The Spratly Islands Incident, 1983

With Hong Kong being in the news it has brought back a memorable incident at the beginning of my working life as a radio news reporter in the former British colony.

It’s April 1983. I’d been working for the English language radio station CRHK for six months, my first proper job after leaving university the previous year.  It was a superb place to learn the ropes being both small but very international. One day you’re reporting on a local housing issue, the next day interviewing the Prime Minister of South Korea.  Hong Kong also has a thriving print media with almost a hundred publications, the most in the world for such a small population I believe, which meant any major event was always buzzing with dozens of journalists.

Reports were coming via a Japanese shipping company that one of their vessels had rescued three men and a woman found adrift on a dinghy in the South China Sea. The survivors said they had been aboard a yacht, the Siddhartha, a 15m catamaran from Singapore, that had been sunk after being fired at by the Vietcong from one of the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea.

Whistler80, Going Postal
Location map of Amboyna, one of the Spratly Islands

Two people had died, one as direct result of the attack and another from dehydration on the dinghy on which they had been adrift for nine or ten days. The remaining four survivors of the yacht had been picked up by the freighter The Linden on route to Hong Kong and were due to arrive in a couple of days.  The men had all sustained some gunfire injuries it was reported. All of them were German, other than Jenny Toh the Singaporean girlfriend of the yacht’s skipper Peter Marx.  The report was that they were Radio Ham enthusiasts from Cologne and were aiming to set up an amateur radio relay station on one of the tiny islands called Amboyna Cay.  The Spratly islands are right in the middle of the South China Sea, claimed and highly coveted by China, Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan and The Philippines.

Whistler80, Going Postal
Diethlem Müller (L) and Gero Band (R) who both died in the incident

Their account of being attacked and surviving in a dinghy for ten days before being rescued was naturally a big story in itself but due to the nationality of the protagonists there was huge interest internationally particularly from the European media.  Dozens of reporters arrived from Germany from publications like Bild, Der Spiegel, Der Stern hoping to get an exclusive.  The local media was equally excited.   Everyone wanted to get in on the action, so as the The Linden approached Hong Kong the authorities realised there was the potential for an unedifying media scrum that might get out of control and tried to plan accordingly.  Helpfully – or so we thought at the time – the Government chartered a ferry so that all the photographers and journalists could journey out to the middle of the harbour where the Linden would anchor so they could get first photos of the survivors disembarking.  A press conference was promised after their health and wellbeing had been assessed.

On the morning of the day the ship was due to arrive the story took a dramatic twist which sent a buzz rippling through the media.  Rumours had spread that a journalist from one of the papers had interviewed a maritime expert who surmised that if they had evacuated onto a dinghy from their sinking yacht from where they said they had been fired upon then they couldn’t possibly have drifted into the path of the ship that rescued them.  The prevailing currents meant they should have been hundreds of miles in the other direction after ten days.  The German press pack had also done their research on the identities of the victims and was getting suspicious.  Suddenly the incident took on a whole new dimension.  Was the story true? Were they ‘radio hams’ or were they up to something a bit more clandestine?  After all the Spratly Islands although officially uninhabited were of huge strategic interest by several nations at the time when there were still tensions across the region.

As a rookie reporter I was assigned and paired up with a much more experienced colleague who had mentored me for my first few months, Tony, a Filipino with great contacts, a grifting journalist with an instinct for the job. Everyone smelled there was something not quite right but Tony was already thinking ahead.  Instead of boarding the ‘media ferry’ he hired a speedboat for us, I didn’t quite know why at first but it would soon become clear.  Out in the middle of the harbour we pulled alongside the ship along with the media ferry. Hundreds of cameras were at the ready as the survivors disembarked down a stairway into a Police launch.  Straight away something looked odd.  Sure they had had a couple of days to recover from their ordeal but they skipped down the steps quite swiftly. There was no real sign that any of them were suffering the ill effects of ten days at sea nor any gunshot wounds. They didn’t even look all that sunburnt.  Tanned for sure, but not the red blistered appearance you might expect from ten days in the open ocean.

