May 1974: Phạm Đỗ Đồng and the “Soldiers of Emulation” in Tây Ninh Province

From 1969 until 1975, war artist Phạm Đỗ Đồng lived in South Vietnam, mainly based in Tây Ninh Province, without returning to his home in Hanoi. Working for the Liberational Fine Arts  Department of South Vietnam of the National Liberation Front (NLF), Đồng saw violent action while documenting the lives of the 5, 7 and 9 Divisions based in Tây Ninh Province as a journalist and war artist.

In May 1974, still based in Tây Ninh Province, Đồng began documenting logistic units in the area, which he continued in October on the Đồng Nai River. In a series of portraits, Đồng recorded some of the soldiers working in the National Liberation Front (NLF) and People’s Liberation Armed Forces of Vietnam (PLAF) logistic regiment, noting why they were desirable models in a 2004 interview.

Lê Thị Trang Nhung (figs. 1 and 2) was one such exemplary soldier, sporting red flowers and chest medals as evidence of her achievements. Based on Đồng’s reflection that three logistic personnel were needed for every armed soldier, logistic units were regarded as highly important. Their duties included the transport of food, clothes, weapons, ammunition and medical supplies, including the transport of injured soldiers to hospital. They were also required to collect supplies that might have been left behind at locations by retreating army and guerrilla units.

Figure 1: Phạm Đỗ Đồng, 8 May 1974, Tây Ninh Province. “Lê Thị Trang Nhung; Chiến sỹthi đua cục hậu cần QGP miền Đông; 8 V 1974 (Lê Thị Trang Nhung; One of the best solider competition, logistics department of The Southeastern Vietnamese Liberation Army; 8.V.1974).” Watercolour on paper.
Figure 2: Phạm Đỗ Đồng, 8 May 1974, Tây Ninh Province. “Lê Thị Trang Nhung; Chiến sỹ thi đua cục hậu cần QGP miền Đông Nam Bộ; 8. V. 1974 (Lê Thị Trang Nhung; One of the best soldier competition, logistics department of The Southeastern Vietnamese Liberation Army ; 8.V.1974).” Watercolour on paper.

However, more often than not, the method of transporting supplies was left to make-shift contraptions in replacement of available motorised vehicles. While sketching logistics soldier Bùi Văn Khải carrying a load of 1,032 kilograms (fig. 3), attached to D9 (the 9th Regiment), Đồng clearly defines the level of ingenuity used. Bicycles were often used to transport heavy military equipment like mortars and bullets, sometimes carrying more than one ton. To withstand the weight, bicycle wheels were reinforced with rubber bands tied consecutively around the tyres to prevent them from exploding.

Fig. 3: Phạm Đỗ Đồng, 8 May 1974, Tây Ninh Province. “Bùi Văn Khải; Đang Thồ Đ9 thồ 1032 kg; 8 V 1974 (Bùi Văn Khải; Đ9 is transporting 1032 kgs; 8 V 1974).” Ink on paper.

Certain exploits, like the ability of logistic units to carry unnaturally heavy loads, were highlighted by artists such as Đồng as examples to others fighting for the PLAF and the NLF. Further portraits completed by Đồng in May (figs. 4, 5 and 6) document other resistance fighters considered “Soldiers of Emulation”.

Fig. 4: Phạm Đỗ Đồng, 17 May 1974. “Anh Hoà V8 V Fó; 1 (Mr. Hoà V8 V Fó; 1).” Watercolour on paper.

Interestingly, Đồng described Mr. Hoà (fig. 4) by the clothes he wore. He documented how Mr. Hoà wore new military fatigues from China, instead of the old British clothes that were impractical for the hot weather in South Vietnam. The new clothes were made from polyester and nylon, which dried quickly. Although these clothes were distributed to soldiers on a one-size-fits-all basis, Đồng noted how there were units dedicated to sewing that would tailor or repair clothes. Dong also noted that unlike many of the PAVN soldiers from North Vietnam that wore hats, members of the PLAF and the NLF did not, a decision based on the warmer weather conditions in South Vietnam.

Fig. 5: Phạm Đỗ Đồng, 17 May 1974. “Portrait of a male soldier 2.” Watercolour on paper
Fig. 6: Phạm Đỗ Đồng, May 1974. “Chiến sỹ; GPV 1974 (A Soldier of the Liberation Army; May 1974).” Watercolour on paper.

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