Fallen soldiers’ last words finally make it home, more than 50 years later.
Ron Milam glanced around as a crowd slowly filled the room.
Two sisters were already holding hands, their lips quivering and their eyes blinking repeatedly, struggling to hold back the tears that threatened to overflow. Even more than 50 years after their father was killed in battle, their pain was still palpable.
Nearby sat an elderly woman, her once shiny black hair now mostly gray. She was there to honor the young man she'd been engaged to five decades ago, before he'd become a victim of the same war. She'd now lived more than twice as many years without him as she'd lived when she knew him.
These family members of North Vietnamese soldiers killed during the Vietnam War could easily have hated Milam. He'd been on the other side – an American soldier in Vietnam – and he'd fought against soldiers like those being remembered. And yet, they looked at him with gratitude – him and the entire group from Texas Tech University who were there that day to return to the families a piece of those they lost.
Milam, now the executive director of the Institute for Peace & Conflict; Steve Maxner, director of the Vietnam Center & Sam Johnson Vietnam Archive (VNCA); and seven study abroad students had traveled from Lubbock to Vietnam to share with these families the letters and diaries recovered from the battlefield during the Vietnam War.
Perhaps you wouldn't expect a handful of 50-year-old documents to be life-changing. But one mother clutched the diary she'd been given, tears streaming down her face, and told them, “It is as if I am holding the soul of my dead daughter.”
Lost and Found
The story of these documents began on the battlefield.
The letters were written by North Vietnamese soldiers to their families during the Tet holiday of 1967. Some had left behind their spouses and children in addition to parents and siblings. Because the Tet holiday in Vietnam is typically marked by families spending days together in celebration, the letters reflect the longing all soldiers feel when they are far from home – their hopes, wishes and desires to return home as soon as possible once the war was successfully over. They also contain messages of encouragement to stay strong and supportive of the soldiers fighting.
Although not written for families to read, the diaries contain similar sentiments. They provided an emotional outlet for soldiers to express their longing for home and family, to celebrate their successes, and to express their frustrations and hardships throughout their travel from North Vietnam to the South and in combat during the war.
These letters and diaries were captured by U.S. soldiers during a major combat operation in South Vietnam's Tay Ninh Province on March 24, 1967. That means they represent some of the last sentiments expressed by these North Vietnamese soldiers before they were killed in battle. The diaries, in many cases, were taken from their bodies, and the letters never made it home to their intended recipients. Instead, they were sent to Saigon to become part of the U.S. captured document collection.
In all, the U.S. military recovered more than 2.7 million pages of North Vietnamese documents and materials during combat operations, all of which had to be evaluated for military intelligence information. The U.S. military eventually developed a computerized microfilm system called the Combined Document Exploitation Center (CDEC).
In the late 1990s, Texas Tech's VNCA purchased a copy of the microfilm from the U.S. National Archives and created the CDEC Collection.
“Given the size and scope of the collection, we quickly realized the best way to make the collection accessible for researchers was to digitize the collection, which we did in the early 2000s,” Maxner said. “The challenge then became converting the scanned microfilm into a usable database, which we started to develop in 2004. Our first effort involved manually processing files and, after we processed several thousand, we realized the collection contained very valuable documents for the study of the Vietnam War but also contained very personal documents like letters and diaries.”
Coincidentally, in 2005, the VNCA received a Vietnamese soldier's diary from an American veteran who'd kept it all those years. The VNCA helped return the diary to the family in Hanoi.
“The powerful impact of that experience, witnessing how the family embraced that diary as one of the most meaningful treasures they possess, inspired us to continue searching for similar documents within our newly digitized CDEC Collection that could be returned to other families in Vietnam,” Maxner said. “We view this as a humanitarian mission where families on all sides of the war are still searching for meaning in the sacrifices made. This is a universal aspect of the human experience at war and one that all nations can comprehend and have empathy in understanding.”
As the VNCA continued to develop advanced database tools for the CDEC Collection, a fully searchable database was launched in 2014.
“Since then, we have been processing the individual documents, adding additional information to database records, and identifying personal materials we would like to return to families,” Maxner notes. “We first discovered these letters and diaries in the spring and early summer of 2022 and immediately realized the importance of returning them to Vietnamese families.”
Alex-Thai Dinh Vo, a dedicated research assistant professor in the VNCA, wrote the initial reports on all the letters and diaries, collecting information from each piece about the soldier who wrote it. Then he worked to identify organizations in Vietnam that shared the VNCA's vision to return such meaningful materials to families.