As the Police launch sped off back to shore we followed them back in hot pursuit whilst the ferry of journalist and photographers chugged back slowly behind us.

The Police boat docked on Hong Kong Island and we saw everyone being ushered into a fleet of black saloons. The thought immediately occurred to us that maybe herding all the media on to a ferry that was now slowly making its way back to port was a deliberate ploy. We were only about a minute behind them.  We jumped off our boat and sprinted to the street to hail a cab.  “Follow those cars!” Yes I know.  Just too corny to be true but it happened. I remember that moment thinking like I was in some kind of Tin Tin adventure story.

We were expecting them to go to the hospital on Hong Kong Island and so we figured if we lost them we’d head there.  Luckily though we kept the cars in sight because instead they pulled into the Hilton Hotel.  That was odd we thought, we’d been told they had gunshot wounds and were severely dehydrated. Surely hospital would be the first point of call.  By the time we got in to the lobby there was no one to be seen.  We hung around for about half an hour to see if anyone appeared, but nothing.  We split up to wander around the hotel to try to spot any of them or their entourage. When we reconvened Tony had approached one of the hotel staff and slipped him cash to find out what rooms they were in.  We then pondered about what to do.  Was it right to approach the survivors directly given the ordeal they had been through?  He was the more experienced journalist so he made the decision.  If they were that traumatised they’d be in a hospital not the Hilton he argued. It was worth a try even if we only just got a one line quote – that’s the beauty of radio news reporting, you only need a line, not a full blown interview.  We’d back off if when we met them we felt it was not the right time.  It was just too good an opportunity to miss to beat the rest of the media to the story.

We went up to their floor and apprehensively knocked on the door.  It opened and there was one of the survivors – the captain Peter Marx as it turned out. He looked surprised.  Again at this close proximity it was noticeable that he did not look sunburnt, just tanned and remarkably healthy looking.  We sheepishly asked if it was possible to get just a few words about their ordeal.  He began to speak but then a couple of suits pulled him back into the room and told us he would not be speaking to the press. They had German accents, we presumed they were diplomats.

We retreated back to the lobby. We probably weren’t going to get our scoop and so went back to the newsroom to wait for the announcement of the official press briefing.  Only there wasn’t one.  Absolutely nothing.  No government or police statement on the condition of the survivors.  No statement from the survivors themselves.   The phrase memory hole wasn’t around then but this would have been as obvious an example of a concerted effort to kill the story as it is possible to get.

Nothing more was seen of the survivors in Hong Kong– they were moved the next day to another location and probably out of the country soon after.  The South China Morning Post – the main Hong Kong English language newspaper that never got involved in anything controversial and that always toed the Government line – ran a story a week later with some quotes which didn’t question any of the inconsistencies.  Even in their story in the opening paragraphs it remarked that “all four survivors looked remarkably unscathed after the ten day sea rescue drama”. Peter Marx said they had probably survived because they had a “big meal with lots to drink” an hour before the yacht sank. On their ten days in the dinghy with no water onboard and no rain he bizarrely remarked  “It was perfect holiday weather”. The article also reported that they were ‘discharged from hospital’ in under two hours – something Tony and I knew to be false since we had followed them straight to the Hilton hotel – and that he had ‘skin peeling off his face and could barely walk’. Again this conflicted with what we saw face to face at the entrance to Peter’s hotel room.  The rest of the media had seen this also albeit from a distance as he skipped down the gangway to the police launch earlier. There were never any pictures of the survivors after the ordeal to corroborate the descriptions of their condition.

There were a couple of days of wild speculation but with no answers to the myriad of questions the story fizzled out locally.  The West German government released a statement that it was “deeply dismayed” that an unarmed yacht would be fired upon. But as the Vietnamese denied having anything to do with it or even having any of its military in the area it was impossible to determine who might be responsible.

