Vietnamese families in search of peace 30 years after sons died defending Spratlys from China

By Hoang Tao   March 13, 2018 | 01:07 am PT
64 Vietnamese soldiers died in the battle on March 14, 1988, and few of their remains have been recovered.
Family photos show Nguyen Van Hoa (L), Vo Van Duc (C) and Hoang Van Tuy, who are among 64 Vietnamese soldiers who died defending Spratly reefs from China in 1988.

Family photos show Nguyen Van Hoa (L), Vo Van Duc (C) and Hoang Van Tuy, who are among 64 Vietnamese soldiers who died defending Spratly reefs from China in 1988.

Hoang Do holds a party to commemorate the death of his son every year.

It is barely anything more than 64 cups of rice wine, one each for his son Hoang Van Tuy and the other soldiers who died with him during the battle to defend the Spratly Archipelago from China in 1988.

Do is 90 now and not planning on throwing many more parties for the fallen soldiers.

“I just hope to join my son soon,” he said.

Vietnam is commemorating 30 years since it lost the Gac Ma Reef in the Spratly Archipelago to China, and many families of the dead soldiers have yet to find peace because they have been unable to bid their loved ones a proper farewell.

On March 14, 1988, the Vietnamese Navy’s Brigade 125 sent three ships carrying nearly 100 officers and soldiers to the Gac Ma (Johnson South), Co Lin (Collins or Johnson North) and Len Dao (Lansdowne) reefs in the Spratly (Truong Sa) Archipelago. The soldiers were transporting construction materials to Gac Ma when four Chinese vessels arrived.

The Chinese soldiers opened fire and a battle ensued. More Vietnamese ships arrived and they managed to defend Co Lin and Len Dao, but the Chinese forces took Gac Ma.

A total of 64 Vietnamese soldiers were killed in the battle, 13 of whom were from Quang Binh Province. Search attempts have only recovered the remains of three.

Do, a Quang Binh local, said he had held hope for a long time that his son’s body would be found.

Many years ago, a group of officials visited his neighborhood to take DNA samples, further raising his expectations, but that was the last he heard from them.

Like Do, many parents have been desperately looking for something from their sons to hold on to.

Nguyen Thi Ut, the mother of dead soldier Nguyen Van Hoa, died earlier this month before she could travel to Khanh Hoa Province, where her son was based, to take some soil to build him a symbolic tomb.

The only thing that she had left of her son were his letters, and they were lost during massive floods in 1992.

“During her last months, she was very sick and spent many nights calling his name,” Hoa’s sister said.

Vo Van Duc, another dead soldier from Quang Binh, died several days after his family received a letter from him saying that he was fine. “Don’t worry about me,” he wrote.

His death hit his family hard. His father had been unwell for a long time and died in 1999. His mother died early this year, also with an unfulfilled wish to build him a symbolic tomb.

Nguyen Tien Doan, also from Quang Binh, is the only one of the Gac Ma martyrs who was survived by a child.

His son was two years old when he died.

“It wasn't until I was six that I realized that my father had died for his country,” said Nguyen Dinh The.

“I just hope I can find my father’s remains. It’s also my grandmother’s last wish,” he said.

go to top