Spring 1972: PAVN and NLF Soldiers Begin the Easter Offensive

In the spring of 1972, North Vietnamese forces launched the Easter Offensive, the largest offensive operation up until that point of the war, that was intended to inflict maximum damage and capture as much territory as possible ahead of the eventual signing of the Paris Peace Accords.

In what must have represented the People’s Army of Vietnam (PAVN) and the National Liberation Front (NLF) forces’ eagerness to start the meticulously planned Easter Offensive, Nguyễn Thanh Châu painted “Let’s Go” in March 1972 from the Mekong Delta. Born in the Delta in 1939, Châu spent much of his wartime career as an artist in South Vietnam, particularly in the provinces of An Giang, Mỹ Tho and Đồng Tháp, where he was part of a unit fighting along the Mekong River. During his time with units of the NLF and Việt Cộng, Châu would usually make a quick pencil sketch directly on the battlefield, which he then painted with watercolours at a later stage. Every month or two, he would take his sketches to the central military base in Tây Ninh, where he could safely complete his art works.

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 during the war, where they lived and slept. In the foreground, a man and woman are embracing and saying goodbye, while others are waiting in a boat. A man stands guard at the front of the boat. Although a relatively simple watercolour, the loving couple perhaps more than anything else signifies the danger and trepidation for PAVN and NLF soldiers at the start of the Easter Offensive.

Figure 1: Nguyễn Thanh Châu, March 1972, Mekong Delta. “Lên đường nhé (Let’s go).” Watercolour on machine-made paper.

North of Saigon in Bình Phước Province, skirting the southern Cambodian border along the stretch known as the Fish Hook and an area widely believed to be the headquarters of Central Office for South Vietnam (COSVN), artist Ngô Viễn Chí was stationed with B1 Z1, a unit attached to the military zone’s Logistics Bureau, giving him access to military supply depots, military weapons depots and hospitals. 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. At that time, weapons would be mainly be repaired or improved to provide to the 7th and 9th Infantry Divisions of the People’s Army of Vietnam (PAVN), both operating in South Vietnam. In his painting (fig. 2), Chí records a worker drilling holes into a faceplate used as an improvised mount for mines.

Figure 2: Ngô Viễn Chí, 4 April 1972, B1Z1, Section 3, Military Zone Logistics Bureau located at Lộc Ninh, Bình Phước Province. “Đột Mặt Mìn; B1 Z1; VC (Drilling holes in the faceplate of mines; B1 Z1; VC (artist’s initials)).” Ink and watercolour on machine-made paper.

Moving north to the coastal province of Bình Định, bordering Gia Lia Province, Trần Hoàng Sơn sketched a group of soldiers moving through a bamboo thicket holding rifles with bayonets attached (fig. 3). In what conveys the determination of PAVN and NLF forces against their much larger allied enemy, Sơn titled his sketch Have to Overwhelm the Enemy with Bayonets and Daggers – describing not only their determination but also the brutal close-quarter fighting that typified much of the conflict.

Figure 3: Trần Hoàng Sơn, 3 April 1972, Bình Định Province, “Phải Thắng Trận Áp Đảo Bằng Lưỡi Lê Dao Gâm (Have to Overwhelm the Enemy with Bayonets and Daggers).” Graphite pencil on machine-made paper; artist inscriptions written in ink.

Sơn also sketched a reconnaissance soldier (fig. 4). Although he did not specify where the sketch was made, judging by the date (just a day after sketching the soldiers above) we can assume that he was still in Bình Định Province. Sơn titles the work Reconnaissance Soldier at the Front, referring to Bình Định’s border with Gia Lai Province, an area of South Vietnam that housed the US military base Camp Holloway near Pleiku.

Figure 4: Trần Hoàng Sơn, 1972, “Chiến Sĩ Trinh Sát Ngoài Mặt Trận (Reconnaissance Soldier at the Front).” Ink on machine-made paper

To the southwest of Trần Hoàng Sơn’s position in Bình Định Province, Nguyễn Thế Vinh was encamped in the Central Highlands of South Vietnam, an area notorious for Việt Cộng resistance. However, as well as depicting a soldier in full military dress equipped with a rifle, Vinh includes a girl from a Montagnard ethnic minority (fig. 5). Possibly a member of the Bà Nà minority judging by her black blouse and black skirt embroidered with red trim, she sits playing a khèn, a popular type of flute among minority ethnic groups in Vietnam.

Figure 5: Nguyễn Thế Vinh, 1972, Vietnam highlands (exact location unknown). “Thổi Đing Zơng Auyn; Mùa xuân 1972; Vinh (Playing Đing Zơng Auyn; Spring 1972; Vinh).” Watercolour on machine-made paper.

The Montagnards of the central highlands were constantly persecuted by both opposing forces during the Second Indochina War. Due to their location on the Ho Chi Minh Trail, they were seen as vital allies or potential enemies by the PAVN and the NLF, as well as Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) and American troops. At once displaced under the Strategic Hamlet Program proposed by American advisors to the South Vietnamese government – searingly criticised by Wilfred Burchett – they were also slaughtered by the Việt Cộng in revenge for their support and allegiance to South Vietnam.

Lastly, in a painting that honestly conveys the nature of the conflict at the start of the Easter Offensive in Vietnam, Nguyễn Ðức Thọ captures a soldier sitting in the hollow of a tree in Quảng Trị Province (fig. 6). Thọ had been based in the Trường Sơn mountains of Quảng Trị Province since the beginning of the year, and his experience with the units there led to fascinating stories.

Figure 6: Nguyễn Ðức Thọ, 23 April 1972, Quảng Trị Province, “Nhà Mới Quảng Trị (New House Quang Tri).” Watercolour with gouache on machine-made paper.

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.”

In another fact of ingenuity, Thọ noted how the remaining hollow trunk acted as a chimney to release the cooking smoke far from the soldiers’ actual position, further protecting their location from reconnaissance planes and bombing raids.

If nothing else, this direct evidence of the northern Vietnamese’s affiliation to the natural environment goes some way to explain their successful resistance against a much larger and better-equipped opposition.

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