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A Wartime Diary Touches Vietnamese

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A Wartime Diary Touches Vietnamese

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A Wartime Diary Touches Vietnamese

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris.

President Bush's visit to Vietnam this week gives us the opportunity to bring you this story about a book that's being compared to the Diary of Anne Frank. It was written during the Vietnam War by an idealistic young Vietnamese doctor who was killed in the fighting. The diary has become a runaway best seller in Vietnam, but here is the twist - until last year, the diary was in the U.S. with a former American soldier turned FBI agent.

NPR's Michael Sullivan has the story.

MICHAEL SULLIVAN: In December, 1969, Fredrick Whitehurst was stationed in Quang Ngai Province in what was then South Vietnam, assigned to the 635th Military Intelligence detachment near Duc Pho, burning captured enemy documents that seemed to have no military value.

Mr. FREDRICK WHITEHURST (Former American soldier): We were standing out by a 55 gallon drum. I'm throwing things in there and they're burning. And over my left shoulder - and I remember this - Nguyen Trung Hieu was looking at this diary and said, Fred, don't burn this. It has fire in it already.

SULLIVAN: Hieu was Whitehurst's South Vietnamese interpreter. The diary was that of 27-year-old Dang Thuy Tram.

Mr. WHITEHURST: My interpreter was a very loyal soldier to the Southern government. The fact that he would put himself at risk by saying don't destroy her words was very impressive to me. And if you read just very quickly into the diary, four, five pages, you can see this is something that needs to be preserved.

Ms. DAN THUY TRAM: (Through translator) “April 8, 1968. Today I did an appendectomy without enough medicine, just a few tubes of Novocain. But the wounded young soldier never cried out or yelled. He just kept smiling to encourage me. I felt so sorry for him, because his stomach is infected. I would like to tell him, Patients like you, who I cannot cure, cause me the most sorrow.”

SULLIVAN: That's the first entry in the diary Dang Thuy Tram began shortly after arriving in Quang Ngai, fresh out of medical school, to care for wounded Viet Cong and Northern soldiers. She went willingly, eagerly, according to her mother, to fight the Americans.

Frederick Whitehurst, the man who saved her diary, says he too went willingly to war.

Mr. WHITEHURST: You know, I joined the Army to go kill communists. You know, I wasn't against the war at all, and I think very effective as an American soldier. I didn't damn my army or damn my nation. But that wasn't what it was about. It was just, I'm a human being and she's a human being and I just saw that we needed to save that rather than throw it away.

Ms. TRAM: (Through translator) “April 30, 1968. Sadness soaks into my heart like days of rain soak into the earth. I want to find some mindless happiness, but I cannot. My mind has wrinkles already because of worry. Is there no way to erase them? Oh, why was I born a girl so rich with dreams and with love, asking so much from life?”

SULLIVAN: Dang Thuy Tram's diary is filled with passages like this one, along with stories of amputating limbs and trying to avoid American planes and foot patrols, which often forced her and her colleagues to move their field clinic, sometimes carrying the wounded on their backs. The diary presents the story of a young woman filled with love and yearning and self doubt. And a deep animosity toward the American invaders.

Ms. TRAM: (Through translator) “July 25, 1968. Oh, my God. How hateful the war is. And the more hate, the more the devils are eager to fight. Why do they enjoy shooting and killing good people like us? How can they have the heart to kill all those youngsters who love life, who are struggling and living for so many hopes?”

SULLIVAN: Frederick Whitehurst returned home in 1972 after three tours of duty. The diary went with him against orders and into a drawer of his filing cabinet. It stayed there while he went to grad school and joined the FBI. All the time, he says, he was thinking about how to return the diary to Dang Thuy Tram's family.

Mr. WHITEHURST: When I joined the FBI, of course, I couldn't approach, say, the Vietnamese embassy because FBI agents don't talk to communists. It just doesn't happen. So I pretty much had to do this thing around the edges.

In the early ‘90s, I started approaching authors and people in the movie industry, and the idea I had, Michael, was that this diary would be a book, it would be a movie and the family would see it. Then I could find them that way.

SULLIVAN: But that didn't work and last year, Whitehurst and his brother Robert, another veteran who had been translating the diary, decided to donate it to the Vietnam Archives at Texas Tech University, hoping researchers there might have better luck. And they did.

(Soundbite of dog barking)

SULLIVAN: Just a few weeks later, a volunteer found Dang Thuy Tram's mother in this tiny apartment down a narrow alley not far from the Ho Chi Min Mausoleum in Hanoi. The volunteer, a photojournalist named Ted Englemann, presented 82-year-old Doan Ngoc Tram with a copy of her daughter's diary.

Ms. DOAN NGOC TRAM: (Through Translator) When I saw it, I recognized the handwriting as hers. And then I felt as if my daughter was here, standing right in front of me.

SULLIVAN: Reading the diary for the first time was painful, she says. Sometimes too painful.

Ms. TRAM: (Through Translator): When she wrote letters, she never told us anything that made us worry. But when I read the diary, I could see just how terrible it really was, beyond our imagination. Some parts are so painful, I still cannot read them.

SULLIVAN: But many here can't put the diary down. More than 430,000 copies have been sold so far in a country where the average print run is about 2,000.

Dang Thuy Tram's unvarnished, uncensored account of war - which includes sometimes biting criticism of the Communist Party - has struck a chord among readers who are used to more sanitized and stylized depictions of the war and the party.

Ms. TRAM: (Through translator) “Aug. 20, 1968. Submitted my application for membership to the party. A few people are responsible for finding something to criticize me about. I don't know what to do about it. Life is just that way. Even if you strive for and get the best results, sometimes you cannot advance as well as a person less capable but better connected.”

SULLIVAN: Dang Thuy Tram's sister, Kim Tram, says she believes young people in particular are drawn to the book because of its honest depiction of life during the war.

Ms. KIM TRAM: (Through translator) Her writing is true. There is no exaggeration. And it touches young people very much. It makes them truly understand how horrendous the war was. And how people still loved each other and took care of each other despite this. Young people are deeply affected by this.

SULLIVAN: In Vietnam, the book is now being turned into a film. In the U.S., Tram's diary will be published in English by Random House next year - 40 years after she left medical school for the southern jungle to fight in a war that left an estimated three million Vietnamese and 58,000 Americans dead. As many as a million Vietnamese are still missing.

Frederick Whitehurst.

Mr. WHITEHURST: I'm not a pacifist, I'm not at all. I come from a military family. You know, I'm a company man. But I've always known since in Vietnam when I did it, when you put a bullet into a human being you cannot take back that thing called life. You cannot get it back, and Dang Thuy Tram describes so deeply what that thing is, that thing life. And a bullet went right through her forehead and in that instant, she was gone. Can we think of another way to do this?

SULLIVAN: Dang Thuy Tram was killed in a firefight on June 22, 1970. Two days before her death, she wrote the final entry in her diary. Her colleagues had left, fleeing an American advance. Dang Thuy Tram stayed behind to look after some wounded.

Ms. TRAM: (Through translator) “June 20, 1970. Until today no one has returned. It has been almost 10 days since they left and promised to come back. Why haven't they returned? Is there a problem? We didn't think anyone would leave us like this.

“I am not a child. I am grown up, and already strong in the face of hardships. But at this minute, why do I want so much a mother's hand to care for me? Or the hand of a close friend? Please come to me and hold my hand when I am so lonely. Love me and give me strength to travel the hard sections of the road ahead.”

SULLIVAN: Michael Sullivan, NPR News, Hanoi.

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