Painting the Tet Offensive

The Tet Offensive was a defining moment in the Vietnam War. The series of surprise attacks were launched by the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese People’s Army against South Vietnam and their allies on 30 January 1968. During one of the largest military campaigns of the war, more than 80,000 soldiers attacked targets in over 100 towns and cities across Vietnam. Although the operation eventually resulted in defeat for the North Vietnamese, it is remembered as the moment when the United States government and public belatedly realised the power of their enemy.

The response to the Tet Offensive was depicted in a series of paintings and drawings by Ken McFadyen. In August 1967 he had been posted to Vietnam for 7 months as an official war artist recording Australia’s involvement in the conflict. McFadyen had undergone jungle warfare training in Queensland before his departure, as he was expected to wield weapons as well as paintbrushes should it be required.

The life of a war artist in Vietnam was both emotionally and physically demanding. In stifling heat, humidity and torrential rain, McFadyen had to carry full combat equipment on top of his art materials while risking his life alongside his fellow soldiers. He recalls at one point feeling “very tired, wet and muddy, covered in small black leeches competing with thousands of amber coloured ants for a place on my body”.

Despite these challenges McFadyen was able to produce vivid oil paintings and technically accurate drawings depicting troops heading into battle, search and destroy missions, daily life on the bases, and military vehicles. The artworks are now held in the Australian War Memorial near Canberra. In 2010, a selections was published under the title Vietnam on Canvas. You can watch a slideshow of the images here:

Images: Ken McFadyen. Top – Disembarking from Chinook helicopter, 1967. Oil on canvas on hardboard, 45.2 x 39.2 cm; Bottom – Blindfolding a Viet Cong, 1968. Oil on canvas on hardboard, 96.4 x 81.5 cm. Courtesy Australian War Memorial

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