“Given the widespread national interest of the government and people of Vietnam in accounting for their own missing from the war, Dr. Vo was able to contact several groups and individuals who have been involved in this important work for the past 20 years or longer,” Maxner said.
The VNCA partnered with the Soldier's Heart Club in Hanoi and its chairman, Col. Dang Vuong Hung, who has written numerous books about the Vietnam War, including several large compilations of Vietnamese soldier diaries and letters. Given his work as a researcher over the last two decades, Hung had developed a substantial following on Facebook and an extensive network of contacts.
“After establishing a rapport with Col. Hung, we agreed to engage in a ‘proof of concept' project where we would share a set of letters and diaries with him, and he would use his network of supporters throughout Vietnam to try to identify and locate surviving families,” Maxner explained. “Within days of receiving those materials, Col. Hung notified us that he had found several families, and within a week or so, he had found six. As we were already scheduled to be in Vietnam for our summer study abroad program, we coordinated with Col. Hung to organize the ceremony to return the diaries and letters to those families.”
Maxner, Milam and their seven students went to the Vietnamese Women's Museum in Hanoi on June 2 for an event that would honor both the fallen soldiers and their surviving families. They were joined by dozens of others – surviving family members and friends, war veterans, interested citizens and members of the media.
“The reactions of the families upon receiving the letters and diaries were incredibly emotional with tearful thanks to us for returning the materials to them and their families,” Maxner said. “It is obvious they still grieve for their fallen, especially so for the families where the soldier's remains are still missing and not yet returned home. For Vietnamese families, remembering the fallen from the war is a prominent part of their lives, as most families maintain altars within their homes where they engage in daily rituals that serve to honor and remember their ancestors, including those lost in the war.
“Adding to these overwhelming feelings, these were personal letters and diaries that were captured during the war and had never before been seen by the families. These very personal treasures have profound meaning for the surviving families as they provide insights into their fallen soldier's thoughts, hopes and dreams before being killed in combat.”
Milam, Maxner and the students experienced their own range of emotions, from profound sadness to incredible humility.
“In those brief moments, we modestly shared in their enduring feelings of grief and loss,” Milam said. “There was no way for us to fully comprehend their feelings, and we felt incredibly privileged to meet them and return to them something that brought both renewed sadness but also a small measure of comfort and solace.
“Nothing can possibly replace that soldier, but that letter or diary is a lasting and enduring part of them. It is something that the family can hold, treasure and share that also provides a sense of connection with their fallen soldier. To receive such heartfelt and gracious responses from Vietnamese families whose soldiers were killed in combat by fellow Americans was humbling, unexpected and truly remarkable.”
While this project spotlights the human impact of the work that goes on in the VNCA, it's only a fraction of the research's overall scope.
“In terms of the amount of work that remains for us at the VNCA – it is truly staggering,” Maxner said. “More than 2.7 million Americans served in Vietnam, yet we only have approximately 4,000 collections and 1,500 oral history interviews. We're realistic and realize we will never be able to collect materials from or conduct interviews with most of those veterans. Regardless, we remain firmly committed to working with as many American veterans as possible to make sure their legacy of service and sacrifice during the Vietnam War is preserved at Texas Tech and is never forgotten.”
To help fund this ongoing work, the VNCA is one of the university's key priorities for this year's Day of Giving.
The VNCA's world-class set of documents, materials and artifacts of the Vietnam War is rivaled only by the U.S. and Vietnamese National Archives. It continues to receive new and important veteran document and material collections every week, and countless more are expected for many decades to come.
However, this year's Day of Giving donations will benefit a more time-sensitive project.
“Of incredible and more immediate importance for us and for our nation is to make sure we also collect and preserve what our Vietnam veterans and other wartime participants remember about their personal experiences during the war,” Maxner said. “Our Vietnam War Oral History Project is dedicated to interviewing veterans and wartime participants about their experiences so students, scholars and the public can listen to veterans tell their own history in their own voices – and that is the strength of oral history.
“Our interviews tell the story of the Vietnam War as seen through the personal lens of each individual participant. They include the powerful emotions and feelings of men and women at war – sentiments that are impossible to glean from government and military documents and reports. Oral history interviews tell us about the human experience of war and the lasting impact of those experiences on veterans and their families.”
Collecting these experiences is labor-intensive work; a lot of preparation goes into conducting each interview, as well as the transcribing and editing of that interview once it's completed. But it's work that must be done now – or the opportunity may be lost.
“Our nation is losing more and more Vietnam veterans every day due to age and declining health,” Milam said. “The average age of our Vietnam veteran community is 73 years. We estimate that we only have another 10 to 15 years to interview them before it's too late and they are gone from us forever.”