July 1965: Quách Văn Phong Encamped with Battalion 840

Quách Văn Phong recounts his impressions of Cam Ranh Airforce Base. (Video courtesy of Witness Collection).

Going South

From 1963 to 1968, Quách Văn Phong conducted his first tour in South Vietnam. He began with the grueling march down the Ho Chi Minh Trail, with guides who cut the path for him and his unit. Not alone, he travelled with nurses, teachers and other artists. Once arriving in Military Zone 6, encamped with Battalion 840, Phong started work for the Tất Thắng newspaper.

Military Zone 6 included the provinces Nha Trang, Bình Định, Phú Yên, Tuy Hoà, Phan Rang and Phan Thiết. These provinces surrounded Cam Ranh Airforce Base built on the coast by the US military. Vietnamese communist forces encamped themselves in the surrounding hills.

While there, Quách Văn Phong attached himself to Battalion 840 of the People’s Army of Vietnam (PAVN). He and the battalion allied themselves to the Raglai ethnic minority. Phong sketched their unconventional fighting techniques, who used punji sticks, stone traps and bows.

Cam Ranh Airforce Base

On 16 October 1965, Admiral U.S.G. Sharp laid the last plank completing the runway at Cam Ranh.1 Deep waters out at sea and wide runways made it a crucial supply point. The base served Army, Navy, Marine Corps and Air Force units operating in the region. After Vietnam’s liberation, Soviet navy vessels used the base until 2015. In a surprise move, the American supply vessel USNS Richard E. Byrd anchored in the for maintenance in March 2020.2

Phong often looked down on the base from Bác Ái mountain while stationed with Battalion 840. During the day, he could see American flags. At night, “the lights glowed like a city.”3 Reiterating accounts from other artists like Trưóng Hiếu, Phong described how aircraft were required to drop any remaining bombs before landing. The area surrounding Cam Ranh became a free bombing zone.

Battalion 840

Quách Văn Phong describes his time with Battalion 840. (Video courtesy of Witness Collection).

The PAVN’s Battalion 840 (fig. 1) operated in Military Zone 6 with the aim to destroy strategic hamlets and land development centres in the region. For many of the soldiers, the unfamiliar mountain terrain of Zone 6 surprised and challenged them.

Battalion 840 Unit K28
Figure 1: Unit K28, part of Battalion 840, in the jungle forests of Bình Phước Province c.1966. (Photograph courtesy of Quách Văn Phong).

While each province had its own battalion, 840 operated as a mobile fighting unit to provide additional support across provinces. In 1965, they had limited equipment: 2 or 3 anti-aircraft guns (fig. 2), a few mortars (fig. 3) and Thompson guns leftover from French occupation (fig. 4).

battalion anti-aircraft
Figure 2: Quách Văn Phong, 1965, Phước Long, Bình Phước Province. “Chiến dịch Phước Long; 1965; Cao xạ pháo 12 ly 8; 65; Q. VPhong (Phước Long Campaign; 1965; Anti-aircraft 12mm8; 65; Q. VPhong).” Watercolour on paper.
battalion mortars
Figure 3: Quách Văn Phong, 1965. “Q. VPhong; 1965; Cối 81 bắn ứng dụng (Q. VPhong; 1965; Mortar 81 shooting practice).” Watercolour on paper.
battalion Thompson
Figure 4: Quách Văn Phong, 1965. “Q. VPhong; 1965; Những Chiến Sĩ Phước Long (Q. VPhong; 1965; Soldiers Phước Long).” Watercolour on paper.

Soviet and Chinese arms had not been delivered to Vietnam by 1965, limiting the availability of rifles and machine guns for communist troops. Phong described the amount of ammunition as “miserable.”

To make matters worse, soldiers lived on a staple diet of yams while lacking sufficient supplies of rice. Instead of uniforms, they improvised by wearing black shorts, nylon shirts, French ceinture belts and rural ‘bucket’ hats. They reused equipment regularly, passing clothes, armaments and ammunition on to reinforces.

REFERENCES AND FOOTNOTES:

  1. John Schlight, The United States Air Force in Southeast Asia: The War in South Vietnam The Years of the Offensive 1965–1968, 1999, Office of Air Force History, ISBN9780912799513.
  2. US navy returns to Cam Ranh Bay“, March 2020, South China Morning Post.
  3. Interview with Quách Văn Phong by Witness Collection, 20 May 2019, Ho Chi Minh City

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