest steps. It began with what the VCP had promised China earlier. It was a secret agreement between the communist governments of Vietnam and China.

According to Reuter, on 12-30-1993, the VCP denied the secret agreement with China. However, they could not prove that such agreement has not existed. Le-Duc-Anh visited China and the Chinese told him to wait 50 more years to discuss about the dispute. Might China look at Le-Duc-Anh as an ungrateful and disloyal person, who forgets the earlier promise?

According to the China Foreign Ministry, their sovereignty on those two Paracel and Spratly Islands is indisputable (Beijing Review, Feb 18, 1980), because Hanoi had already settled the matter with China. China also provides evidence to support their claim:

– In June 1956, two years after Ho-Chi-Minh formed his new North Vietnam government, Ung-Van-Khiem, Deputy Foreign Minister of North Vietnam government told Li-Zhimin, Charge d’affaires of the China Embassy in Hanoi that: “According to Vietnam document, Xisha (Hoang-Sa or Paracel Islands), and Nansha (Truong-Sa or Spratly Islands) are Chinese historical lands.” [sic]

On 09-04-1958, the China government declared their territorial waters is 12 nautical miles, applied to all China territory, including Dongsha, Xisha (Hoang-Sa or Paracel Islands), Zhongsha, Nansha (Truong-Sa or Spratly Islands). Ten days later, Pham-Van-Dong, then the Prime Minister of the North Vietnam sent an official message to Chou-En-Lai, Prime Minister of China to confirm that “the Democratic Republic of Vietnam government recognizes and supports the proclamation of the People Republic of China government on 09-04-1958.”

Below is the full text of the document:

The Democratic Republic of Vietnam Prime Minister…

Dear Comrade Prime Minister:

We would like to inform you that:

The Democratic Republic of Vietnam government acknowledges and agrees to the proclamation of the People Republic of China on 09-04-1958 about the China territorial waters claim.

The Democratic Republic of Vietnam government honors that proclamation and directs responsible departments to ultimately honor that 12 nautical miles territorial waters claim of the People Republic of China in all relations with China on the sea.

Respectfully yours, Hanoi, 09-14-1958


Prime Minister of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam

It should be noted that in the islands dispute between the two, China has only invaded islands belong to Vietnam, but leaves alone other countries who also claim their rights on those islands. Obviously Ho-Chi-Minh and Pham-Van-Dong, did yield those islands to China. At that time, Ho was preparing to invade South Vietnam, he needed huge aids from China, therefore blindly accepted any conditions from Beijing, even giving up lands. To Ho-Chi-Minh, giving up those two islands belong to South Vietnam happened only “on paper” (because North Vietnam lost nothing?)

The VCP is waiting for ASEAN’s help to “fairly” resolve the dispute. On the China side, after occupying the Paracel and Spratly Islands, they befriend with the Philippines and Malaysia to be ready for discussion about how to share the abundant natural resources in the disputed area without Vietnam participation. In addition, China firmly states that they do not accept settlement by any country about the dispute between Hanoi and Beijing.

Pham-Van-Dong denied his mistake in his staatement on the Far East Economy dated 03-16-1979. Basically, he alleged “war time” as a reason of his action.

In 1977, Pham-Van-Dong, answering a question about his official message to China Prime Minister Chou-En-Lai to acknowledge and agree to the China claim on the Paracel and Spratly Islands, also said that “During war time, I had no other choice except that deal.” Because Ho-Chi-Minh was so eager to conquer South Vietnam and contribute to the world communism, he never hesitated to give away the “future” land to China without knowing whether he could take over the South later.

“During war time, I had no other choice except that deal.” Who started the war and were willing to trade anything to carry out the war even selling a part of the country? Selling lands to carry out the war, but after the war ended, Pham-Van-Dong blamed on the war as a reason why he had to give up lands!

