In the spring of 1972, communist guerrillas launched the Easter Offensive. Following the 1968 Tết Offensive, it was the largest offensive operation up until that point of the war. The campaign intended to inflict maximum damage and capture as much territory as possible. Vital goals ahead of signing the Paris Peace Accords.
Representing the eagerness to start the meticulously planned Easter Offensive, Nguyễn Thanh Châu painted “Let’s Go” from the Mekong Delta. Born in the Delta in 1939, Châu spent much of his wartime career as an artist in South Vietnam. Based in far southern provinces during the war, Châu fought extensively along the Mekong River. He sketched often on duty with National Liberation Front (NLF) guerillas from the battlefield. He later transformed his sketches to watercolours at the central military base in Tây Ninh.
In the painting below, Châu depicts a scene in a mangrove forest in the Mekong Delta (fig. 1). The mangrove forests were convenient hiding places for NLF soldiers to rest and recuperate. In the foreground, a man and woman are embracing and saying goodbye. Others wait in a boat, where a soldier keeps watch. Although a relatively simple watercolour, the loving couple’s parting embrace signifies the oncoming danger of the Easter Offensive.
Artist Ngô Viễn Chí was stationed with unit B1 Z1 in Bình Phước Province, north of Saigon. The province contained part of the border with Cambodia known as the “Fish Hook”. This region served as the headquarters of the Central Office for South Vietnam (COSVN). A vital forest tract for the leadership of resistance in South Vietnam.
Unit B1 Z1 was attached to the military zone’s Logistics Bureau. This bureau had 10 departments. Chí and another artist, Quý Viện, worked in Department 2, the political department. Though both artists were in the same department, they went to different units to paint. Working closely with them gave Chí access to military supply depots, weapon depots and hospitals.
Weapons were mainly repaired or improved for the 7th and 9th Infantry Divisions of the People’s Army of Vietnam (PAVN). In his painting (fig. 2), Chí records a worker drilling holes into a faceplate used as an improvised mount for mines.
“Overwhelm the Enemy with Bayonets and Daggers”
In the coastal province of Bình Định, Trần Hoàng Sơn sketched communist soldiers moving through a bamboo thicket (fig. 3). Sơn titled his sketch “Have to Overwhelm the Enemy with Bayonets and Daggers”. Their light clothing, scant equipment and rifles attached with bayonets make them ideally suited to close-quarter skirmish fighting. Rapid and elusive ambush techniques typified much of communist aggression during the Easter Offensive.
Sơn also sketched a reconnaissance soldier (fig. 4) in Bình Định Province. Titled “Reconnaissance Soldier at the Front”, Sơn refers to Bình Định’s border with Gia Lai Province. The area housed the US military base Camp Holloway near Pleiku. In the third phase of the offensive, communist troops aimed to capture the cities of Kon Tum and Pleiku. Therefore, constant and accurate reconnaissance was integral.
To the southwest of Trần Hoàng Sơn’s position, Nguyễn Thế Vinh encamped in the Central Highlands of South Vietnam. Notorious for stiff resistance, ethnic minority tribes shared their knowledge of the land with communist guerrillas to devastating effect.
Vinh depicted communist soldiers interacting with ethnic minority Montagnards (fig. 5). Based on her black blouse and skirt embroidered with red trim, the girl probably belongs to the Bà Nà tribe. She plays a khèn, a popular type of flute among minority ethnic groups in Vietnam.
The Montagnard people of the Central Highlands were constantly persecuted by both opposing forces during the Second Indochina War. Their location on the Ho Chi Minh Trail made them vital allies or potential enemies for both sides. On the one side, they were displaced under the Strategic Hamlet Program – searingly criticised by Wilfred Burchett. On the other, communist guerrillas severely punished any tribal support for America or South Vietnam.
Deadfall, a New House
Lastly, Nguyễn Ðức Thọ captured a soldier sitting in the hollow of a tree in Quảng Trị Province (fig. 6). The image perfectly encapsulates how communist guerrillas utilized the natural environment around them.
From the beginning of 1972, Thọ had been based in the Trường Sơn mountains of Quảng Trị Province. His experience with communist guerrillas there led to fascinating stories.
In his own words, Thọ describes the scene:
“In the campaign for Quảng Trị Province, I and other soldiers discovered a group that was in charge of feeding soldiers staying in a very unique place – inside a huge hollow tree, like a chimney. The tree opened up like a cave, where the group stored rice and water and slept, even cooking and sheltering to avoiding aircraft. What a strange and unique place that did not need to be built! The tree was so huge that it was like a cave but its leaves were still growing green. Beside the cave-tree are forest bananas. You had to climb a ladder to get inside the cave. One soldier returns after picking forest vegetables, while another is cleaning rice. This was the location of an anti-aircraft 30mm unit.”
Thọ noted how the remaining deadfall acted as a chimney to disperse cooking smoke away from the team’s position. It also acted as perfect camouflage with green leaves covering its surface. The team cooked for anti-aircraft units stationed nearby, hence the importance of concealing their position. As the Easter Offensive began, dangers from reconnaissance planes and bombing raids were constant.
This direct evidence of their affiliation to the natural environment goes some way to explain North Vietnam’s successful resistance against a better-equipped opposition.