Participation in the resistance and his journey south

SR 2042
Beep tone
Roll 42
346 Take 1
Interview with Le Lam
Le Lam:
I grew up in the North, not in the South. But for a long time my heart has gone out to the people in the South. Therefore, as soon as I graduated from the University of Fine Arts, I wanted to take part in the struggle in the South. And I thought that this was only a very natural thing for me to do. After all there were comrades from foreign countries like Comrade Burchett and Ms. Madeleine Riffaud who could go to the South.
Then why couldn't I, a Vietnamese from the northern part of the country, go to the southern part of the same country? Hence, I decided to ask permission to go to the South. This was my heart felt desire. And I chose the best paper, the best pens and brushes and the best color paints with which I could paint the South. I thought that my primary responsibility should be that of serving the people in the South and secondarily to record documentary evidences with which to create paintings on the struggles of the South Vietnamese people against the Americans.
347 Take 1
Le Lam:
It was in 1965 that I left for the South. I was married and had two children then, a very young boy and young daughter. At first my wife did not want me to go. But after I explained to my wife how my heart went out for the South, how I had to serve the people in the South and how I had to create, she agreed to let me go. I knew that this was a painful thing for my wife, but there was nothing I could do about it.
Moreover, I thought that I was only going for a short period. We had never expected that I would be away in the South for ten years. It was ten years before I could come home to see my wife and children. During this long period my wife raised our children up. When I left my children were only five and six years of age. But when I returned, they were already seventeen and eighteen and were preparing to go to college.
348 Take 1
349 Take 1
Clapstick second clapping
Please tell us about your trip south.
Le Lam:
On my way to the South, I had to carry a very heavy load on my shoulders. Usually around twenty kilograms, but sometimes as much as thirty-five or thirty-six kilograms. But I got used to this. Of course I had been in training before the trip too. Along the route and during the day, I would try to paint whenever I had the opportunity to do so. At night I showed my paintings to the troops, the guerrilla fighters and the girls who were serving as couriers. And since I could chant poetry and sing northern folksongs, I always tried to entertain the people around me wherever I was.
For this reason, although the trip was really difficult and tiresome – the mountains were so steep that sometimes the ankles of the person walking right in front of me were at the level of my nose, and your sweat just poured out like rain water and you got so hungry, so very hungry – although the trip was so difficult, I was always happy and cheerful because I was able to entertain the people around me.
And after a night's rest, I was able to continue with the trip again the next day. And the paintings which I created on the Truong Son, which have been on exhibition, are all about the things which moved me deeply on this trip south. By the time I reached the battlefront in the South, I was already used to working in that manner.
350 Take 1
Le Lam:
It took me five months before I reached the South. I had to climb many high mountains, trek through many dense forests, ford many deep rivers and streams, and, naturally, sneak by many enemy military posts and lines. But just a little before we reached the southern part, I contracted malaria. I had fever and my body was all swollen up, making it very difficult for me to move my limbs. These two symptoms always go together when you have malaria.
But when my swollen face and limbs became normal again, I got another malaria attack. And about three days later, my body got all swollen up again. Therefore, just about the time I reached the South, I had been considerably weakened. The final destination for me was Tay-ninh province. As soon as I arrived in Tay-ninh, I learned what it was like to be under a B-52 raid.
I felt that I was being swung violently in a hammock even though I was deep down inside a tunnel. And when I climbed out, I saw that all the jungle area there was completely denuded, not a tree was left standing. And our huts, mats, blankets, and all the belongings had been completely destroyed. But I also realized that all the young men who were in that bombed out area with me were very calm as they immediately went about repairing everything and camouflaging places where they considered it necessary to do so.
It seemed as if these people had already fully grasped the routine of such bombing attacks because they began to sing again as if nothing had happened. And in some places where these young people had managed to repair, study groups met again to discuss all kinds of academic subjects. Classes held in the jungle. As far as I was concerned, I had made the decision to be like everybody else.
I would eat the same food other people ate, sleep in the hammock like other people slept and carry a lighter to make the fire for cooking the rice and to light cigarettes. Therefore, it took me only three to four months to adapt completely to the conditions in the South, leading my life as normally as any southerner. I could identify all the American planes that flew over me. I knew which was a bomber and which was a reconnaissance plane.
The R-19, for example, was a dangerous reconnaissance plane that demanded careful attention. At first, when I just arrived in the South, I thought that the people in the South would be all skin and bones because they had had to endure so much hardship under the bombs and the shells. I thought that they would not be that cheerful, either. But to my surprise, the people in the South were very healthy. And the southern girls were very pretty. And if you, Mr. Ellison, have seen my paintings you would realize how pretty the southern girls are.

