Kiem Do and Julie Kane
...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
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 commandos, looking sleek as otters in their dark
wet suits, steered 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 CIC, wood-paneled,
softly lit, crammed with electronics equipment, with a central Plexiglas
plotting board and pulldown maps on the walls, Kiem 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
"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 maneuvrable.
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 corpse, a 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.
Source: Kiem Do and Julie Kane,Chapter 10-
"Counterpart, A South Vietnamese Naval Officer's War",
Naval Institute, Press, Annapolis, Maryland, 1998.