Nguyen-Manh-Cam, Hanoi Foreign Minister also admitted: “The previous statement from our government about the Paracel and Spratly Islands based on the following fact: At that time, after the Geneva Agreement about Indochina, the territory below the17th parallel, including those two islands, belonged to South Vietnam. Besides, during that period, North Vietnam had to concentrate highest efforts to fight the American war of aggression and to preserve independence. Therefore, we needed a lot of support from friends all over the world. The relationship between Vietnam and China at that time was very close, and we trusted each other. To Vietnam, China was the valuable and enormous sources of support. Based on that fact and urgent demands, the statement of our leadership (to acknowledge and agree to the China claim on the Paracel and Spratly Islands) was necessary because it directly served the fighting for independence and freedom of the country. Especially, it met the immediate necessity to keep the Americans from using those islands to attack us. That statement does not affect the historical and legitimate basis of Vietnam ownership of the Paracel and Spratly Islands.” (Press conference in Hanoi, 10-02-1992, released by Vietnam News Agency on 12-03-1992).

The above statements confirms that China evidence is valid. What is happening today related to the dispute is the result of deceitful and twisting statements between the two communist brothers in the past. Today, no country wants to resolve the dispute between communist-ruled Vietnam and communist-ruled China. The reason is too obvious: The Vietnam Communist regime cannot annul diplomatic documents and statements concerning relations with China which have been intended to fool each other. Nevertheless, the Vietnam Communist regime is unable to entirely separate from China while still copying Chinese-styled “economic reforms” to “move forward to socialism. “

(1) The official rank was “Deputy of Naval Commander on Riverine Operations,” most of people referred all general ranks in the navy as “admiral,” the same way as in US and British Navy.

(2) Vu-Huu-San, Naval Officer Magazine, the Graduation Class of the Second Libra.

(3) Commodore, tittle referring to the commanding officer of a task division, or of a task force with several ships under one’s command.

About “HoangSa Naval Battle”

(From Kiem Do and Julie Kane,Chapter 10- “Counterpart, A South Vietnamese Naval Officer’s War”, Naval Institute, Press, Annapolis, Maryland, 1998.)

…Even though the Americans were now technically out of the fighting, Kiem still had a U.S. counterpart, though the latter’s role had changed considerably since the signing of the treaty: the new man was an observer, rather than a helper, and so quiet that Kiem had trouble remembering his name. He reported to the Defense Attache Office, an arm of the U.S. Embassy located at Tan Son Nhut Air Base. Prior to the treaty Kiem had been able to contact the U.S. Seventh Fleet directly, but now he had to ask his counterpart to ask the DAO to ask the U.S. Navy whatever it was he wanted. It was a cumbersome procedure, to say the least. But Kiem didn’t fully understand its implications until January of 1974, when Red Chinese warships seized the Hoang Sa or “Paracel” Islands that had been claimed by Vietnam since the early nineteenth century.

The Paracel Islands lay about three hundred fifty kilometers east of Da Nang, in the South China Sea. They were small, desolate, treeless, covered with crusted bird droppings – which Madame Nhu had tried unsuccessfully to mine for fertilizer a decade earlier – and ringed with jagged reefs that made beaching a gamble. The biggest island, called “Pattle” by Westerners, had a weather station that beamed typhoon warnings to the mainland and a single squad of what had to be the loneliest regional forces in Vietnam. The VNN ran routine patrols around the island, and Kiem himself had visited them several times between 1963 and 1965. Once he’d even made arrangements to buy a goat, as a treat for his sailors, from the Pattle Island army garrison. The soldiers raised them but let them run free, since the sea was their fence. “Listen,” the squad leader had chuckled, “if you can catch them, you can have two goats for the same price.” Kiem’s whole ship had turned out to chase the goats around the island, slipping and sliding in the gooey new bird-droppings until, hours later, the men and the goats had just fallen down on top of each other, exhausted.

Northwest of the Paracels, the sea had spit back three or four equally desolate islands that had been occupied by Chinese fishermen for as long as anyone could remember. The Chinese had never given the Vietnamese any trouble; in fact, whenever a storm blew one of their fishing boats down to the Paracels, the Vietnamese Navy would tow it back as a courtesy. Three hundred kilometers due north of the Paracels lay Hainan Island, a vast Chinese landmass with its own air force base and fleet of MIG-21 bombers. But it was so far away, nobody gave it much thought.