Art endeavors in the provinces during the war

351 Take 1
Le Lam:
After Tay-ninh, the next place I went to was Long-an province. Long-an is an area just next to Saigon. Therefore there were daily bombings and frequent mopping operations by the Saigon troops into the villages and hamlets. For example, when I lived in An-ninh village, Duc hoa district, the American and the puppet troops made mopping up operations into the village twenty three days out of the month.
I lived with the inhabitants and the guerrilla fighters there. Every day I painted if I got the opportunity to do so. And, of course, I showed my paintings to the village inhabitants. But whenever the enemy troops came I carried my guns and fought alongside the guerrilla fighters. These guerrillas directed me what to do in certain situations. When the going was rough, they would tell me to get down into a tunnel and hide there.
By and by I got so used to the situation that I even knew when an artillery shell would fall on my position and when it would miss. When an artillery shell was going to hit my position, for example, I would only hear a slight purr and nothing else after that. But when it missed my position, then I would hear a long screeching sound like this. When I got used to all the airplanes, all the bombs and bullets and all the search and destroy or mopping up operations, I began to lead a very relaxed and enjoyable life.
And by that time I also had quite a number of paintings in my hands, so I had much to be happy about. I recall that the night I left Long-an for My-tho the courier girls were listening to my playing the flute as they were rowing the sampans. I always carried a flute with me on this kind of trip. And at that moment I was playing my flute amidst the poundings of the 175mm artillery from Cu Chi. Of course, I realized that the shells would fall quite a distant from where we were and so I calmly played my flute and the courier girls were enchanted. After that, the girls sang southern folksongs.
SR 2043
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Roll 43 of Vietnam Project
352 Take 1
Interview with painter continues.
Le Lam:
From Long-an province I went to My-tho and then Ben-tre. During the period from 1967 to 1968, I spent the most time in Ben-tre. And it was in Ben-tre that I encountered the most interesting things in my artistic life. Artistically speaking, I usually pay a lot of attention to political struggles. And it was in Ben-tre where political struggles unfolded continually.
I accompanied the women – elderly women and young girls alike – who staged political struggles daily. At that time the United States and the Saigon regime were carrying out their pacification program. This meant that they shelled and bombed the rural areas daily, destroying the extremely beautiful and plentiful coconut groves of the Ben Tre inhabitants. For this reason, the inhabitants of Ben-tre staged continual demonstrations to protest all the shelling and bombing which often caused tremendous damage to the inhabitants of Ben-tre in terms of lives and property.
Therefore, the inhabitants carried the corpses of the victims to the district and provincial towns to confront the Americans and the puppet troops and demand that there should be an end to all the bombing and shelling. There were bombs and shells everywhere. I can testify that I had traveled all over Ben Tre and had not seen a single coconut tree which did not have bomb and shell fragments and bullets lodged in its trunk. When the 1968 Tet Offensive came about, I was in Ben-tre.
By that time I already had a large number of paintings, which I put inside an American ammunition case. The special feature of this American ammunition case was its being water tight. So that if anything happened, I could always shove that box underwater by the side of an irrigation ditch or a canal, making it impossible for anyone to detect it. And if nothing were to happen to me, then I could always come back to the place and lift out the ammunition box which had my paintings safely stored in there.
This was the period in which I painted whenever and wherever I had the opportunity to do so. And I exhibited my paintings everywhere. It was a very happy period in my life. Many times, in many places, I had one man exhibitions which averaged around 60 to 70 paintings and, sometimes, even 200 to 300 paintings. It was really very simple to put on these exhibitions. I adhered the drawings on white papers to dark colored backings and those on colored papers on white backings.
Whenever I wanted to put on an exhibition, all I had to do was hang up some strings and clip the drawings on them with cloth pins. There was something which happened which was of special interest to me. You can see that among the drawings being exhibited now, there is one which is entitled: "Protecting the People's Administration." This drawing was made in 1968. The origin of the drawing was as follows: I had to carve the seals for the People's Executive Committees of Ben Tre province, Ben-tre city, and the districts of Mo-cay, Giong-trom, Thanh-phu and Ba-tri. I had to test these seals with red ink on paper, and this gave me very strong impressions of the building of revolutionary governmental administrations in the South.
Sometimes, out of excitement, I also placed my signature next to the imprints of these seals on the pieces of paper. I must say that while I was in Ben Tre I witnessed the extremely bustling scenes at the ceremonies celebrating the founding of governmental administrations in many places. It was precisely because of this that in the painting I mentioned there is a guerrilla girl holding the NLF flag and, in a corner, there is a seal with the words "The People's Revolutionary Committee of Saigon City."
This is a painting which, although from the technical artistic point of view was a very difficult one to create, has been widely recognized within the artistic community as a very successful and popular drawing. And although this drawing is only of the political poster type, some people have framed it and put it up on the walls of their homes ever since 1968 until the present time.

