Veteran Nguyen Van Thien never expected that his lost war diary in 1967 would find its way back home after more than half a century.
For Thien, the official visit to Vietnam by U.S. President Joe Biden earlier this month was not only an important event between Vietnam and the U.S., but a memorable milestone in his life.
At the National Assembly Building on September 11, Thien received his war diary lost during a battle in Tay Ninh that borders HCMC in 1967, as witnessed by Biden and National Assembly chairman Vuong Dinh Hue.
“I couldn’t have imagined ever receiving my lost diary from the war around 60 years ago. It was truly surprising and moving. For me, it was an invaluable relic,” said Thien, 75.
Thien was born in northern Thai Binh Province and joined the army in 1965, at the age of 17. He brought with him a diary to recount what happened during his march into the southeastern Vietnam battlefield.
“I want my descendants to know how their forefathers used to face dangers and hardship,” he said.
He would often sit down and write in his diary one or two days into the march, or when emotions ran high. There was pain and danger and sacrifice that Vietnamese soldiers had to face on every page, but there was also their courage and a willingness to fight for what’s right.
In March 1967, the U.S. army performed a large-scale sweep called Junction City into Thien’s airbase in Tay Ninh. Thien lost his diary that day.
“When the sweep ended, I returned to the base and found that my belongings in the bag had been messed with. The diary was gone. I believed it had fell into the hands of the Americans and that I would never find it again,” he said.
After Vietnam was unified, Thien returned to northern Vietnam and resumed his normal life. The memories about the diary also faded away with time, along with memories of the war.
In 2022, Thien suddenly received a call from a group of researchers from the Harvard Kennedy School in the U.S., asking him about his lost diary. He had some doubts at first, as his diary did not contain any information about his name, his hometown or unit, except for a pen name, “Luong Thien” (Kindness), written on the first few pages.
But following further contact with the researchers and receiving pictures of certain sections of the diary, Thien began to realize that his diary was stashed away half way around the Earth.
Since Vietnam and the U.S. normalized relations in 1995, both governments have strived to resolve wartime consequences and find the missing remains of soldiers from both sides.
However, there had been no official cooperation from the two countries regarding the search and identification of deceased Vietnamese soldiers, besides certain organizations and veterans sending in raw, unverified documents.
Since July 2021, the John F. Kennedy School of Government has created the Unseen Legacies of the Vietnam War: Finding, Archiving, and Sharing the Missing Data and Historical Ephemera of Vietnamese War Dead project.
The project was the first research effort with a diverse document system from both the Vietnam and the U.S. sides to search for and verify the identity of deceased Vietnamese soldiers.
It has also opened up official cooperation channels between the two countries regarding the supply of verified and highly valuable information and documents.
While looking through the battlefield documents stored at the Combined Document Exploitation Center (CDEC), the Harvard researchers found microfilm samples of the diary, which was kept by a U.S. unit back in Tay Ninh in 1967.
“We found the diary amid millions of uncategorized microfilm document pages, but there was no information on the author or their unit, besides the pen name Luong Thien,” said Nguyen Hai, director of the project.
“With respect to the soldier’s personal history, we were determined to find the author at all costs, even though we knew it could be an impossible mission,” Hai said.
The journey to find the author began with an inscription written on February 13, 1966, depicting the writer’s lament.
“A most painful day, because a brother, a comrade of mine had lost his life on the way. Nguyen Van Xuan, from Dong Quach Village, Nam Ha Commune, Tien Hai, Thai Binh,” the author wrote in the diary.
From this single clue, along with the help from numerous locals and authorities, the researchers managed to contact with the family of deceased soldier Xuan. Through them, information on the true owner of the diary began to be revealed. He was veteran Nguyen Van Thien, a comrade from Tien Hai with Nguyen Van Xuan.
Thien said Xuan was not only the head of his battalion, but also a sworn brother that he loved. After Xuan died, Thien had always been keeping Xuan’s watch with him throughout all the years of battle, before returning it to his family.
“I wrote very clearly the day he died, both in accordance with the Gregorian and the lunar calendars, along with his hometown, in case I died on the battlefield, so my comrades could still tell his family his exact day of death for memorial ceremonies,” Thien said.
Thien never expected that those lines of writing were what helped bring the lost diary back to him after around 60 years, even in the forms of microfilm replicas.
Hai from the research project said: “The moment the diary was returned to veteran Thien under the witness of the U.S. president and the Vietnamese National Assembly chairman was moving. The silent efforts of the Harvard researchers have helped veterans like Thien to find their invaluable relics.”
Besides Thien’s diary, the Harvard project has also provided reports on 563 deceased soldiers from the Vietnamese side. The reports were given to Vietnam’s Ministry of National Defense by the U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken during Biden’s meeting with Hue in Hanoi.
Hai said the documents that needed to be verified were mostly handwritten, incomplete or damaged by environmental factors. Besides technological difficulties to recover the lost data, the documents were also written in multiple dialects across Vietnam, which was also an obstacle. To avoid mistakes, researchers had to translate many documents into Vietnamese first, Hai said.
He added that the project has been an “official bridge” helping authorities and the people of Vietnam and the U.S. to resolve the consequences of war.