Mid-1968: Trenches and Guerrillas in South Vietnam

By mid-1968, the Second Indochina War had escalated into a full-scale conflict. With the Tết Offensive launched at the beginning of the year, North Vietnamese military commander General Võ Nguyên Giáp and People’s Army of Vietnam (PAVN) forces launched a series of coordinated attacks aimed at breaking the stalemate in Vietnam. Giáp believed that the attacks would cause the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (AVRN) forces to collapse, fomenting discontent and rebellion among the South Vietnamese population. Giáp also believed the alliance between South Vietnam and the United States was unstable – he hoped the offensive would drive the final wedge between them and convince American leaders to give up their defence of South Vietnam. This included several attacks across the northern I Corps, most importantly at Huế, Da Nang and Quảng Trị City.

Earlier in the year, from 31 January to 6 February, the Battle for Quảng Trị had raged in the northernmost provincial capital of the Republic of South Vietnam (RVN). After being put on the defensive in the city of Quảng Trị, allied forces regrouped and forced the PAVN out of the city after a day of fighting.

Near Quảng Trị City, the capital of Quảng Trị Province bordering the Demilitarised Zone dividing North and South Vietnam, veteran war artist Phạm Thanh Tâm sketched PAVN forces encamped in and around the city (fig. 1), having been in the region since 1966.

Figure 1: Phạm Thanh Tâm, 1968, Quảng Trị, near the 17th parallel dividing North and South Vietnam. Charcoal on machine-made paper.

While studying, Tâm volunteered for the front in South Vietnam where he was given permission to write and paint from the Khe Sanh battlefield, in Quảng Trị Province, under the qualification of an artist for the PAVN.

As the location for two major battles of the Second Indochina War, Quảng Trị City was a hotbed of pitched fighting and skirmishes. Usually, shelters would be dug half-underground allowing for easy access with quick exits. However, the shelters noted above by Tâm show a type of shelter dug deeper underground in Quảng Trị. This was most likely in defence against the regular bombing raids conducted by American and ARVN pilots over the 17th Parallel. This shelter would have connected to a greater trench system in the area.

In the most southerly province of South Vietnam, Cà Mau, Thái Hà recorded life in Khánh Bình Tây Commune (fig. 2).

Figure 2: Thái Hà, 1968, Commune Khánh Bình Tây, Cà Mau Province, “Khánh Bình Tây (Commune Khanh Bình Tay).” Ink and watercolour on machine-made paper.

Having set up his third Liberty Art class in Cà Mau Province, Hà continued to sketch and paint daily life in the province’s various communes and villages. Naturally, Hà had ample opportunity to sketch a number of National Liberation Front (NLF) guerrillas – simple fisherman suddenly thrown into the machinery of war with little else but a rifle and bullets.

In 1968, Hà passed through Cà Mau into Cambodia and then back into Vietnam via the Tây Ninh border. He held an exhibition in Cambodia before returning to his base in Củ Chi. He once stayed at the consulate of the South Vietnam liberty frontier, where he held an exhibition of paintings from the war. The exhibition was very successful. When seeing photos of the exhibition, President Hồ Chí Minh was so pleased he ordered to hold the exhibition again in Hanoi.

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