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Written in May 1996.

Huynh Phuong Dong:Art and Combat in the French and American Wars

By Dylan Foley

        Huynh Phuong Dong was born in 1925 in Saigon. As a young man, he studied art, but in 1947, he joined the Vietnamese resistance, painting and fighting in the French and American Wars, until the fall of Saigon in 1975. This is an account of his experiences as an artist and soldier during the wars, and hid views on the peace afterwards.
        "I should say that I was born at an historic period of my country's history," said Dong in the living room of his spacious house in District One of Ho Chi Minh City during an interview last spring. "My country had many enemies -- the Japanese and the French, then the Americans."
        "In 1947, I was preparing to graduate from the School of Practical Art in Saigon. I joined the guerrillas that June. The most precise answer is that I joined the revolution to protect my country. I could not stand the pain of my people. I witnessed many painful acts and much misery. I saw people starve, people with no clothes. I witnessed people killed by bombs and shells. The main reason I joined was that I could not stand the pain.
        "From this, I said good-bye to my family and my mother, and went straight to the guerrilla base, south of the city. We were still fighting the French then. From 1947 to 1954, until Dien Bien Phu, I fought them. Through the war, I made many paintings. I like to say I kept a sketchbook in one hand and a rifle in the other. I was fighting and painting at the same time."
        Looking twenty years younger than his 71 years, he was a wiry and intense man, who sat on the edge of his seat as he spoke and moved his hands for emphasis. Dong speaks French fluently, but during the interview, he spoke in Vietnamese, with his friend Le Cong Hau, a young photographer, translating.
        When he painted during the two wars, Dong's subjects varied. He painted pictures of the enemy killed in battle, the time he lived in the guerrilla bases and his fellow guerrillas. "I sketched friends and comrades, several hundred of them," said Dong, "some of them who would be killed soon after I drew them. I would draw a second portrait for their mothers."
        Early in the interview, Dong noted that he had been wounded by the French. "On April 21, 1951, I was wounded by a French grenade." He urged the interviewer to feel his ear, where there was still a piece of metal inside.
        Two years after he was wounded, a friend who was carrying dozens of his sketches stepped on a mine. The type of mine is known in the West as a Bouncing Betty, which sends shrapnel up to the midsection of the person who steps on it. The friend was eviscerated and killed, covering the sketches in blood and destroying them.
        The destruction of the French army at Dien Bien Phu in 1954 led to a temporary peace and the division of Vietnam. "Vietnam is a unique country, with a culture that goes back 4,000 years," he said. "Vietnam was cut in half due to a plot by the Americans."
        After the fighting stopped, Dong was sent to Hanoi and was ordered to organize a touring exhibition of Vietnamese art from the war for the army's political department. From 1955 to 1956, he traveled with several other Vietnamese veteran artists, going to Eastern Europe and China, to show people the Vietnamese art from the war with the French.
        In 1957, Dong came back to Hanoi and picked up his art studies the Hanoi School of the Fine Arts. A contemporary of his was Madame Vu Giang Huong, the director of the Fine Arts Association of Vietnam.
        "In 1963, I was about to receive my certificate, but I did not take it because the war with the Americans had begun." Dong walked south with his comrades, through the Chung Sung Mountains. "It took six months. I carried everything on my back -- food, weapons. I was very thin at the end. Sometimes we only ate leaves."
        Dong left his young wife, Le Thi Thue, behind with their three small children. He did not see her for 11 years. When he left her, she was a nurse. By the time they were reunited, she had become a doctor specializing in malaria.
        From 1963 to 1965 was a time of continuous fighting. The use of napalm and the defoliant Agent Orange added a new brutality to the new war. "In fighting the Americans, I never thought I was going to survive. The fighting was so fierce, I felt that I could be lost any day." When the fighting finished, he would draw what he had seen.
        "The first goal of my paintings were documentation -- I was trying to depict the war that was fought for my country." Dong's pieces move from realistic sketches and paintings of his comrades to the more impressionistic scenes of the aftermath of battles -- Dong recorded the fighting at  Binh Gia in 1965 and the destroyed American tanks with their entombed crews at Tay Ninh in 1967.
        A painting called "The Bloody Battle against the American Battalion at Binh Gia" shows Viet Cong troops attacking American positions. It is a watercolor that shows horror, chaos and intensity of battle in a wash of color. Dong said that he did the painting by chewing twigs to make brushes and by painting right out of the tubes of paint. He made the painting right after the battle, for he was not sure he would survive much longer.
        Dong pulled out an old American cartridge box and displayed some smaller sketches and artworks. One was of an American prisoner of war, a young man with an exhausted face and a sparse beard. At the bottom, the American had written a plea to then-President Lyndon Johnson to end the senseless war. When Dong went to the United States in 1993, he tried but was unable to find the soldier.
