U.S., Vietnam exchange personal war artifacts
Monday Jun 4, 2012
HANOI, Vietnam —
The U.S. and Vietnam on Monday exchanged personal items recovered during the Vietnam War in the 1960s, marking the first time the two nations have swapped such artifacts.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Vietnamese Defense Minister Gen. Phuong Quang Thanh traded the items during a meeting at K2000, Vietnam’s military headquarters.
The U.S. returned a diary that was recovered from Vu Dinh Doan, a Vietnamese soldier killed in the war. Robert Frazure, a Marine, took the diary following Operation Indiana in 1966, according to Pentagon officials.
Quang Thanh presented personal letters of Army Sgt. Steve Flaherty, who was killed in action in 1969.
In addition, the Vietnamese government has granted the U.S. access to three locations that might contain the remains of U.S. troops who have been missing since the Vietnam War.
Hanoi-based Detachment 2 of the Joint Prisoner of War Missing in Action Accounting Command is responsible for locating and identifying U.S. service members’ remains in Vietnam.
Detachment 2 was established in 1991. It was the first U.S. government presence in Vietnam following the war.
About 100 American officials are serving on teams searching for remains in Vietnam. More than 500 Vietnamese officials are also part of the recovery teams. The teams search for remains on land and in coastal waters.
There are still 1,284 Americans unaccounted for from the Vietnam War. The majority of the victims went missing after their aircraft were shot down during the conflict.
“All of these efforts, hopefully, will result in us sending Americans home,” Ron Ward, a casualty resolution specialist at JPAC Detachment 2, said Monday of the three newly opened sited during a briefing with reporters.
U.S. officials are not totally sure why potential remains sites across Vietnam have been restricted.
In all, there have been about 34 restricted sites. The Vietnamese government said the locations were restricted because they were in sensitive border areas or in military restricted zones, Ward said.
The U.S. has lobbied for access to these sites for several reasons: The acidic soil in Vietnam erodes bones quickly. Many witnesses to potential sites are more than 70 years old, with fading memories. And the families of the missing servicemen are also aging.
With the opening of the three additional locations, there are only eight restricted sites remaining, Ward said.
The majority of the missing remains are believed located near the former demilitarized zone between North and South Vietnam.
Two of the three locations opened to U.S. recovery teams are believed to be the sites of aircraft crashes. The other is believed to be the location of an Army private first class killed in combat.
The first site, in central Vietnam’s Quang Binh province, is believed to be the location of a 1967 crash of an Air Force F-4C. Two airmen are missing.
The aircraft was flying from Cam Ranh Bay airfield but never returned from the mission and is believed to have been shot down by enemy fire. JPAC found the site of the crash in 2008, but the Vietnamese government restricted access to the site.
The second site, in Kon Tum province near the triborder area between Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, is believed to be the location of the Army private first class who went missing in 1968.
“We have … witnesses that we believe can take us to the site,” Ward said.
The private’s unit was on a search-and-destroy mission in January 1968 around the time of the Tet Offensive, Ward said.
“Recently, our research and investigation team located witnesses that talked about this case, and we hope they’ll be able to lead us to a site associated with the case,” he said.
The third site is believed to be the location of a Marine Corps F-4J aircraft. The aircraft was on a surface-to-air missile suppression mission when it was shot down by ground fire in Quang Tri province near the demilitarized zone.
One member of the two-person crew ejected prior to the crash and was rescued. The other is still missing.
“This site needs to be excavated,” Ward said.
Here is background information on the artifacts, as provided by the Defense Department:
Sgt. Flaherty’s letters
In March 1969, Army Sgt. Steve Flaherty of Columbia, S.C., was killed in action in northern South Vietnam while assigned to the 101st Airborne Division. Vietnamese forces took Flaherty’s letters and used excerpts for propaganda broadcasts during the war. At that time, Vietnamese Senior Col. Nguyen Phu Dat retained the letters and following the war and contemplated how to return them to Flaherty’s family. Decades later, Phu Dat referenced the letters in an August 2011 Vietnamese online publication about documents kept from the war years.
In early 2012, Robert Destatte, a retired Defense Department POW/Missing Personnel Office employee, found the online publication referencing the letters and brought the issue to the Pentagon’s attention. The State and Defense departments began work with the Vietnam Office for Seeking Missing Persons to assist in returning the letters to the Flaherty family. Now that Secretary Panetta has received the letters from the Vietnamese government, the Office of the Secretary of Defense will work with the United States Army Casualty office to present the letters to the surviving family.
Vu Dinh Doan’s diary
In March 1966, 1st Platoon, Bravo Company, 1st Battalion, 7th Marines, was engaged in a firefight near Quang Ngai during Operation Indiana.
Following the battle, Robert “Ira” Frazure of Walla Walla, Wash., saw a small red diary on the chest of Vu Dinh Doan, a Vietnamese soldier who was found killed in a machine gun pit. Frazure brought the diary back to the U.S. Frazure was discharged from the Marine Corps in November 1966 after three years of service.
Also in March 1966, a friend of Frazure, Gary E. Scooter was killed in action during Operation Utah. Decades later, Frazure was introduced to Scooter’s sister, Marge, who was conducting research for a book about Scooter’s life and service in the Marine Corps. Frazure asked Marge for her help to return the diary to the family of Vu Dinh Doan. In February 2012, Marge Scooter brought the diary to the PBS television program “History Detectives” to research and find the Vu Dinh Doan family. Last month, after finding the family, detectives asked the State Defense departments to help return the diary to the Vietnamese government so it can be returned to the Vu Dinh Doan family.
Excerpts from the letters
The following are quotes from the four Flaherty letters:
Letter to “Betty”
“I’m sorry for not writing so long but we have been in a fierce fight with N.V.A. We took in lots of casualties and death. It has been trying days for me and my men. We dragged more bodies of dead and wounded than I can ever want to forget.”
“Thank you for your sweet card. It made my miserable day a much better one but I don’t think I will ever forget the bloody fight we are having.”
“RPG rockets and machine guns really tore my rucksack.”
“I felt bullets going past me. I have never been so scared in my life. Well I better close for now before we go in again to take that hill.”
Letter to “Mother”
“We couldn’t retrieve the bodies of our men or ruck sacks and when we brought air strikes, jets dropped napalm and explosives that destroyed everything that was there.”
“I definitely will take R&R, I don’t care where so long as I get a rest, which I need so badly, soon. I’ll let you know exact date.”
“If Dad calls, tell him I got too close to being dead but I’m O.K. I was real lucky. I’ll write again soon.”
Letter to “Mom”
“Our platoon started off with 35 men but winded up with 19 men when it was over. We lost platoon leader and whole squad.”
“The NVA soldiers fought until they died and one even booby trapped himself and when we approached him, he blew himself up and took two of our men with him.”
Letter to “Mrs. Wyatt”
“Our company and Alpha Company lost a total of 50 men in fierce fight.”
“Our platoon leader was killed and I was the temporary platoon leader until we got the replacement. Nothing seems to go well for us but we’ll take that ridge line.”
“This is a dirty and cruel war but I’m sure people will understand the purpose of this war even though many of us might not agree.”
** More about Panetta’s Asia trip