April 3, 2006

The diaries of a Vietnamese surgeon

Thirty-five years on, newly published wartime diaries are helping heal war wounds




HANOI: 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 United States intelligence officer saved them from being burned, the poignant diaries of a North Vietnamese surgeon named Dang Thuy Tram have reconciled once bitter enemies.

Last month, in Quang Ngai province 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' centre and statue in her honour. On Tuesday she will be awarded 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 in what was then South Vietnam — 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 said.

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.

Pain and shock

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

Capturing moments

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 theatre 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," says an entry dated June 15, 1968.

There are epithets against Richard Nixon and U.S. soldiers — "demons, devils, dogs, pirates and poisonous snakes."

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 said. "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."





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