January 1975: Nguyễn Ðức Thọ Documents Defences in Hai Phong and Hạ Long

Nguyễn Ðức Thọ recounts his experience of witnessing missile controllers in Hanoi’s 361 Division. (Video courtesy of Witness Collection).

After years of aerial and naval bombardment by US aircraft and battleships, the cities of Hai Phong and Hạ Long had become feared for their well-organised Surface-to-Air Missile (SAM) and flak defences aided by intelligent radar capabilities.

At the beginning of 1975, Nguyễn Ðức Thọ had the opportunity to study the northern defences in detail while painting regularly in January that year. In one of his paintings, Thọ depicts Unit D84 missile controllers training in a control unit truck for Soviet-built S-75 SAMs (Russian: С-75; NATO reporting name SA-2 Guideline) (fig. 1). These were part of a highly successful high-altitude air defence system with command guidance. These missiles were used extensively by North Vietnam for the protection of Hanoi and Hai Phong.

Figure 1: Nguyễn Ðức Thọ, 23 January 1975, Hạ Long, entitled: “SR-71 Training Exercises.” Watercolour on machine-made paper. “SR-71 Training Exercises; Unit D84 Ha Long; 23-1-75.”

After ending their bombing of North Vietnam, the US Air Force constantly used a high-altitude supersonic spy plane, the Lockheed SR-71 “Blackbird”, to scout and take photos of northern cities and military camps. Unit D84 organised active training missions to best explore various methods of fighting this modern reconnaissance aircraft.

Another of Thọ’s paintings shows the readiness of northern defensive capabilities, depicting an anti-aircraft position of combat Unit No. 84 for the defence of Hai Phong city and port (fig. 2). When the radar station identified an enemy aircraft, all anti-aircraft units sounded an alarm to prepare for combat. With the siren raised, soldiers rushed to their fighting positions.

Figure 2: Nguyễn Ðức Thọ, 24 January 1975, Hạ Long, entitled: “Combat Alarm.” Watercolour on machine-made paper. “Combat Alarm; (Unit D84 Ha Long).”

The radars themselves were often positioned in sparse areas, like the radar division of an S-75 SAM system in Hai Phong (fig. 3). Soldiers took advantage of off-duty hours between practising for air attacks to plough the soil and grow vegetables around the battle station. There was a lot of vacant land in such battlefields, so soldiers took the initiative to grow vegetables to improve their meals. Generally farmers before the Second Indochina War, People’s Army of Vietnam (PAVN) soldiers stationed at radar installations mastered the art of planting vegetables in all types of soils and in all conditions.

Figure 3: Nguyễn Ðức Thọ, 28 January 1975, Hải Phòng, entitled: “Radar T1-12 (D84) A Good Production Unit 28-1-75.” Watercolour on machine-made paper. “Radar T1-12 (D84); A Good Production Unit; 28-1-75.”

Created on at the end of January, Thọ depicts the anti-aircraft artillery position of Battalion No. 81, again charged with the task of defending Hai Phong city and port (fig. 4). In this instance, Thọ paints a particular soldier, Hứa Văn Luận, who spent his spare time collecting bricks, gravel and stones. These, Luận and other soldiers arranged on the ground at the base of where missiles were installed so that they remained solid, clean and dry, protected from damp and possible malfunction. This activity was considered a good example for other units to learn from and follow.

Figure 4: Nguyễn Ðức Thọ, 29 January 1975, Hải Phòng, entitled: “Study and Follow the Action of Hứa Văn Luận.” Watercolour on machine-made paper. “Study and Follow the Action of Hứa Văn Luận; (Unit D84 Ha Long); 29-1-75.”

Despite being the last stages of the war in January 1975, defences in the main northern cities of Hanoi, Hai Phong and Hạ Long remained on high alert. On 26 January 1975, the last supply convoy from South Vietnam arrived via the Mekong River in Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia. Henceforth, Phnom Penh was isolated from any outside assistance except by air, effectively surrounded by the communist Khmer Rouge insurgents. The retreat of Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) forces from Cambodia freed units for potential attacks on the north.

In addition, on 28 JanuaryPresident Ford asked Congress for an additional $522 million in military aid to assist South Vietnam and Cambodia. Ford said that North Vietnam now had 289,000 troops in South Vietnam and large numbers of tanks, artillery, and anti-aircraft weapons. If the request had been approved, it would have certainly meant an increase in the bombing of northern cities.

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