December 1972: Nguyễn Ðức Thọ Captures Hanoi’s Defense Against Operation Linebacker II

By December 1972, artist Nguyễn Thế Vinh had been a member of Party V for seven years. During this time, Vinh had spent a large amount of his time in Military Zone 5, which inspired most of his artwork exhibited around 1979. He used watercolour and ink to portray the area’s ethnic minorities in vivid detail. As part of this series, Vinh often depicted female guerrilla soldiers armed with rifles and battle ready. However, it is obvious that Vinh was heavily influenced by highland scenes and the minority cultures found there.

Vinh used an ink wash to render a portrait of Mr. Trần Quận from Phú Long Hamlet in Phổ Khánh Commune, Đức Phổ District, Quảng Ngãi Province (fig. 1). Quảng Ngãi is a province in the South-central coastal region of Vietnam, 125 kilometres south of Hội An. It was an integral area during the conflict with America due to the Quảng Ngãi airfield established there by US forces in 1966. Although an honest portrait devoid of war-like imagery, Vinh’s simple sketch represents some of the most unimaginable aspects of the war.

It was in Quảng Ngãi and neighbouring regions that minority groups suffered from as early as 1954 under direct persecution, first from the colonial French government and later under the US-advised resettlement program implemented by the Provisional Revolutionary Government of the Republic of South Vietnam (PRG), famously chastised by journalist Wilfred Burchett in 1964 as well as many other correspondents. Also, in 1968, Quảng Ngãi was the province that contained the infamous Mỹ Lai Massacre, in which 500 civilian villagers were slaughtered by American troops.

Given Quảng Ngãi’s strategic and historical importance, the very fact that Vinh was able to infiltrate the province to sketch civilians puts into perspective the danger artists were often under during the war, not to mention the risks they were willing to expose themselves to in order to do their jobs effectively.

Figure 1: Nguyễn Thế Vinh, 1972, Hamlet Phú Long, Commune Phổ Khánh, Đức Phổ District, Quảng Ngãi Province. “Ông Trần Quận; Thôn Phú Long; Phổ Khánh; Vinh 12/72 (Mr. Trần Quận; Hamlet Phú Long; Phổ Khánh; Vinh 12/72).” Ink and wash on machine-made paper.

To the north, on Christmas Eve, artist Nguyễn Ðức Thọ had travelled to Hanoi, at a time when the northern capital was at its most vulnerable. From 18 to 29 December 1972, for 12 days and nights, the US Air Force conducted an “Air Strategic Offensive” with B-52 bombers over Hanoi. Surface-to-Air-Missile (SAM) defence units used their skills and courage to fight back with great results, downing 34 B-52 bombers above Hanoi’s airspace (the US military claimed only 16 B-52 bombers were shot down, 4 heavily damaged, with 5 suffering medium damage during that period).

According to Thọ, missile launcher trucks were dispersed on boulevards using large trees for cover. Immediately after the missiles left their launcher, these trucks rushed on to reload with other missiles to ensure their continuous operation for 12 days and nights.

Figure 2: Nguyễn Ðức Thọ, 24 December 1972, Hanoi, “Tiểu Ðoàn Ðạn Tên Lửa Báo Ðộng Chiến Ðấu Bảo Vệ Hà Nội (Missile battalion at war alert in defence of Hanoi).” Graphite pencil on machine made paper

Thọ’s artwork (fig. 2) depicts Soviet-built S-75 Surface-to-Air-Missiles (Russian: С-75; NATO reporting name SA-2 Guideline). These were part of a highly successful high-altitude air defence system with command guidance. These missiles were used extensively by the North Vietnamese for the protection of Hanoi and Hải Phòng. During the 12 day “Christmas Bombing of Hanoi” (officially known as  Operation Linebacker II) in 1972, the North Vietnamese fired 266 S-75 missiles.

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