Do Kiem's Views
...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
droppingswhich Madame Nhu had tried unsuccessfully to mine for fertilizer a decade
earlierand 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 nag, 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"a 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 southhad 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
Forsterwas 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
islandthe 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 battleHQ-5, another WHECbegan racing toward the scene at top
speed, 18 knots. HQ-10an MSF with its minesweeping gear removed and about the size
of one of the enemy's motor torpedo boatsset out a couple of hours behind her. Kiem
couldn't help noticing that all four of the battleship captainsThu, San, Quynh, and
Thahad 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 F-5s and
A-37s 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 commandoslooking sleek as otters in
their dark wet suitssteered 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
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 CICwood-paneled, softly lit, crammed with electronics equipment, with
a central Plexiglas plotting board and pulldown maps on the wallsKiem 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
"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 counterpartwho'd
been sitting there so quietly that Kiem had almost forgotten about himto 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
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
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 corpsea 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 Americanbut 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 downbut never
the U.S. Navy.
(From Kiem Do and Julie Kane,Chapter 10- "Counterpart, A South Vietnamese Naval
Officer's War", Naval Institute, Press, Annapolis, Maryland, 1998.)