(Translated by Adrian Chan-Wyles PhD)
Author’s Note: The original titled of this Chinese-language text is ‘1979年121师战地医院遭越南特工伏击真相‘, which can be translated as ‘When the 121st Division Battlefield Hospital was Ambushed by Vietnamese Agents (1979). ‘I met a female Chinese Veteran of the PLA incursion into Vietnam – Dr Wu a number of times a few years ago – who lives in Banff in Scotland, and who now makes a living as a Chinese Doctor operating out of the UK. As this lady is a master of Taijiquan, I asked her to check my Taijiquan technique (as my teacher – Master Chan Tin Sang – had passed away in 1993). She was very reluctant to talk about her time as a medic in the frontline of the PLA as it invaded North Vietnam in 1979 – and I am reliably informed that Dr Wu is the ‘tenth’ (female) PLA medic mentioned in the testimony of these nine extraordinary Chinese women. The Vietnamese quite rightly put-up a ferocious defense of their homeland and as a consequence PLA casualty were far higher than expected. I love and respect the Vietnamese people just as I love and respect the Chinese people, but all we can do as historians is accurately report the past as it occured. None of these PLA (female) soldiers were wounded, captured or abused by the enemy – contrary to alot of fabricated stories. Their collective story is presented as a single narrative (with no names given) and published by the ‘NetEase Military’ (网易军事 ) site in Mainland China – Edited by Wang Xiaoyi (王晓易). China invaded North Vietnam in support of their Khmer Rouge Allies in Kampuchea. A 100,000-strong Vietnamese Army had invaded Democratic Cambodia in late 1978 and was busy destroying that regime with US and USSR backing. ACW (11.6.2019)
Reunions are common occurrences in people’s lives. In reality, reunions are often a joyful time. However, the reunion of our Comrades from the Vietnam War (fought between China and Vietnam) some 30 years ago included the most grief-stricken and unbearable of memories…
In the early morning of February 17, 1979, elements of our (first echelon) 121st Division Battlefield Hospital became interspersed with the enemy as part of the (frontline) PLA combat troops as they crossed over the border into Vietnam. We were a second echelon battlefield hospital (in others words, a ‘second line’ Medical Unit). We secretly prayed that the Comrades at the front were safe and sound, and hoped to get the good news of the Division’s main victory! However, due to the backwardness of our military’s communication equipment at that time (the infantry was still using the back-to-back walkie-talkies used by Wang Cheng [王成] in the movie “Heroes and Children”, which reflects the battlefield of the War to Resist US Aggression and Aid Korea, it is only small in size and light in weight – and there wasn’t that many). Obtaining front-line news from normal channels was obviously very difficult, partly because our military function at the time did not allow such casual inquiries. The only source of information we had came from the steady flow of wounded PLA soldiers brought back to us the from frontline. However, even this method was problematic as many of the injured possessed often one-sided and fragmentary information mixed with confused facts or even hearsay.
The rumors we heard in the first few days turned out to be unfavorable and highly negative in nature. All the stories agreed that the first PLA frontline (and our first echelon medics) had been ambushed by the very fierce (defending) Vietnamese troops, with the main thrust being almost smashed, and so on. As we were near the frontline, we felt highly uneasy about these unofficial reports. We really hoped that these reports were just groundless rumours and nothing but nonsense as we feared getting caught in a counter-attack! A few days later, our second echelon medical unit was ordered to advance with the second line of cross-border PLA troops. Our section advanced slowly and carefully along the simple and temporary roads opened-up by PLA engineering units.
The PLA troops we advanced with had been given specific objectives and special orders to carry-out. The route was often steep, narrow and difficult to traverse, whilst on occasion dropping into difficult valleys and ditches. As we moved along the road, sniper shots would ring-out all around us from deep within the dangerous forest. We were sat on the back of an open truck without any shelter or protection, and there was always a danger of us being hit at any time. We often had to get off the truck and hide on the floor of the jungle whilst PLA Comrades moved forward to clear the area of Regular Vietnamese Army Unitts and their Vietnamese Militia support. The atmosphere was oppressive and heavy. The hazy weather made the unfavorable rumours and the constant gunfire more difficult to endure – a situation compounded by the unidentified PLA bodies we saw from time to time lying on the roadside. These were like boulders pressing upon the hearts! This heaviness came in-part from our incomplete knowledge about frontline war situation. Our PLA Comrades were fighting and dying somewhere ahead of us, and this was exactly the position of our medical Comrades in the first echelon of the 121st Division Battlefield Hospital!
Our advance was slow, and we had to stop nearly all the time. When we were hungry, we licked a few bites of compressed biscuits to satisfy our hunger. It took us a long time to travel a few dozen kilometers. It was not until about 5pm when we finally stopped at a place with several bungalows. A message arrived from the front: All personnel should not get off the truck but stand ready for action! Suddenly, alongside our second echelon Medical Division, we saw the survivors of our first echelon Medical Unit – Comrades who had moved forward with the frontline of the PLA! Their uniforms were covered in dust, and they all had expressions of utter exhaustion on their faces! We were happy to see our Comrades – but also choked with sorrow to see the state they were in! We were told that on the evening of the 18th of February, 1979, the (first echelon) 121st Division Battlefield Hospital was ambushed by ‘special agents’ of the Vietnamese Military! The medical staff were taken prisoner and subjected to beatings and other forms of torture! At least 40 of our medical comrades were wounded in the attack! We were shocked and saddened as we all knew one another and despite our different placements on the field of battle – we had all trained together!