According to reports received by I Corps in Da Nang, however, Pattle Island was now flying the Chinese flag, with two armored Chinese trawlers anchored nearby. And Duncan Island, second in size to Pattle, had a Chinese bunker with soldiers milling about and a Chinese landing ship moored right on the beach! Their presence had been discovered by Captain Thu of HQ-16, one of seven WHECs (high-endurance U.S. Coast Guard cutters) turned over by the United States to the VNN under Vietnamization. Thu had been asked by the U.S. Consulate in Da Nang to run an American civilian out to the islands, as a “special favor”Ởa request that should have been routed through naval headquarters, under the terms of the treaty. After dropping off the American and half a dozen Vietnamese Army officers who were accompanying him, Thu had decided to patrol for a day or two before heading back. Now the captain was desperately radioing I Corps, asking what to do next.

I Corps had notified naval headquarters in Saigon; headquarters had started meeting with President Thieu, Thieu’s cabinet, National Assembly leaders, and the heads of the other armed forces; and Thieu’s foreign minister was sounding out the reactions of the international diplomatic community.

“If we act fast, we can retake the islands,” Kiem was urging Admiral Chon. “But we have to rush more ships in now, while we still have the firepower advantage. If we knock out the Chinese ships, the shore force will surrender easily.” The longer they delayed, the more likely was the chance that the enormous Chinese Navy would be sending in reinforcements. In response, Admiral Chon ordered Kiem to dig up proof of Vietnam’s historical claims to the islands. While Kiem was slamming and banging through library shelves and file drawers like a lawyer conducting a title search, he learned from his counterpart that his request to the U.S. Seventh Fleet to set up a “line of interdiction” – to keep the Chinese Navy from moving south – had been refused. Of course it was possible that the DAO had killed the request without ever forwarding it to the U.S. Navy. There was no way to know.

While Kiem was trotting in and out of briefings lugging an overhead slide projector and a suitcase full of papers, Radar Picket Escort HQ-4 – the sleek, fast ex-USS Forster – was gliding toward the Paracels from Da Nang. Late in the morning of 17 January 1974 she landed a team of Vietnamese Navy commandos on Cam Tuyen (“Robert”) Island to yank up additional Chinese flags that had been reported there. But the trawler had moved, and there were no Chinese anywhere on the islandỞthe commandos couldn’t have missed them, on a stretch of bird poop only five hundred meters long. Having returned to their ship, the commandos were just finishing lunch and dealing out cards when they spotted two fast-moving, Komar-class motor torpedo boats churning up the sea to starboard. The captain sounded the alarm to man battle stations, but as the men scrambled to their positions, the Chinese Navy ships suddenly changed direction and disappeared.

With Chinese reinforcements on the scene, there was no longer much hope of retaking the islands. But the Vietnamese Navy could still go in there, slap the Chinese Navy on the face, and run back out again. If only the damn government would hurry.

Permission to attack finally came through on the morning of 18 January, with one stipulation: President Thieu wanted the navy to try to “parley” with the Chinese first. Hearing the news, Kiem cursed: more time wasted. But now the flagship of the looming sea battle – HQ-5, another WHEC – began racing toward the scene at top speed, 18 knots. HQ-10 – an MSF with its minesweeping gear removed and about the size of one of the enemy’s motor torpedo boats – set out a couple of hours behind her. Kiem couldn’t help noticing that all four of the battleship captains – Thu, San, Quynh, and Tha – had been his students at Nha Trang. He wondered how Captain Quynh of HQ-5 who tended to be nervous, was going to do with On-Site Commander Ngac on board.

Vice CNO Tanh flew to Da Nang to direct the battle from the I Corps CIC. Kiem and Admiral Chon would be monitoring communication from the powerful CIC at Saigon Naval Headquarters. They were trying to secure air coverage for the operation from the Vietnamese Air Force, without much luck. The VNAF’s jets flew too fast to be able to “see” a target with human eyesight; over the ocean they had to rely on CAP radar ships for guidance, which wouldn’t be available in time. What’s more, by the time their short-range CF-5s and A-27s reached the Paracels, their fuel tanks would be half-empty; they’d have to wheel right around and head back home. “That’s good enough,” the navy told them. Finally the air force agreed to make one overhead pass during the battle, to shore up the fighting men’s morale.