Whistler80, Going Postal
The survivors: Baldur Drobnica, Jenny Toh, Peter Marx, Norbert Willand (left to right)

Not the case in Germany though where the story had exploded, although I wasn’t aware of this at the time as it was much harder to find out what was being reported on in Europe from Hong Kong. The German media were very aggressive, even more so than UK Tabloids so they were desperate for the story. But what really set it alight was the revelation that one of the survivors Baldur Drobnica was not only employed by the West German government’s Office Of The Interior but was working for its Bundesnachrichtendienst, the Intelligence Service’s Section IV (Counter Intelligence).  East Germany had a field day, accusing its neighbour of spying under the guise of amateur radio and successfully spreading propaganda that the West German tabloid press lapped up.  Der Speigel openly questioned the story given by ‘The men from the Rhine’: “Is it possible that a German intelligence officer survives ten days without water and bread?”.

Someone has uploaded this compilation of German press cuttings on the story complete with artists impressions that gives you good idea of heavy coverage generated by the incident.

Press clipping

I don’t speak German so I don’t know whether there are more details here (any German speakers on here, if they feel like reading them and reporting back….)

Whistler80, Going Postal

A few years ago I did a bit of an internet search to see if anything came up and by coincidence Jenny Toh, the Singaporean partner of the skipper and who apparently co-owned the yacht had done an interview to a local Singapore paper in 2015.  It was the first time she had publicly spoken about the incident since it happened over 30 years earlier. It’s quite a moving recollection especially the account of when one of their party died on the dinghy just a day before being rescued.  In one of the articles she had saved from the time you can see a picture of Peter Marx apparently being medically examined for a gunshot wound in his chest from a German magazine.

Whistler80, Going Postal
Jenny Toh pictured in 2015
Whistler80, Going Postal
Jenny Toh’s personal press cuttings

Other various UPI archived stories that suggest that some details did emerge via the Japanese captain of the Linden before it arrived in Hong Kong via a radio message to his shipping company in Tokyo. Interestingly Peter Marx is quoted as declining to give further details of the attack until he had conferred first with German authorities in Hong Kong.  Awaiting instructions from the Bundesnachrichtendienst perhaps?

Many years after the incident in 1989 Baldur gave a convincing in depth account to DX magazine which you can read in full here:  Disaster at Spratly    Although even here there are inconsistencies – he recalls Marx being hit in the right side of his chest and in the face.  We saw no facial wounds when we met him in the hotel.  Baldurs says they got a message out on the radio – which was confirmed as received – saying they were being attacked and their boat was sinking.  So why was no one searching for them over the next ten days?  Or any story about being missing until they were picked up?  We know how thorough the amateur radio community are, surely they would have raised the alarm.  And again he claims they went to the Hong Kong’s Queen Mary hospital for a couple of hours on arrival when we knew that not to be true.

Baldur also apparently wrote a book entitled  ‘Am Zehnten Tag Werdet Ihr Gerettet!’ The title comes from a vision he had on after being adrift for a few days when he believed he heard a voice calling through the dense fog “On The Tenth Day You Will Be Rescued”. I don’t know what else it contains beyond his quite detailed account in DX magazine but you can still find a second-hand copy online.

Whistler80, Going Postal
Baldur Drobnica’s book ‘Am Zehnten Tag Werdet Ihr Gerettet’ ‘On the Tenth Day you will be saved’

With so many curious inconsistencies and unanswered questions there was probably much more to the story than was ever revealed.  Perhaps at least one of the group was not the innocent radio ham that they claimed to be.  Whatever, it’s clear that they were told not to speak to the media in any detail or to answer any awkward questions in the immediate aftermath.  Detailed accounts only appeared much later. In her interview Jenny Toh says she only shared the story with very close friends.  If the Germans are still alive – they’d be in their late 70’s by now – maybe enough time has passed for them to spill the beans on the whole saga. If there are any German puffins around perhaps they could see if the Cologne Amateur Radio club still exists and make enquiries….

Whistler80, Going Postal

A few months later I left Hong Kong to return to the UK.  I had enough stories to last me a lifetime in those nine months working for CRHK but perhaps none as memorable as the day we almost scooped the World’s media to one of the biggest stories of the decade in Hong Kong.

© Whistler80 2019

The Goodnight Vienna Audio file