The hero of Truong Sa
Nearly 20 years ago, a naval soldier risked his life to protect the national flag on a submerged island in the Truong Sa archipelago. The serious wounds he suffered then still trouble him sometimes.
Nguyen Van Lanh was born in a typical central Vietnamese family in Quang Binh Province - one which was poor and had a lot of children.
He dropped out of high school to work in the family’s rice field until he joined the Navy in August 1985.
For Lanh, Truong Sa (Spratly) Archipelago meant days spent in floating compartments on under-water islands.
He also went twice to a large “real” island, the Sinh Ton, and both trips are filled with memories.
A good memory was made on the first occasion when he attended a music show on Sinh Ton.
To the soldiers who could only see the immense sky and ocean and one another everyday, the female singers and dancers were more than just singers and dancers – they were angels! There is a story Lanh is still embarrassed about every time he tells it.
He and a few young fellow soldiers avidly watched a singer and as she left the beach, they used pieces of coral to fence off her footprints on the sand.
Winds and tides wiped out the girl’s footprints two days later, but the memory has stayed with him until now.
Love letters and dishwashing
The Truong Sa Islands are comprised of over 100 islands, islets and coral reefs in the Southeast of the East Sea.
Some islands are high and large enough to provide dwellers with soil and water to plant trees.
But many others are totally submerged in high tides.
In the last years of the 1980s, the soldiers stationed on the underwater islands had to live in floating compartments, which were called “booms” and could house a squad each.
Lanh and his brothers-in-arms lived in one such boom.
Being rocked all day was not an easy feeling at first, but they became used to it.
Lanh could swim very well since he was a child, yet he still felt scared of the breathtakingly vast and quiet ocean where ships were seldom seen.
The only source of joy for the soldiers on the underwater islands came from their expectation of letters from home, especially from their girl-friends.
Anyone who received a love letter would have to wash dishes for a full month, and a letter from home, a full week.
The “girlfriend” sometimes was just an unknown girl who sent a letter to show her admiration for the island soldiers.
The soldiers once jokingly tricked a soldier who couldn’t read by reading him an imaginary love letter then asking him to wash dishes.
The man knew the trick but happily accepted the task and they lived on such innocent joys.
The soldiers read the letter so many times they could memorize not only every word but also every comma or period.
So they killed time by daring one another to read the letters just by memory.
They selected the soldiers with the best hand-writing to reply to the letters.
Island men and turtles
Dining in booms was another problem.
Usual meals comprised of rice, canned meat and plenty of fish.
The soldiers had limited recipe options and desperately longed for some vegetables.
But the underwater islands left no soil for planting.
The youthful soldiers swelled because of a lack of vitamins.
Each had just 1.5 liters of fresh water daily, which meant sea water was used for face-washing and teeth-brushing.
Except for the letters, some radio communication equipment was the only link between the islands and the mainland.
“We had to pedal it for 20 minutes before it worked,” Lanh said.
The soldiers managed to overcome all hardships thanks to their “determination [to serve the country] ever since they joined the military.”
“I always thought that I was [there] to protect the forefathers’ precious land, and that I was young and could overcome [the disadvantages],” Lanh said.
Therefore, discipline was well kept.
A soldier was once chastised because he had not spotted a sea turtle laying eggs on the beach during his watch.
The rationale being that if a turtle weighing hundreds of kilos could not be discovered, enemy frogmen could slip through, too.
The flag stands still
On the morning of March 14, 1988, Lanh and his comrades were unloading construction material from a ship to Gac Ma Island, when Chinese warships encircled them.
Chinese troops later landed on Gac Ma and attempted to take down the Vietnamese flag and seize the island.
Tran Van Phuong, the Vietnamese soldier who kept the flag, was shot dead.
Lanh rushed to face enemy troops to protect the flag.
He was stabbed by a bayonet in the shoulder but managed to force a Chinese officer to drop his handgun which he was about to shoot.
Chinese troops again shot him in the shoulder twice. Lanh fell to the sea.
His comrades advanced to rescue and fill his place to defend our sovereignty.
Their courage paid off. The Chinese troops withdrew.
Lanh was sent back to the mainland for treatment of serious wounds.
He was later awarded the title of Hero of the People’s Armed Forces and the First Medal of Honor.
Life is not the same anymore
Lanh returned to with Sinh Ton Island when he was rushed there for emergency treatment.
That was also the second and final time that he was on a “real” island in Truong Sa.
He has not returned to the archipelago since then.
After spending almost four years in the hospital, he was discharged in 1992 with his health badly damaged.
He is still in the Navy now but can only handle light work.
Twenty years after the incident, he still remembers his island friends, some of whom sacrificed their life to protect the islands.
Lanh was just promoted to lieutenant recently.
It is still hard to believe what the slim, seemingly fragile man did, and how he suffered to defend the national flag.
Reported by Le Thi Thai Hoa