Early-1952: Training in China and the “Soldiers of Bronze Foot and Iron Skin”

At the beginning of 1952, the First Indochina War between Việt Minh and French forces was at its height. Despite General Võ Nguyên Giáp’s encouraging start to the Red River Delta Campaign, the People’s Army of Vietnam (PAVN) had been rebuffed from key towns initially taken at the beginning of the campaign along the Red River leading to Hải Phòng. In these bloody battles, both forces had suffered huge casualties.

However, in February 1952, PAVN forces achieved an important victory at the Battle of Hòa Bình. A key strategic town for the Việt Minh in receiving support and relief from the northern regions of Việt Bắc and Tây Bắc, Hòa Bình served as a jump-off point for supplies and troops travelling south and east of Hanoi. It would also serve as an important base to supply future battles at Nà Sản and Điện Biên Phủ.

At the time, Phạm Thanh Tâm had been being transferred to 351 Division as part of his job as a reporter for Quyết Thắng newspaper. Along with the heavy artillery 351 Division, Tâm was sent to a military base in Kunming, China, for training. Tâm’s sketches of his time before and after his training give a rare insight into the lives and strength of Việt Minh soldiers.

Figure 1: Phạm Thanh Tâm, 1954, Điện Biên Phủ, “10_Ghi chép về bộ đội Sơn pháo 75 ly hành quân vào Tây Bắc đã phải tháo rời pháo để vác vai. Khi qua suối đã phải vác cả cầu cho pháo đi qua…(1952) (10_Notes on the 75mm Artillery Squadron that marched to the Northwest, they had to take the cannons apart to carry on their shoulders. When passing through streams they had to carry the bridge for the artillery to cross (1952)).” Graphite pencil on machine-made paper.

In one of Tâm’s revealing sketches, he depicted a group of soldiers (possibly 351 Division itself) carrying a disassembled 75mm cannon across a river (fig. 1). Too heavy to carry as one unit, the cannon was taken apart and carried in pieces on makeshift bamboo rigs in order to traverse difficult terrain. Particularly, the equipment needed to be kept clear of water, so this was imperative for crossing streams and shallow rivers. In order to do this, soldiers would build temporary bamboo bridges that they often supported themselves by standing in the stream and holding the bridge on their shoulders as human foundations. Each foundation required five to six people.

Considering it had already been documented by artists such as Phan Kế An that Việt Minh soldiers often went without footwear, this must have been an arduous task, not to mention an incredible feat. It was because of exploits such as these that Hồ Chí Minh dubbed Việt Minh as “soldiers of bronze foot and iron skin.”[1] These tactics would prove unbeatable in the final battle against the French at Điện Biên Phủ.


REFERENCES AND FOOTNOTES:

[1] A description taken from many interviews conducted with Phạm Thanh Tâm from 2003-2018, including filmed interviews at his home in Ho Chi Minh City, in Hanoi, and at Dien Bien Phu.

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