March 1971: Nguyễn Ðức Thọ and Operation Lam Sơn 719

In March 1971, Nguyễn Ðức Thọmuch like artist Bùi Quang Ánh– was stationed in Tchepone (Sepon or Xépôn) in Laos. Situated in the eastern part of Savannakhet Province, Tchepone was part of the front line of Operation  Lam Sơn 719, approximately 26 kilometres from the Battle of Bản Đông.

In the  Lam Sơn 719 Campaign, US and Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) forces used helicopters carrying airborne soldiers to reach high positions, using superior firepower to take over the surrounding areas along Route 9 from Khe Sanh into Laos in an attempt to cut enemy movement to South Vietnam along the Ho Chi Minh Trail. The intended result was to prevent military supplies from communist North Vietnam reaching their forces in the Republic of Vietnam (RVN).

Thọ captured the defensive capabilities of the People’s Army of Vietnam (PAVN) when fighting against the ARVN and US forces (fig. 1).

Figure 1: Nguyễn Ðức Thọ, 19 March 1971, High point 495 at Xé-pôn (also known as Tchepone or Sepon) in Laos, “Chờ địch đổ quân (Cao điểm 495 Thác Pôn) (Awaiting enemy troops (High Point 495 Thác Pôn)).” Gouache on machine-made paper.

Created on 19 March 1971 at high point No 495 in Tchepone, Laos, the artwork depicts PAVN air defence soldiers with a 12.7mm Soviet-origin DShK heavy machine gun waiting for the enemy. After learning of Operation Lam Sơn 719, North Vietnamese forces implemented an emergency strategy, occupying high points in the Tchepone area in advance and installing camouflaged units with heavy machine guns waiting to target low-flying helicopters, aircraft and ground forces.

During the Lam Sơn 719 operation, American helicopters flew more than 160,000 sorties and ARVN helicopters a further 5,500. More than 168 helicopters were destroyed and 618 damaged (according to the US-based Vietnam Helicopter Pilots Association). Operation Lam Sơn 719 collapsed in the face of heavy opposition and the PAVN’s determined resistance. The Ho Chi Minh Trail remained open.

North Vietnamese Army Officer Rallies His Men During Operation Lam Song 719 courtesy of Vietnam Veteran News

As an aside, high point 495 at Tchepone was on the northern bank of the Sepon River (Sông Xê-pôn). The Sepon River forms the border between Vietnam and Laos, separating Quảng Trị Province from Savannakhet Province on the Laos side. Due to the remoteness of the region, many places had no names, so high point 495 was just a location number marked on PAVN military maps.

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