October 7, 2005

A Daughter's 'Soul' Preserved by the "Enemy"

This story will give you the chills and give you some sense of the power of your personal Legacy Archives and the marvelous hand of fate.

A fiery book, a daughter's soul, the 30 year sore of a military intelligence officer and a publishing phenomenon in Vietnam. Vietnamese family reunites with fallen daughter by Elliott Blackburn.

Doan Ngoc Tram fell to her knees before the small cardboard box.
Her three daughters crowded close, holding her, as two small bone clasps were carefully undone and the lid of the box lifted. Two small, brown books sat side by side.

Ngoc Tram wept. The stoic woman clutched the diaries of her eldest daughter against her chest for the first time.

"This is the spirit of my sister," her daughter Dang Hien Tram later said through an interpreter. "This is my sister's soul."

The family had traveled thousands of miles from home to see the memoirs Wednesday, now held at the Texas Tech Vietnam Center.

The diaries hold the intimate details of the last few years of a young battlefield surgeon's life. They describe hiding in a trench filled with water to the neck, reciting poetry to pass the time. They share the private anguish of a young doctor's losing war on death.

They are of skies of fire and cratered earth, of battle-ravaged hospitals staffed with revolutionary fervor, of the love of family and country.
They are tales captured by an enemy that protected them for three decades; two diaries that joined two families separated by war.

A fiery book
Fred Whitehurst was standing before a drum of burning documents when his life changed.

A fiery book
Fred Whitehurst was standing before a drum of burning documents when his life changed.

Whitehurst was a military intelligence officer in his twenties, a self-described country boy from North Carolina who arrived in Vietnam in March 1969. As a non-commissioned officer in military intelligence, he interviewed prisoners and combed through captured documents with the help of South Vietnamese translators.

Documents with military value were sent to Saigon, but there was no place to store the captured poetry, letters from home and personal documents written by North Vietnamese soldiers or sympathizers.

Whitehurst routinely burned thousands of such documents in a 55-gallon barrel on the site, per military orders. But he was struck when a translator thumbed through a diary he had picked up from the pile and stopped him.

"Don't burn this one, Fred," Whitehurst remembered him saying. "It has fire in it already."

--
The sore
Fred held on to the diary for more than 30 years, hoping to return the book to Thuy's family.

"It was one of those unfinished things; it was like a sore that continued to bother and bother him," Robert said. "We talked about it on and on for 30 years."

At first, there was no way to find the family - Vietnam was off limits during the 1970s, he said. Fred considered a book or movie based on the diaries to attract the attention of the family. He dreamed of using any profit from the deal to build a hospital in Vietnam, a dream he now sheepishly described as childish.

"That's a stupid idea, a movie idea," Fred said.

The translations grew more refined. Robert, a riverboat pilot in the Vietnam War, spoke the language. Now a tugboat captain in New Orleans, he would spend each month he wasn't at sea translating the diaries his brother had recovered, struggling with his rusty Vietnamese and immersed in the story.
---

Finding Madam Tram

Ted Engelmann woke up to a ringing cell phone and splitting headache.

It was late April. Engelmann was in Vietnam hoping to complete the last phase of his life's work: a 37-year book project chronicling the changing memorials and scenes from four countries ravaged by the Vietnam War. He too was a Vietnam War veteran, an Air Force sergeant who directed air strikes.

Only a few days earlier, Engelmann had briefly met Fred and Robert Whitehurst. The social studies teacher listened to their hour-long presentation on the diary at the symposium, and volunteered to take a CD of scanned images to Hanoi.

It was late April. Engelmann was in Vietnam hoping to complete the last phase of his life's work: a 37-year book project chronicling the changing memorials and scenes from four countries ravaged by the Vietnam War. He too was a Vietnam War veteran, an Air Force sergeant who directed air strikes.

Only a few days earlier, Engelmann had briefly met Fred and Robert Whitehurst. The social studies teacher listened to their hour-long presentation on the diary at the symposium, and volunteered to take a CD of scanned images to Hanoi.

Now he was awake with a searing stress headache and Dang Thuy Tram's very excited sister on the phone.

"When can you be here?" she asked.

Engelmann said he moved every six months or so to different countries, and had developed contacts in Vietnam. He had landed in Hanoi carrying the disc, and sought the help of Lady Borden, a Quaker with good connections in the country.

Engelmann explained his mission to two of her assistants, expecting little. They called a hospital on the outskirts of the city referenced in the first recovered diary, but made no immediate progress, so he left. He was now in Ho Chi Minh City (previously Saigon), where he planned to shoot his final frames on the 37th anniversary of the fall of the capital.