Near midnight on 18 January, Captain Ngac positioned HQ-10 and HQ-16 close to the bunkered shore of Duncan Island, and HQ-4 and HQ-5 on the island’s other side. The Chinese were now up to four torpedo boats; this way, each VNN ship could cover one Chinese boat, north to south, while they waited for reinforcements to arrive from Da Nang. With their steel hulls and hidden machine guns, the Chinese “fishing” trawlers were still a threat, though. And the landing ship was also sure to be well-armed.

As the tide crested on the morning of 19 January, HQ-5 lowered a brace of rubber landing boats over her side. Twenty Vietnamese Navy commandosỞlooking sleek as otters in their dark wet suitsỞsteered the motorized craft toward the shore of Duncan Island. Clambering to their feet in the wildly crashing surf, they began staggering toward high ground. Their leader, a lieutenant junior grade, went first, waving a white flag. Blinking salt spray from his eyes, he saw that the Chinese ground force, bigger than expected, was advancing from several different directions. He called out in Chinese for them to stop, but they kept coming. Conferring with Captain Ngac by radio, he ordered his men to retreat.

As the Vietnamese began nudging their boats into the water, the Chinese opened fire on their backs. The lieutenant and two of his men fell over dead in the raging surf. As the survivors scrambled to get back to their mother ship, Captain Thu of HQ-16, on the opposite side of the island, notified Captain Ngac that one of the Chinese ships had just made a move to ram him.

“Request permission to shoot,” Captain Ngac radioed I Corps. Pacing the length of the Saigon CICỞwood-paneled, softly lit, crammed with electronics equipment, with a central Plexiglas plotting board and pulldown maps on the wallsỞKiem wondered where Admiral Chon had gone. He asked a communications officer to ring him. After calling around, the officer reported back that Chon had boarded a flight to Da Nang. Kiem tried not to let his surprise show on his face. “All right. Well then, call up the Vice CNO at Da Nang,” Kiem ordered. A few minutes later, the same officer reported back that the Vice CNO was on his way to the airport to collect Chon.

“Oh, mia madre,” said Kiem. Could it be possible that Chon was hiding out to save his skin? He could believe it of Chon but not of Vice CNO Tanh, one of the navy’s most highly respected officers.. But why hadn’t Tanh sent a driver to the airport, which was a good hour’s drive from I Corps?

Thinking it best not to start a war with Red China all by himself, Kiem sent one of his junior officers to fetch the chief of staff. Although he hadn’t been involved in planning the operation, the middle-aged admiral was thrilled to jump in: every Vietnamese schoolboy grows up dreaming of sea battles with China. “Are you sure that President Thieu has authorized force?” he asked when Kiem had finished his on-the-spot briefing.

“Yes, Admiral,” said Kiem.

“Well then, give them the order,” said the chief of staff, breaking into a big smile.

“What order, sir?” asked Kiem.

“Shoot!” said the admiral.

“Yes, sir!” Kiem called up Captain Ngac and told him that “Hometown,” the Saigon CIC, would be taking over controls from “Solar,” its counterpart in Da Nang. “Report to us directly,” he said. “Your orders are to retrieve the landing party, if possible; then get out into the open and shoot.”

“Hometown, this is Shark-5,” crackled Ngac’s voice. “Roger. Out.”

Next, Kiem contacted the air force and gave them the signal. Waiting for something to happen, he began to worry about the condition of his ships. Because of the pressure to keep them out on patrol no matter how bad their condition, HQ-10 was going into battle with only one engine working. And the forward 3-inch gun on HQ-4 was out. Like a skunk or a porcupine, she’d have to point her rear end at the enemy to shoot. Where were the two backup ships coming from Da Nang? Why was the air force taking so long?

Kiem recontacted Ngac: “Shark-5, this is Hometown. Are you in position? Over.”

“This is Shark-5. Affirmative. Out.”

“Then shoot. Over.” There was no immediate response from Ngac.

“Shoot!” Kiem prodded. “Over!”

