View Full Version : Vietnamese Doctor's War Diaries Telling

04-03-06, 06:07 PM
By day, she amputated limbs and comforted the wounded. By night, she sought to heal herself, filling tiny notebooks with thoughts on suffering and love, the petty politics undermining the Communist Party and her hatred of American "pirates who drink the people's blood but don't smell the stench."

Thirty-five years after a U.S. intelligence officer saved them from being burned, the poignant diaries of a North Vietnamese surgeon named Dang Thuy Tram have reconciled once bitter enemies.

Their publication has also become a sensation in Vietnam, opening floodgates of memories in a nation long disciplined to take a sanitized, glorified view of the conflict.

Last month, in Quang Ngai province in central Vietnam where Tram perished in 1970 at age 27 after refusing to surrender to U.S. troops during a skirmish, officials broke ground for a medical clinic, visitors' center and statue in her honor. On Tuesday she will receive a posthumous Hero of the People's Army medal.

For Frederick Whitehurst, the former officer who retrieved the diaries from Tram's gutted field hospital and decided at his translator's urging not to burn them says she is more than a war hero.

"People will read her words as they read the words of Anne Frank," he wrote in an e-mail from his home in Bethel, N.C.

The diaries were written in tiny notebooks hand-crafted from medical supply packaging, and languished for more than three decades in Whitehurst's file cabinet after attempts to find Tram's family failed. But last year, Whitehurst, aided by his brother Robert, also a Vietnam veteran, donated them to the Vietnam Archives at Texas Tech University in Lubbock.

Within weeks, experts tracked down the family.

Tram's 81-year-old mother initially refused to believe the diaries were authentic. "I was skeptical until I saw them with my own eyes, held them in my hands," said Doan Ngoc Tram, who traveled to Texas last October to see them.

"Reading the diaries was so painful, I couldn't finish them," she told The Associated Press in an interview at her Hanoi home. "It was a terrible shock to learn that her life was so full of pain, hardship and danger. Her letters from the front never spoke of that."

"The Whitehursts gave me my daughter back," she said, speaking French, the language of Vietnam's colonial rulers in her youth.

Written with surgical precision in black ink, the diaries are considered the most compelling, uncensored Vietnamese-language account of a conflict that killed up to 3 million Vietnamese as well as 58,000 Americans.

Until now, most Vietnamese first-person narratives were prettified, even invented. A mere mention of suffering was taboo. Now, in a country which averages about 2,000 book copies per printing, the Tram diaries have sold a record 400,000 copies.

They have made Tram and the Whitehursts household names, inspiring countless Vietnamese to come forward with memoirs, letters and documents. The Whitehurst brothers have made several visits to Vietnam, their appearances on national television and radio bringing some closure to the deeply scarred war generation.

They published "Finding Thuy" in Vietnamese and were thanked publicly by Prime Minister Phan Van Khai.

Fresh out of medical school, where she trained under her surgeon father, Tram volunteered for military service in 1968 and was posted to Quang Ngai, a coastal province about midway between Hanoi and the former Saigon, now Ho Chi Minh City. There Viet Cong and North Vietnamese regulars were battling U.S. Marines and Army.

The journals capture the psychological and physical strain. In the 36 months covered in the journals, Tram was forced to dismantle and rebuild her operating theater six times, regrouping in increasingly remote, mountainous terrain, often carrying out the wounded on her back.

There are frightening accounts of hiding in foxholes, chest-deep in cold water, or nearly suffocating in underground bunkers.

She rages against the Communist Party for denying her and her mother party membership for years because of their "bourgeois origins." "The saddest part of the hardship is that I still have not found fairness ... still have not won the struggle with the bad traits which dishonor the members of the Party and break the spirit of the people who work at the clinic," says an entry dated June 15, 1968.

A May 5 entry pines almost obsessively for the mysterious M whom she ultimately rejected. Interspersed with words of love are epithets against Richard Nixon and U.S. soldiers "demons, devils, dogs, pirates and poisonous snakes."

Robert Whitehurst, 60, a tug boat captain from New Orleans, has done a rough translation of the diaries into English using skills learned during 18 months of language training in Vietnam, where he skippered a patrol boat in the Mekong Delta. They will be professionally translated and published next year in the United States.

According to Tram's mother, a soldier who survived Tram's last battle said she laid down fire to cover the retreat of wounded soldiers, and U.S. troops combing the abandoned hospital found the diaries.

Whitehurst says his research shows that Tram was well-known to the Americans.

"According to U.S. intelligence reports, she was known as a skilled surgeon and protected by local resistance groups," he told the AP on a visit to Hanoi. "The documents indicate that she was targeted for capture or elimination to strike a blow at enemy morale. She already was a hero back then."