Tuesday, January 19, 2016

42nd Anniversary: Battle of the Paracel Islands, January 19-20, 1974 - Quần Đảo Hoàng Sa

Map showing the principal naval movements in the Battle of the Paracel Islands, 1974.
The ships in blue represent Republic of Vietnam naval vessels, while those in red are Chinese.
                Forty-two years ago today, the Republic of Vietnam met the People's Republic of China in open naval combat. The point of contest was the Paracel Islands (Quần Đảo Hoàng Sa) in the seas off the coast of Vietnam. The Republic of Vietnam had long laid claimed to the islands, and maintained a military presence there. As is the case today, China claimed nearly all islands in the South China Sea, regardless of their legal status. In 1958, with the islands in the possession of their rival (the Republic of Vietnam / South Vietnam), Communist North Vietnam officially recognized China's claim to both the Paracel and Spratly Islands. This was later reversed in postwar years, but at the time of the battle in 1974 it served as justification for China's attack on the sovereignty of the Republic of Vietnam.
Republic of Vietnam stele on the Spratly Islands with Republic of Vietnam naval officer beside.
           Throughout the 1960s and into the 1970s the dispute for the islands between the Republic of Vietnam and China intensified against the ongoing backdrop of the Vietnam War. A series of exchanges between fishermen and military vessels of both nations occurred to this period. The situation finally reached climax in January of 1974 when an inspection contingent sent by the Republic of Vietnam to the islands noticed armed Chinese ships in the vicinity. The Republic of Vietnam quickly sent reinforcements to the area. On January 18th, a detachment of Republic of Vietnam Sea Commandos was landed on one of the islands where Chinese flags were removed unopposed.
Captain Hà Văn Ngạc who commanded the Republic of Vietnam naval forces during the battle.
                 The Republic of Vietnam would field four naval vessels during the battle. Three were frigates: Trần Khánh Dư, HQ-04 (formerly the USS Forster),  Lý Thường Kiệt, HQ-16 (formerly the USS Chincoteague), and Trần Bình Trọng, HQ-05 (formerly the USS Castle Rock). The fourth was a corvette, the Nhựt Tảo, HQ-10 (formerly the USS Serene). Captain Hà Văn Ngạc was authorized on January 18th to engage with the Chinese forces with the condition that a parley first be attemped. On the morning of January 19th, the first phase of the battle began when a small detachment of Republic of Vietnam Sea Commandos was landed on one of the islands that Chinese forces had occupied. They approached with a white flag, but were subsequently attacked by the Chinese units on the island. As this was meant as a negotiation parley, the sea commandos were few in number, and were forced to withdraw after suffering several casualties in the failed attempt to resolve the matter peacefully.
Trần Khánh Dư, HQ-04, 1971.
Lý Thường Kiệt, HQ-16.
Trần Bình Trọng, HQ-05.
Nhựt Tảo, HQ-10.
      The next phase consisted of a naval engagement seeing all four Republic of Vietnam vessels involved. The exchange lasted roughly forty minutes, with severe damage to both sides. All four Republic of Vietnam vessels were hit with Nhựt Tảo, HQ-10, the most severe. The Nhựt Tảo took a direct hit from a surface to air missile, which left the ship immobile, in addition to other damage suffered from Chinese guns. The gun crew aboard the Nhựt Tảo were all either killed or injured, but surviving crewmen from other parts of the ship took over and commenced firing once more. The Chinese ships then focused all of their targets on the Nhựt Tảo, sending it to the bottom with most of her crew, including the ship's commander, Ngụy Văn Thà.
Photograph of Lieutenant Commander Ngụy Văn Thà, as it appeared in Vietnamese newspapers after the battle. Ngụy Văn Thà was posthumously promoted to full commander.
             The threat of additional Chinese ships approaching, including submarines, along with warplanes, forced the remaining Vietnamese ships to withdraw. The final phase of the battle took place the following day, January 20th, when Chinese planes bombed Vietnamese positions on the islands. As a result, the garrison of these positions was later captured. The survivors of the Nhựt Tảo would remain at sea for several days before being rescued by a passing Dutch merchant ship. Some of the islands' garrison escaped by seas, and were subsequently rescued by Vietnamese fishermen.
Prisoners of war taken by the Chinese are repatriated in the Republic of Vietnam, 1974.
             The battle received great attention in Vietnam and worldwide. The veterans of the battle, particularly those on the Nhựt Tảo were decorated by the Republic of Vietnam. Those taken prisoner by the Chinese, including one American observer, were released to the Red Cross, and also received a heroes' welcome upon their return. The legacy of the battle is just as prominent today as ever. The disputes of the Paracel, Spratly, and other island groups between China and its Southeast Asian neighbors remain a vocal point of conflict. In this post, RVNHS would like to reflect on the events of today forty-two-years ago, and in particular honor the memory of those men who gave their lives for the sovereignty of Vietnam.
A wounded prisoner of war receives medical treatment upon his repatriation
 to the Republic of Vietnam, 1974.

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