In the course of the next forty-five minutes, the Vietnamese Navy sank one Chinese Navy motor torpedo boat and one trawler. But HQ-10 took a direct hit from a Chinese surface-to-surface missile and, spewing smoke and fire from her bridge, went dead in the water with eighty-two men on board. And HQ- 16, listing twenty degrees from a hole under the water level in her engine room, lost her radio, electricity, and automatic governing system. Only her main engine was still maneuverable.

Sweating like crazy, despite the air-conditioning, Kiem asked his counterpart – who’d been sitting there so quietly that Kiem had almost forgotten about him – to recontact the DAO. With two VNN ships in trouble, would the Seventh Fleet reconsider setting up a line of interdiction? “I’ll try, Captain Kiem,” he said. A few minutes later, he notified Kiem that U.S. radar was tracking an apparent Chinese MIG launch from Hainan Island. A Chinese guided-missile frigate was bearing down right behind the planes, in the direction of the Paracels.

“Looks like we’re going to have to terminate, sir,” Kiem advised the chief of staff.

HQ-10 was going under. The three remaining warships were given orders to retreat. At first Captain Thu of HQ-16 thought he was going to have to beach in order to save his crew, but his engineering officer persuaded him that they could make it back to Da Nang on one engine, even though they were now listing forty degrees. Kiem ordered HQ-4 to escort the wounded vessel. HQ-5 would head south and begin an “expanding square” search for survivors.

For the third time Kiem asked his counterpart to ask the DAO to get in touch with the Seventh Fleet. This time, all he wanted was assistance in picking up survivors. But the request was turned down.

On the heels of the battle Kiem had to fly to Phan Rang to brief vacationing President Thieu. He didn’t dare tell him that the CNO and Vice CNO had missed the only sea battle in modern naval history, although he mentioned the no-show by the air force. The briefing took place under the shade of a brick gazebo built right on the beach, while Thieu’s family members came and went, looking for towels or cigarettes.

“Don’t worry, Captain Kiem,” Thieu soothed, “we’ll get you another ship.” He was almost giddy, riding the wave of the battle’s astonishing public popularity; for even though their side had lost the islands and even though HQ-16 turned out to have been hit by a “friendly” shell stamped “Made in U.S.A.,” they had sunk two ships to their two-thousands-year enemy’s one! The TV, radio, and newspapers were going crazy. Homemade banners were flapping in the streets of Saigon and Da Nang. For a few days everyone seemed to have forgotten the communists, who’d only been an enemy for sixteen years. Even the communists were keeping their mouths shut, loath to remind people that they were allied with the ancient enemy. President Thieu ordered a champagne reception for the returning heroes in Saigon.

Kiem didn’t want another ship. He wanted the lives of his missing men. Four days after the battle, a Dutch tanker pulled twenty-three HQ-10 survivors on life rafts out of the ocean. They said that Captain Tha had been killed on the bridge of his ship but that the other crew members had escaped to rafts. Five days after that, a Vietnamese fishing boat picked up a raft containing fourteen more survivors and one corpseỞa former petty officer of Kiem’s, who had died of exposure and dehydration just hours before. That still left more than three dozen men unaccounted for. The Chinese government announced that they had captured forty-eight prisoners, including one American – but those included the Pattle Island Regional Forces and the six ARVN officers who had accompanied the American civilian out there in the days preceding the battle. The U.S. government explained to the world that the American had been “visiting the islands at the invitation of a South Vietnamese Navy commander” – to Kiem’s astonishment, as no commander would dare take an American out there without U.S. and VNN authorization.

The United States had fed Kiem bad intelligence, too: there hadn’t been any “Chinese MIG launch,” though Kiem had called off the battle on account of it. What the hell was going on? Did it have anything to do with President Richard Nixon’s historic trip to China the year before or with the rumors of deep-sea oil reserves near the Spratly Islands and the Paracels? Was the United States going to sacrifice South Vietnam as an ally in order to set up a lucrative trade with China? I can’t believe it. The DA0 must not have passed my requests to the Seventh Fleet, Kiem told himself for what must have been the fiftieth time. He could believe that the U.S. government would let him down – but never the U.S. Navy.

Related Articles

Check Also
Back to top button