The argument of Le Lam's paintings and his propaganda efforts

353 Take 1
Le Lam:
The thing that I paid most attention to during the period of struggle against the United States and the Saigon regime was to create binh van ("proselytizing among enemy troops") paintings in the effort to get the American troops and the Saigon soldiers to become anti-war and to refuse to participate in that war. I understood that this was an extremely fierce war in which American youths and Vietnamese youths alike had to shed their blood.
Therefore, our effort was to do everything we could to try to minimize the spilling of blood by the youths of the two countries, the two peoples. My binh van drawings had anti-war messages on the back. There were pictures of American soldiers in these drawings, for example, sitting there thinking. Next to them were pictures of mothers, wives and children calling them home, asking them not to participate in that senseless war. I often used the woodblock technique for this type of paintings.
Whenever I arrived in a certain place, I always tried to find out what the most burning and clear cut issues were and would make woodcuts of them. After I had made the woodcuts, I would then teach the guerrillas, the girls and the young men, how to make woodprints. In this way, in the South, we were able to print millions of copies of these paintings. And since we did not have as much paper as the Americans had to be able to spread leaflets everywhere like they did, we had to get the women to sneak these handbills personally to the Americans and the Saigon troops or leave them in places where they would be readily seen or picked up by the American and the Saigon troops.
And I was told by people at the provincial and national levels that the American GIs did pick these handbills up and brought them back to their bases with them so that their fellow GIs could see them also. And those handbills were also found in the pockets of many GIs who were unlucky enough to get killed on the battlefields. And so, in my opinion, my work was contributing to the effort at minimizing the spilling of blood by the young people of the two countries, the United States and Vietnam. The point was to get the American GIs and the American people to refuse participation in that war.
354 Take 1
Through your paintings we know that the country is beautiful and the girls are pretty. Could you tell us about the destruction caused by the war?
Le Lam:
I have specialized in watercolor paintings for the last thirty years. As a result, I really like to paint landscapes. It was therefore very painful for me to see the devastations caused by the war. Let me cite you an example: I was trekking through an extremely beautiful jungle area on the Truong Son range when I ran suddenly into a place where it was devoid of any green color. Only denuded stumps of trees remained on the barren ground.
In a place like this the earth was scorched by the blazing sun and water was nowhere to be found. Or I can tell you about the devastations in Ben Tre province which leave very deep imprints in me. Anyone who knows Ben Tre knows that it used to have immense coconut groves where the trees were so closely planted that sometimes the sunrays could not pass through the fronds.
But after the American airplanes sprayed the chemicals – and I saw these airplanes with my own eyes and compared them to engorged leeches, to bloodsuckers filled with human blood, as they came in formations of three, six and nine airplanes spewing chemicals – the tops of the coconut trees where the young fronds were just fell off overnight. The morning after the spraying attacks, the coconut trees were mostly denuded and the yellowing fronds filled the ground surface. I saw with my own eyes an area where there were over ten kilometers of bare coconut tree trunks.
And I also saw banana trees which, after a spraying attack, still retained their beautiful green color but which were completely severed in half. I witnessed all these things myself and also painted all the scenes I just described. I regret that I left the paintings at home and cannot show them to you. But back to the coconut trees. They are important not just because of the aesthetic value, but they give coconuts which are delicious and thirst quenching.
But during a bombing raid, even if only a small steel pellet were lodged in the trunk of a coconut tree, it would cause the trunk to rot slowly and the coconut tree to die eventually. And it took a peasant in the South about 15 to 20 years to grow a coconut tree to its full maturity, to reap the highest yields. Therefore, I managed to record all these scenes. And I should say that during this last war, the color green was the color most destroyed.
In its place, you had ash color and dirty grays, which was the result of dirt mixed with bullets and gun smoke and gunpowder. And so I remember the colors very well, they were contrasting colors. And the devastations to the landscapes are recorded in a painting entitled "On the Road to the Battlefield," for example. In this painting I also tried to express the fact that, in spite of the utter devastation, the Vietnamese people, though small physically, exerted themselves to the maximum in order to bring about final victory.

Return to Hanoi

355 Take 1
Le Lam:
It was in 1974 that I returned to the North. It was a rainy night in Hanoi. I was riding in a truck. It was the first time I saw Hanoi in ten years. I rolled up the canvass cover of the truck and let the rain splash into my face and tried to take in all the familiar scenes of the Hanoi streets. It was indescribable joy to come home again.
And after ten years of serving the people in the South, I now came back with a treasure trove of paintings – over a thousand drawings. And I must tell you what it was like for me to go back to my house. It was an unspeakable sensation which I had. I did now know what I was doing. I only knew that I was walking along the route home. When I reached my neighborhood, I went to a house and placed my knapsack on the threshold, feeling certain that it was my house. I then walked around the house to see if anybody was home.
But when I looked into a window and saw a painting, then I realized that it was not my house at all. It was my neighbor's house. I was quite embarrassed and was afraid that my neighbors would detect my mistake, so I quickly picked up my knapsack and headed for my house. After that I ran into my sister-in-law whose husband, my brother, was still in the South. And my whole family, along with my children, came out to meet with me. I wept then. My wife was not there with me. She was still in Vinh Phu, which was quite a distance away. And it was not until four days later that I met with my wife again.