PANO - On a visit to Vietnam this June, US Secretary of Defence Leon Panetta handed over some souvenirs of a martyr of the Vietnam People’s Army, who sacrificed his life in a battle in Quang Ngai Province in 1966, to Vietnamese Defence Minister Phung Quang Thanh. These souvenirs, kept by a US veteran for many years, include a small torn diary whose characters could not be seen clearly at some places. This diary contains memories of a magnanimous time in the war time.
It, together with other souvenirs, is being kept by the Vietnam Military History Museum and will be returned to the martyr’s family after 46 years. Behind the return of this diary is a long human story which highlights the efforts of various people.
The story of 46 years ago
On March 28, 1966, Bravo Company, Battalion 1, Regiment 7 of the US Marine Corps exchanged fire on the Quang Ngai battlefield in Operation Indiana. Serious losses were incurred on both the US and Vietnamese sides. A US Marine, named “Ira” Robert Frazure from Charlie Company, picked up a small record book on the chest of a dead liberation army soldier while clearing the battlefield. That diary was inscribed with the name Vu Dinh Doan. Inside it was a photo of two girls, several old coins and an ID card with the date of joining the army and his native village. After being demobilized in November 1966, the US soldier took the diary along on his way back to his motherland.
46 years have quietly flown by. In February 2012, the US public broadcasting television network (PBS) program History Detectives, specialized in introducing stories of old days, gained access to the diary.
Martyr Vu Dinh Doan’s diary received special attention at PBS. Wes Cowan, in charge of research for the program and also the person who directly contacted the US Embassy in Hanoi to bring the diary back to Vietnam, confided that the aftermath of the war was cruel for both sides. That was what he thought of when he was handed the diary. He said to himself that he might hold the valuable memories of someone.
However, PBS staff questioned how they could uncover the story of the diary with no more information than the native village of the martyr, noted in the back cover. No one dared to confirm definitely that this Vietnamese martyr’s relatives were alive.
How the diary finds its way home
Despite those barriers, PBS decided to conduct an “operation” for the diary to find its way home, as its secrets were very attractive, along with the other souvenirs of martyr Vu Dinh Doan.
On March 28th, 2012, Tierney Bonini, an editor from PBS, sent an email to Professor Ho Tai Hue Tam, a history lecturer at Harvard University at that time, to ask for her support to find the family of the diary's writer.
Professor Ho Tai Hue Tam knew the Vietnam Studies Group (VSG)’s emails in the USA. This group includes more than one thousand researchers on Vietnam from around the world. She immediately posted the email by the PBS editor on VSG’s page in hope that the VSG community could help return the diary to the martyr’s family.
Coincidentally, Kyle Horst, a former UN official who lived and worked in Vietnam for many years, visited the VSG page at that time and read the email. In the email, editor Tierney Bonini wrote that the staff of the History Detectives program was confident that martyr Vu Dinh Doan’s relatives were living somewhere in Vietnam. The email indicated that they had the name and the native village of a Northern Vietnamese soldier and a photo of two girls taken in 1960. The program’s staff also guessed that martyr Vu Dinh Doan was in Regiment 21, Division 2 of the Vietnam People’s Army, and the battle that this martyr sacrificed his life in had taken place in Son Tinh district, Quang Ngai Province.
Apart from seeking a translator for the information recorded in the diary, the PBS editors spent much time re-verifying information relating to the battle in Quang Ngai Province in that year and related geographic names.
Though the email contained just a few lines of information, Kyle Horst phoned Editor Tierney Bonini at once and said that he could lend a hand. With long-term experience in Vietnam in the period of 1984-1995, he thought that he could help find the martyr’s relatives. Moreover, since 1996, as a consultant, he had worked with various US media channels and produced a dozen stories on the S-shaped country. He also worked with Major-General Pham Xuan An, an intelligence agent, to help author Thomas Bass complete his book on this legendary agent.
Having as good a command of Vietnamese language as a Vietnamese native, being used to each Vietnamese street and thoroughly understanding Vietnamese culture, Kyle Horst was the most suitable guide to bring the diary back to its proper place in Vietnam.
After further discussion with Kyle Horst, editor Tierney Bonini provided him with the address of martyr Vu Dinh Doan’s family in Vietnam. With that valuable information taken from the diary, Kyle Horst immediately gave his friends in Vietnam a call and emailed them to call for more help. Surprisingly, one of his friends named Hang, a native of HCM City, found the family of martyr Vu Dinh Doan just two days later.
However, it took Hang, Kyle Horst and the PBS History Detectives program’s staff nearly two months to get a response from the relatives of the diarist due to a very small mistake.
Reported by Thu Trang and Vu Hung
Translated by Mai Huong