        During the American War, Dong became a commander of other field artists. "It was my responsibility to assign artists to cover different battles," he said. "We also organized exhibitions on the battlefield. We would take a metal bar and string it across the trenches so we could hang paintings from them." Sometimes the exhibits would be only two kilometers from an active battlefield.
        "The purpose was to encourage the soldiers' spirits -- even though the war was going on, we could still sing and make art," said Dong. He and his fellow artists also taught art to their fellow guerrillas. Dong pulled out tattered photos showing the opening of a battlefield art exhibit, with smiling guerrillas milling around under a steel framework hung with paintings.
        In the Tet Offensive, Dong returned to Saigon and fought with a group of commandos who captured the city's "Y" Bridge, another battle he painted. "Tet was a strategic battle," he said. It was to stimulate power in the cities, to prove that the revolution had the power to enter the cities. The revolutionary force was not as powerful as the Americans -- we could fight and take, but we could not keep. There were a lot of sacrifices."
        According to Dong, Tet in 1968 was a turning point. "For the revolution, we learned that it was possible to enter and overcome the city. It was a big experience -- we were able to test the reaction of the people in the city. The Battle of 1968 was practice for 1975. In 1975, we only fought in five places in Saigon. We had the people to help us, who fought in 1,000 other places."
        In 1969, Dong was seriously wounded during a B-52 bomber attack. "I was wounded in the buttocks, but due to the chemicals in the bomb, the flesh near my wound rotted. I almost died...the doctors took out an egg-sized piece of flesh," indicating where the wound was. Without a pause, he coaxed the interviewer to touch the flat, hard scar tissue through his pants.
        Despite the horror and carnage he witnessed, Dong credited the art with helping him to survive emotionally. "The art made me more courageous," he said. "If I could keep the sketches, I felt I could keep them as evidence of the war for my country.
        "Some of my friends were just boys and girls, but they were very brave in battle." Dong said that of the 100 close friends he had during the war, more than half died. "I felt I must survive to keep records. Because I could not stand the feeling of losing my comrades, it made survival more likely. I am very strong willed."
        With peace, Dong returned to Saigon, which had been renamed Ho Chi Minh City. He worked for the government-run Fine Arts Association until 1988. During this period, Dong got very sick from wartime exposure to the defoliant Agent Orange. Dong said that he was very sick for eight years and his skin turned dark, but he consumed many vitamins and cured himself.
        At present, he works as an art professor at Ho Chi Minh City'sarchitecture university. To circumvent the mandatory retirement, the 71-year-old Dong uses his son's name. Dong's real name is Huynh Kon Nya.
        "My country must be at peace now," said Dong of the 20 years since the end of the American War. "I often speak to my American friends, like David Thomas," he said, referring to the director of the Boston-based Indochina Arts Project. "Years before we fought because we did not understand each other. Now we understand one another. There is no reason to keep the war for our children. Right now, our country must escape from poverty."
        "Vietnam passed for years without contact from most of the outside world," said Dong. "It stayed in a 'tight' environment, isolated from other countries. "Because you live in a tight environment, now when you are free, you develop quickly. It is like a plant -- when you put it in a can, it does not grow quickly. When you pull it out, it grows fast.
        "I was in a tight environment for years. In the forest during the war, when I wanted to draw, there was no paper, no color pencils. With the recent change in the environment in Vietnam, there are now better art materials. It shortens the way to the top of one's art."
        Despite Dong's 30 years of war against the French and Americans, he does not hold hatred for his former enemies. "With the Japanese, French and the Americans, I realize that there were people in each of those countries who supported peace. "The thoughts of hate were only in the time of fighting. Now I see only people."
        "We have come to a phase where it is time to develop the country, not to protect the past. We have to keep the country in peace and to find a way to prevent war from happening again.
        "The goal of Ho Chi Minh was to save his people. For him, communism was a tool to liberate the country."
        As an artist, Dong has noted that things are getting much better and more open. "In 1976, there were only four exhibitions in Ho Chi Minh City. Last year, there were 400 art exhibitions throughout Vietnam," said Dong. Dong himself, since the war, has exhibited in Europe, Cuba and Vietnam. His paintings from the war were also featured in an exhibit of Vietnamese and American artists by the Indochina Arts Project that from 1990 to 1995 traveled through the United States and Vietnam.
        Dong said he still paints every day. "Now my subjects are all about peace," he said. "I work every night until midnight, painting."


Copyright 1996 All Rights Reserved Dylan Foley
This article may not be reproduced in whole or in part without the permission of the author.