Diary of a Vietcong doctor: The Anne Frank of Vietnam

Dang Thuy Tram was only 27 when she died fighting US troops at a field hospital in Quang Ngai province during the Vietnam war. Now, four decades later, her diary has become a publishing sensation both in America and in her homeland. By David McNeill
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The Independent Online

So begins the diary of Dang Thuy Tram, a North Vietnamese army doctor who fought Americans in the Vietnam war and died defending her hospital from US attack. Since the diary's re-emergence this year after 35 years in the hands of a US veteran, it has become a phenomenon, selling more than 300,000 copies, generating numerous translations and a television show and causing a wave of patriotic nostalgia among young Vietnamese.

Those who have read it say it is the most compelling, honest account yet of a conflict that killed, by some estimates, between two and three million Vietnamese and other Asians, as well as 58,000 Americans. "She was my enemy but her words would break your heart," says Fred Whitehurst, the former soldier who saved the diary from the incinerator. "She is a Vietnamese Anne Frank. I know this diary will go everywhere on planet earth."

Dr Dang, from a prosperous family of doctors, volunteered for duty in a military hospital in the killing fields of Quang Ngai Province in central Vietnam in 1967. The diary begins there in April, the year after, when the Tet offensive had proved a turning point that convinced many the war against the Communists was unwinnable but which led President Richard Nixon to initiate one of the largest aerial bombardments in history.

As the bombing edged closer to her hospital, the diary records the mounting horrors Dr Dang witnesses in terms by turns worldly, compassionate and enraged. Worn out by the struggle to treat badly wounded comrades with aspirin and bandages, she writes in June 1970: "The dog Nixon is foolish and crazy as he widens the war ... How hateful it is! We are all humans, but some are so cruel as to want the blood of others to water their gold tree." In another entry, she writes how "death was so close" as the bombing "stripped the trees bare" and "tore houses to pieces".

Shortly before she died, aged 27, the bombs killed five of her patients. Dr Dang helped move the remaining patients and staff to safety and fought an American ground unit which was attacking the now-deserted hospital. "She was shot in the forehead," Whitehurst says. "She was told to surrender but laid down a field of fire. She was killed protecting her patients and nurses, fending off the heavily armed US Army with an old Chinese SKS single-shot rifle."

As a 22-year-old intelligence officer, Whitehurst reviewed recovered enemy documents. He was about to burn Dang's diary - "about the size of a pack of cigarettes" - when he was stopped by his translator, who said: "Don't burn this one, Fred, it already has fire in it." Whitehurst says: "I was so moved he respected his enemy that much I kept it." Later, he had it and the other Dang diaries translated. "It was obvious to me that this was a very beautiful person. I thought, 'I've got to get this back to her family'." So began a strange and remarkable journey that ended this year when Whitehurst was welcomed by the family of his old enemy "like a son" and fêted as a national celebrity in Vietnam.

A less likely candidate for a project of reconciliation would be hard to find. Whitehurst was, by his own admission, the gung-ho son of a military family who volunteered to fight the Vietnamese communists. "I'm a loyal American and I was raised in a very strict military family. I believed in the domino theory [which held that if one country came under the influence of Communism, others would follow like dominos, unless stopped]. Well, it didn't happen."

Whitehurst says his respect for authority began to disintegrate in Vietnam and was destroyed during his subsequent career as an FBI chemist, which ended when he exposed corruption and malpractice in, among other investigations, the 1993 World Trade Centre bombing; the über-patriot had become one of America's most celebrated whistleblowers. "The FBI HQ is like something out of an old movie about the Soviet Union," he wrote afterwards. "Everybody is terrified to breathe."

His bitter fight with the FBI cleared a path for publication of the diaries. "My desire all these years was to get the words back to her family, her country. Beyond this blasted thing called government, there is humanity and damn it if there isn't we're all going to hell. Maybe I could publish a book and use any funds for some good? But the FBI wouldn't allow its agents to collaborate with Communists. In the end, I didn't give a damn about the FBI."

