March-May 1968: Nguyễn Thanh Minh Based at Dragon’s Jaw Bridge

During their studies at the Vietnam Fine Arts College, students were divided into small groups and spent three months each year on field trips to places such as farms, factories or mines. Students would live, work and eat with labourers to learn about the workers’ lives before creating artworks to be graded back at the college in Hanoi. In 1965 and 1968, Nguyễn Thanh Minh travelled to Thanh Hóa Province (approximately 140km south of Hanoi), living with artillery units protecting the famous Dragon’s Jaw Bridge (Cầu Hàm Rồng).

Originally constructed by the French during the colonial era in Vietnam, the Thanh Hóa Bridge (nicknamed Hàm Rồng or Dragon’s Jaw because of its layout) was a rail and road river crossing, at a key strategic point for transporting supplies, troops and weapons to South Vietnam. Understanding its vital role, it was destroyed by rebel Việt Minh forces in 1945 by blowing up two explosive-laden railroad trains on the bridge. Rebuilt from 1957, it reopened in 1964 in the presence of Hồ Chí Minh, underlining its strategic importance to North Vietnam.

As part of Operation Rolling Thunder, in March 1965, the US took the decision to target North Vietnam’s transportation infrastructure. As part of North Vietnam’s rail and road system, the Hàm Rồng Bridge became a key objective of many attacks by US Air Force and US Navy aircraft. Recognising the strategic importance of the bridge, the North Vietnamese established a formidable air defence network around it, including positioning five separate air defence regiments in the area and MIG-17s nearby. In spite of hundreds of attacks and more than 300 bombs causing damage to the bridge, it was continuously repaired and remained in operation until 1972, when it was destroyed by US Air Force F-4 Phantoms armed with laser-guided missiles.

In spite of the apparent mismatch of weaponry, the North Vietnamese inflicted unexpected losses on US aircraft. The aftermath of the US experience led to significant changes in the US military’s tactics and training for future bombing missions. It was an instrumental factor behind the establishment of training programs such as Top Gun.

Figure 1: Nguyễn Thanh Minh, 1968, Hàm Rồng Bridge, Thanh Hoá Province, “Pháo phòng không bảo vệ cầu Hàm Rồng Thanh Hoá (Anti-aircraft Cannon Defending Hàm Rồng Bridge, Thanh Hoá Province).” Watercolour on machine-made paper; artist’s inscription written in ink.

Minh documented a 100mm heavy artillery cannon (fig. 1), provided by the Soviet Union. Each cannon shell cost the equivalent amount of money to feed a middle-class family for a year. Some of the shells were provided as aid but some had to be bought from the Soviet Union, which contributed to North Vietnam falling behind on repaying the Soviet Union after the war ended. Many 100mm cannon shells still lie around the battlefield at Hàm Rồng Bridge.

Figure 2: Nguyễn Thanh Minh, 1968, Hàm Rồng Bridge, Thanh Hoá Province, “Mâm pháo bảo vệ cầu Hàm Rồng (Anti-Aircraft Artillery Defending Hàm Rồng (Dragon’s Jaw) Bridge).” Ink and watercolour on machine-made paper.

Rotating anti-aircraft artillery (fig. 2), firing 37mm shells, also protected Hàm Rồng Bridge. There were always soldiers on duty in case of sudden aircraft attacks. The weapon was on a rotating platform to follow and shoot attacking aircraft.

Minh spent three months at Hàm Rồng Bridge, often painting in or around the scene of battles. Sometimes, when enemy aircraft flew over, he raced to a shelter, only returning to finish his painting after the aircraft had left.

Noramlly, enemy aircraft used to fly during the day. However, later in the war, they also flew at night, particularly during the 12 days and nights of the Christmas Bombing Campaign in Hanoi of 1972.

Figure 3: Nguyễn Thanh Minh, 1968, Hàm Rồng Bridge, Thanh Hoá Province, “Bảo vệ cầu Hàm Rồng (Defending Hàm Rồng Bridge).” Watercolour on machine-made paper; artist’s inscription written in ink.

The soldier above (fig.3), who was a member of the anti-aircraft artillery, was on duty as a lookout near Hàm Rồng Bridge, scanning the sky for enemy aircraft. The open hatch of his bunker is behind him, enabling him to quickly get into position when aircraft came within bombing range.

Figure 4: Nguyễn Thanh Minh, May 1968, Hoàng Trường Commune, Thanh Hóa Province, “Dân quân hoằng-trường (Militia-school).” Mixed materials.
Figure 5: Nguyễn Thanh Minh, May 1968, Hoàng Trường Commune, Thanh Hóa Province, Tâm hạ phao của Đám quân vùng biên (The centre of the Border Army).” Mixed materials.

The last sketches (figs. 4 and 5) was drawn in a town by the sea, depicting the Centre of the Border Army and their artillery guns. In this sketch, the militia soldiers are cleaning the gun’s barrel and conducting weapon maintenance. The original sketch covered two pages of Minh’s sketchbook, represented by two images here.

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