1969 saw some of the fiercest battles of the VietNam war. In the province of Quang Ngai, in December of that year, a young US intelligence officer, in a mission to destroy documents taken from the enemy, made an astonishing discovery.
“In December 1969, Frederick Whitehurst was stationed in Quang Ngai province, in what was then South Vietnam. Assigned to the 635th Military Intelligence Detachment near Duc Pho, he was burning captured enemy documents that seemed to have no military value.
Whitehurst and Nguyen Trung Hieu, his South Vietnamese interpreter, were standing 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 the diary and said, ‘Fred, don’t burn this. It has fire in it already,'” Whitehurst says.
The diary was that of 27-year-old Dang Thuy Tram.
“My interpreter was a very loyal soldier to the southern government,” Whitehurst says. “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 and five pages, you can see this is something that needs to be preserved.”
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.’
That’s the first entry in the diary that Tram began shortly after arriving in Quang Ngai, fresh out of medical school, to care for wounded Viet Cong and North Vietnamese soldiers. She went willingly, eagerly, according to her mother, to fight the Americans.
Whitehurst, says he, too, went willingly to war.
“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.”
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?
Tram’s diary is filled with passages like that 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.
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?
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 Tram’s family.
“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 1990s, Whitehurst says he started approaching authors and people in the movie industry about the diary.
“The idea I had was that this diary will be a book, it would be a movie and the family would see it. Then I can find them that way.”
But that didn’t work. Last year, Whitehurst and his brother Robert, another veteran who had been translating the diary, decided to donate it to the Vietnam Center at Texas Tech University, hoping researchers there might have better luck. They did.
Just a few weeks later, a volunteer found Tram’s mother in a tiny apartment in Hanoi. The volunteer, a photojournalist named Ted Englemann, presented Doan Ngoc Tram, 82, with a copy of her daughter’s diary.
“When I saw it, I recognized the handwriting as hers,” Tram’s mother says. “And then I felt as if my daughter was here, standing right in front of me.”
What Tram had to say came as a shock, she says.
“When she wrote letters, she never told us anything that made us worry,” Doan Ngoc Tram says. “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.”
But many in Vietnam 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. 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.
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.
The diarist’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.
“Her writing is true,” Kim Tram says. “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.”
In Vietnam, the book is being turned into a film. In the United States, Tram’s diary will be published 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 3 million Vietnamese and 58,000 Americans dead. As many as a million Vietnamese are still missing.
Whitehurst says Tram’s story — and how she tells it — still gives him pause.
“I’m not a pacifist, I’m not at all,” he says. “I come from a military family. 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 called 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?”
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. She stayed behind to look after some wounded.
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.”
(Clarification After this story aired, many listeners wondered about this discrepancy: Frederick Whitehurst says he found the diary in December of 1969, but the last diary entry is June 1970.Whitehurst says the diary came to him in two parts. The first time, in Decem-ber 1969, Dang Thuy Tram had lost the diary. She dropped it while moving from one location to another. The second part came to Whitehurst several months later, shortly after the doctor's death. He also believes there may have been one more volume, but it hasn't surfaced and was probably lost in the fog of war.)
I discovered Dang Thuy Tram’s diaries when I visited the Vietnam Center and Archive at the Texas Tech University. I cannot express the sense of wonder I then felt, moved to tears by what Dang wrote in the middle of hell, but also by the actions of Frederick Whitehurst, my sort of hero.