Now a lawyer, Whitehurst showed the diaries to his brother Robert, also a Vietnam veteran who had married a Vietnamese. Robert became "obsessed" with the diaries and returning to Vietnam, but like many vets, Fred was terrified of going back. "I had a lot of issues when I came home," he says. "I saw and did a lot of crap. The memories left me crying and upset, and for five years I screamed in my sleep all the time."

The brothers took the diaries to a conference on the Vietnam war in Texas Tech University in March this year, where they met Ted Englemann, another vet looking for what he calls "closure" to the war and who was travelling to Hanoi the following month. He made digital copies of the diaries and with the aid of local Quakers, found Dr Dang's family, including her 81-year-old mother. By the time the Whitehurst brothers visited the family this summer the diaries had been published and Fred and Dr Dang were famous.

Initially fearful of what was waiting for them, Fred Whitehurst was astonished at the welcome they received. "We did to Hanoi what the Germans did to London in the Second World War. We were the invaders, for whatever reason. But the nation embraced us. The prime minister met us and thanked us, and as for the family: their father went into shock after his daughter's death from which he never recovered and that burdened that family enormously. They loved their daughter so much and still adopted me; the love of that. I was treated better there than I was by my own country."

The diary has caused a sensation, with everyone who has read it, from the legendary General Vo Nguyen Giap, who led the resistance to the French colonialists, when Vietnam was Indo-China, from the 1940s through to the French defeat and withdrawal after the 1954 defeat at Dien Bien Phu, then against the Americans until the fall of Saigon in 1975, to the present Prime Minister, Phan van Khai. Whitehurst was interviewed on state television and said the diary "belongs to the world". Asked to explain why he would fall in love with an enemy soldier, he replied: "I said the tears on your face are the same as the tears on mine. We all cry together."

Although this is not the first Vietnam war diary published, many Vietnamese say Dr Dang's account has struck a chord with young people because it comes raw with human emotions and unvarnished by government propaganda. Much of the official Vietnamese history of the anti-US conflict celebrates the heroic sacrifices of loyal Communist cadres, immune to the fear, hate and longing for love that all soldiers feel.

Dr Dang switches from the language of a lovelorn teenager who desperately misses the mysterious "M" to earnest revolutionary, recalling the words of "Uncle Ho" [the Vietnam Communist leader Ho Chi Minh] and Lenin: The revolutionary is a person with a heart very rich and filled with love. "I am that way already." Nguyen Duc Tinh, a radio announcer from Hanoi, says: "She writes the truth about her feelings, and despite everything she loved people. It comes straight from her heart. I think a lot of young Vietnamese are impressed at the way she was ready to sacrifice her life. I hope people around the world will read it to understand the truth about the Vietnam war."

The last entry in the diary, written days before Dr Dang died, is unbearably poignant. "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 really the hand of a close friend, or just that of a person I know who is all right? Please come to me and hold my hand when I am so lonely, love me and give me strength to travel all the hard sections of the road ahead."

The youngest Dang sibling, Kim Tram, is fielding requests to publish the diary in English, Japanese, Korean, Chinese and French. Next month, she will travel to the US with her mother to pick up Dr Dang's diaries from Texas Tech University. Just 14 when her sister died, she says she remembers her as "gentle and fragile". She added: "I never imagined how hard and dangerous her life was. I was not surprised to know her longing for our parents, for our home in Hanoi. But now I've read her words I can sense her loneliness." Kim Tram says she is grateful to have met Fred Whitehurst. "I consider him a kind-hearted and honest man with a mind of great depth. I really respect him. And like him."

And the man who held on to the diaries all those years wonders how much the world has changed. "An Iraqi mother will one day be in the same position as Mother Dang. Why are we in Iraq? I don't know. When you commit men to war, it has to be based on truth; to enrich yourself off other men's blood is wrong. I'm a Republican, dyed in the wool, but our President didn't have the courage to go to Vietnam. He let his Daddy get him out. You can't know the vulgarity of war until you've been there, until you've been splattered with your friend's blood."

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