The phone call was confusing, but the woman was insistent, he remembered.

"Then I realized who they were," Engelmann said. "Half my brain was hurting like hell, and the other half was trying to figure out how to help."

Tram's sisters and brother-in-law picked him up at the Hanoi airport. They traveled to a narrow concrete home with cream-colored walls. Engelmann carried his laptop and the CD of diary images in through the front door to a living room, and almost stepped back out in shock.

The house was packed with relatives and television camera crews.

"There were just so many people in there, and I didn't know who any of the people were," Engelmann said.

The entire home was not much larger than a typical American living room, he said. About 15 or 20 people crowded a small den of cushioned chairs and couches. A vase of white flowers - Thuy's favorite, he was told - stood next to one couch. Beyond was a small kitchen with a large table set for a great meal. Upstairs, under a ceiling that made the 6-foot-1-inch Engelmann bend over to stand, were bedrooms.

He took the place of honor at a kitchen table. He turned on his laptop, loaded the CD, and showed the family the two folders of images of the diaries.

"After that, I moved out of the way," Engelmann said.

Tears welled in the eyes of Thuy's mother, a gentle but strong 81-year-old matriarch, he said. He learned that earlier that year, in three major Vietnamese newspapers, the family had participated in news articles asking if anyone had any information about their fallen daughter. For months there had been no response.

Now an American veteran, an enemy soldier, had appeared unannounced to hand them their daughter's most intimate thoughts and memories on a disk.

"Here's a mom who's getting something back about her daughter," Engelmann said. "I was the guy who was able to give it to her, and I was just overwhelmed."


The believable hero

Ted Engelmann changed his plans, and finished his book with photographs from a trip he took with the Tram family to honor Thuy's grave. Fred Whitehurst was overjoyed to learn that the family had been almost immediately found, and traveled with his brother to Vietnam in August to meet the mother and sisters of the author who had haunted him.

Fred worried for years that the family would simply accept the diaries and then close the door. He returned with an adopted mother and sisters, he said.

"They really adopted us," Fred said. "How crazy is that?"

They quickly learned that the diaries had touched more than the Whitehurst family.

A normal press run for books in Vietnam is 1,000 - maybe 5,000 for very popular novels, said Quang Phu Van, a professor of Vietnamese Language and Literature in the Yale Council on Southeast Asia Studies.

The Dang Thuy Tram diaries, published this summer, have hit 200,000 according to the Vietnam Center.

Unlike previously published stories of war heroes issued by the government, tales of almost superhuman sacrifice and dedication, Vietnamese can relate to the stories of Thuy Tram and another recently published diary from a North Vietnamese soldier, Van said.

"This is something very genuine, and that's become a phenomenon in Vietnam," he said, adding that his father carries a copy of the diaries with him. "Someone who shared a loss of innocence, the guilt; this is something that people have a chance to see something different. Everyone talks about it."

Such stories are rare, said Vietnam Center associate director Stephen Maxner, though he wondered if more diaries kept by American soldiers would come forward after this.

Changing lives
The family wiped tears from their eyes and leafed through the diaries Wednesday morning at the Texas Tech Vietnam Center. At first overwhelmed with emotion, Thuy Tram's sisters thanked the archivists for preserving her diaries. Kim Tram hoped the stories would help bring the U.S. and Vietnam closer.

The Tram family found their sister and daughter again. The two handmade books with clean blue cursive writing had soul, they said.

"When we came to touch the diary, I had a feeling she'd come back with us," Kim Tram said through an interpreter.

Though they were not present, the experience had changed the Whitehurst brothers, too.

"I understand a lot more about the whole thing I was involved in as a young man because of this," Robert said. "I don't think I'll ever completely let go of it."

Fred dismisses his role in the story: "All I am is the camel that carried the water across the desert." He does not want closure from the war, does not want to forget what happened, he said. He does not want accolades.

He wants his mother to meet his adopted mother, which they will do later this week. And he takes joy in one final bit of serendipity - the popularity of the books has inspired a drive to build a hospital in Dang Thuy Tram's name, he said.

"Every flipping penny of it is going to a hospital in Pho Cuong," Whitehurst marveled. "My foolish, kind of childish dream of hospital beds in Duc Pho, it's coming true. To continue her life's work through such a bizarre path - me? It makes the hair stand up on the back of my neck."

Posted by Jill Fallon at October 7, 2005 2:10 PM | Permalink