1958: Lê Huy Toàn’s ‘SMOLEVSK’ Revelation

Colonel Lê Huy Toàn became one of Vietnam’s best-known wartime artists and was featured in many films and articles. He joined the People’s Army of Vietnam (PAVN) in 1947 and served in the 312 Division during the Điện Biên Phủ campaign. While at Điện Biên Phủ, he kept detailed illustrated diaries, which he used as the basis for subsequent artworks when he returned to Hanoi. His works were exhibited in military museums and published in army magazines. Some of his artworks from Điện Biên Phủ were also issued as commemorative stamps.

The M24 Chaffee tank (an American-made light tank) depicted (fig. 1) bears the inscription ‘SMOLEVSK’, which is a mistranscription by the artist of ‘SMOLENSK’.

Figure 1: Lê Huy Toàn, 1958, Điện Biên Phủ. Oil on silk.

Smolensk was an important strategic city in the USSR, which was destroyed several times during its history in particular since it was on the invasion routes of Napoleon and, later, Hitler. More significantly here, following the French tradition where all tanks were named after famous battles and commanders, Smolensk was the name given to one of the squadrons of M24 Chaffee tanks from the 1st Cavalry Regiment (1er Régiment de Chasseurs á Cheval), of which there were ten in use by the French at Điện Biên Phủ. They were all disassembled and airlifted from Gia Lam airbase in Hanoi into Điện Biên Phủ by the French Air Force, operating C-47 Skytrain and C-119 Packet aircraft, piloted by American volunteers. The tanks were re-assembled on location from 24 December 1953 to 15 January 1954. Smolensk was part of a platoon of three M24 Chaffees led by Sergeant Guntz, which fell at Điện Biên Phủ. The tank was captured intact by Việt Minh troops on 7 May 1954, a date inscribed on the turret in the painting.

The artwork depicts a celebration of the Việt Minh victory at Điện Biên Phủ and was created in 1958, four years after the battle ended when Toàn’s was living in Hanoi.

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