By Thu Hạnh
The 1970s was a time of huge significance in Vietnamese history, not least for the generation who responded to the movement 'Putting away pens to go to the battle'.
Thousands of young people gave up their studies to march to the frontlines with the belief that victory was at hand.
In 1970, when the fight against the Americans in the south stepped into a fiercer period, the liberation forces in southern frontlines needed more troops. The north published a mass national conscription order, encouraging young people including students to join the liberation army.
More than 10,000 students in the north stopped their studies to go to battle in the south between 1970 and 1972.
Students from Hà Nội National University say goodbye to their families, friends and teachers to depart for the southern battle in 1971. VNA/VNS File Photo
Many of them were in their first year while others had nearly graduated; some even were preparing for further study overseas.
The busiest army recruitment period was in 1971 when thousands of students joined right at the start of the new academic year.
The army joining ceremony held on September 6, 1971, took place in the yards of many universities. Young students were seen off by their friends and teachers. Most of them looked quite young with joy in their faces wearing white shirts.
People join a farewell ceremony for young people in Đống Đa District, Hà Nội on August 9, 1964. VNA/VNS Photo Văn Lượng
All the newly-recruited students were sent to camps to be trained for war. During the training period, every night, each new soldier had to carry 20kg of soil in a bamboo basket to march and run for endurance training.
At the end of their training, the students were divided into suitable units like students from University of Science and Technology were sent to the artillery force and signal corps, medical students to military medical service, mining and geology students to engineering corps and economics students to the infantry.
Yet most of the students were assigned to fighting units like Regiments 95, 101 and 18 of Divisions 325, 338 and 308, which fought in Bình-Trị-Thiên battlefield in the central region.
A farewell ceremony to young Hanoian people, who volunteered to join the army to fight against American aggressors in the south, in Hà Nội Opera House on July 11, 1969. VNA File Photo
In early 1972, a train full of newly recruited soldiers, most of whom were students, departed from Kép Station (in the northern province of Bắc Giang) to Vinh Station (in the central province of Nghệ An). From Nghệ An, they marched on foot to battle.
“When the train passed Hàng Cỏ Station (today’s Hà Nội Station), many letters were dropped from the train to the roads,” recalled Nguyễn Đức Thuận, a student from the College of Teachers.
On the envelope, there were words like: “Please if anyone picks up this letter, send it to house No…”, or “Wish for a return date”, “My beloved Hà Nội”, or simply “Marching to B battle, date…” [to southern battle fields].
“The white letters covered the whole road at that time," Thuận recalled.
In their backpacks, besides personal items, many students did not forget to take along some books and notebooks as diaries.
Along the road, many of them sent letters back home to families, teachers and friends. When they had brief moments of respite from their duties, they wrote in their diaries.
The fierceness of the war is reflected in their diaries, like in a poem by martyr Nguyễn Văn Thạc, a student from the National University, sent to his girlfriend Như Anh. The poem reads:
“Đêm trắng trong là đêm của em
Đêm thành phố và sao trời lẫn lộn
Đêm của anh xếp kín đầy bom đạn
Pháo sáng chập chờn trộn trạo với sao sa…”
(Peaceful night is yours
City night with stars twinkling
Mine is full of bomb and ammunition
Flares mingle with stars)
Inspiration for today’s youth
The students appeared in various fierce battles, from Quảng Trị Ancient Citadel to East Southern battle, joining in liberating Buôn Ma Thuột and marching to Sài Gòn for the final victory on April 30, 1975.
Tanks and infantry of Army Corps 2 pass a river towards Sài Gòn. VNA/VNS File Photo
Many of them became heroes of the People’s Armed Forces like Vũ Xuân Thiều, Trần Thanh Hải (from University of Science and Technology), Bùi Ngọc Dương (University of Civil Construction), and Vương Đình Cung (University of Agriculture).
Five years after the country mobilised students to join the army, among the 10,000 that signed up, more than half lost their lives. Some died in the south, some in Laos but the greatest losses were seen in the 81-day campaign protecting Quảng Trị Ancient Citadel in 1972.
Some of them lost their lives at the entrance of Sài Gòn such as martyr Nguyễn Văn Tư (University of Science and Technology), at 10am on April 30, 1975, just two hours ahead of victory.
Soldiers from Commando (Special Forces) Brigade 316 pose for a photo after the fight to protect Rạch Chiếc Bridge – a strategic bridge on Biên Hòa Highway, facilitating Vietnamese troop to march to Sài Gòn. The fight at the bridge on April 27 and 28, 1975 has been considered as the last fierce fight of the historical Hồ Chí Minh Campaign. VNA/VNS Photo Quang Thành
After reunification, the students who survived the war went back to their studies, but many of them were physically, mentally and emotionally scarred for life.
Many became scientists, professors at universities, army leaders, and writers. Their generation has become a bridge linking the past and present.
“The Motherland highly appreciated generations of teachers and students giving up pens to join the army to make contributions to the nation’s victory,” wrote late General Võ Nguyên Giáp.
“Their patriotism will remain a flame brightening all generations of Vietnamese youth in the cause of developing the country, to make the country a wealthy, peaceful and happy nation.” VNS