Immediately after we arrived at the bungalow, we learned that this place is a small county (called ‘Tongnong [通农] County’). This area had been captured by the PLA on the 18th and was currently occupied by us. There were Vietnamese troops in the hills all around this place, which led to a number of small-scale battles in the area. At this moment, we saw all the injured people from the first echelon being brought here, together with the bodies of the PLA martyrs. Several injured medics and doctors couldn’t help but cry when they saw us. They hugged with their second echelon Comrades and told us about their experiences in the past few days… We were told that half an hour prior to our arrival a number of medical staff had been killed! If we had arrived earlier we might also have suffered casualties!
From the testomony of our frontline Comrades, we understand the general situation: On the 17th, the troops quickly advanced into Vietnam and resolutely executed the order of “arriving at the designated area at all costs!” After the first troops attacked Tongnong County, the Commander led the main force to advance in the established direction. On the evening of the 18th, the troops reached a mountain pass whilst it was getting dark. When the main force consolidated, the advanced guard moved forward, whilst receiving several Vietnamese grenades dropped from the nearby mountain – which exploded amongst the PLA troops. The rapidly moving advanced guard suddenly became a little confused in its co-ordination, and appeared to subjected to small-arms fire from the Chinese migrant workers who had accompanied the PLA over the border (in a support capacity). It was later learned that Vietnamese special agents had inflitrated the Chinese migrant workers who were caught between the two opposing sides). As we knew these people were from the Guangxi border areas – we did not fire – but the Vietnamese special agents used this as a deception and managed to infiltrate our lines. Although these migrant workers were harmless, they were caught up in the fighting when the Vietnamese opened fire!
The PLA advanced guard had steadfastly moved forward overnight but had met with stubborn Vietnamese resistance. The next morning, the roadside and mountain paths were littered with the bodies of the dead and wounded – both Chinese and Vietnamese. More Vietnamese agents had also penetrated the migrant workers and this was causing us a lot of trouble (with sections of the Chinese workers also cut-off in enemy territory). By this time, the PLA frontline medical facilities had been lost, cut-off or destroyed – with the ever–increasing number of wounded having to wait for our second echelon medical facilities to move forward! Many of the wounded had nearly given-up any hope of surviving due to the length of time they had been left (an Army Medical Doctor who I shall call ‘L’ was one of them)!
The Vietnamese Army had been fighting sophisticated enemies for many decades and had won major victories over them. They had developed a very good and flexible system of attack and defence which involved Regular Troops and Militia working closely together. Men and women possessed strong bonds of comradeship and we had to learn many painful lessons of war! A great many of our frontline PLA soldiers were young and inexperienced and had not yet mastered the art of guerilla warfare. Time and again they would bravely advance into well-prepared ambush sites – losing even high-ranking commanders… This was very sad to observe! In one such ambush we lost at least 12 medical staff and all their equipment, together with 20 others being wounded! At times this led to a breakdown in effective command and control, preventing the advance for a time.
The experiences of PLA medical staff were widely spread in China after the war – with all kinds of inaccuracies and false statements being added in. There have been many versions and this has only increased with the advent of the internet. For instance, it is routinely stated that the PLA female soldiers suffered high levels of deaths and of being wounded, or were severely abused whilst POWs, etc. With our testimony recorded here, we can tell you the truth of the matter. Our group of nine female PLA medics were never caught up in the frontline ambush situation as we were always just behind where the action was unfolding (treating the steady flow of wounded). Despite our experiences, as far as our group is concerned, we suffered no dead or wounded! As regards a female PLA medic who advanced from the Guangxi area with the main attack – she only advanced into the enemy’s rear – avoiding direct contact with the main Vietnamese force!
In the Sino-Vietnamese border self-defense counterattack, our division served in both a supporting and frontline role, cutting off the enemy’s retreat from Gaoping, preventing the reinforcement of the enemy at Taiyuan, and ensuring the large-depth interpenetration task of the enemy of Gaoping. The battle was launched in the early morning of February 17, 1979. The whole division left the starting-line in the Nengjing area and fought for 28 days along the axis of Molong, Tongnong, Banzhuang, Zhiyu, Gaoping and Chaling. On March 16, after securing victory in Vietnam – we returned to China.
Whilst going abroad to fight, our section was responsible for the medical support tasks of the entire Division. Hospital PLA Personnel totalled 132 people: 76 front echelons and 56 rear echelons. We of the second echelon were ambushed six times, and killed 18 enemy soldiers in self-defence. We suffered 32 wounded and 16 killed. In total we treated a total of 785 wounded, and processed the bodies of 227 PLA martyrs. Our Medical Division received 47 third-class merits, accounting for 35.5% of the number who participated.