Pop Culture
Jun 25, 2009, 11:16AM

35 years later...

Dr. Tham's diary was returned.

Ted Engelmann stepped into the house on Doi Can street in Hanoi, entering a small room full of people. At the centre sat an old woman in a chair, her hair white and her smile warm. “Good afternoon, I am Doan Thi Ngoc Tram, Dr Tram’s mother. I welcome you to our family,” she said gently.
Engelmann, an American who had served in Vietnam, had imagined this meeting many times before, but this was not how he expected it to unfold. 
“To be honest, I thought that I would not be warmly welcomed in this family, because in the US the Vietnam War is still a very heavy, difficult time of history,” Engelmann told me later. “This family had lost Tram to the war, which has caused enormous pain.”
Although the war ended for Engelmann over three decades ago, he carried a piece of the war with him when he arrived in Hanoi: the diary of Dr Dang Thuy Tram, who fought and died for the nation’s freedom. 
Engelmann had a CD-ROM that contained copies of two diaries written by Dr Tram, the last pages of which were composed only a month before she died. Her words were finally being reunited with the family.
Early this year, a seminar about the Vietnam War (called the American War in Vietnam) was held in the US. Two veterans of the conflict, Fred and Robert Whitehurst, gave a presentation about a diary they found during the war that was written by a Vietnamese doctor. 
Fred Whitehurst had been holding on to the diary for more than 35 years with the hope that one day he would locate the author’s family and return it. The diary contains warm and loving words about Vietnam and humanity. For Fred, the diary was all that remained of a great soul that he was lucky enough to encounter.
Fred cried when talking about the diary during the seminar. The presentation had a great effect on another war veteran, Ted Engelmann.
“This April I will go to Vietnam to finish my photo collection about the country after the war. I have been to Vietnam 11 times and, who knows, maybe I will be able to find the doctor’s family this time,” Engelmann told Fred Whitehurst.
They scanned the diary onto a CD-ROM that made the trip to Vietnam with Engelmann.
“At first I thought that I would have to face an empty house in Hanoi, that maybe all of the family members had moved. Things would be very old with an old picture hanging on the wall. It could be a portrait of the doctor, the author of the diary. I would not meet anyone from her family but I would try to take some photos to bring home to Fred,” Engelmann said.
Ted arrived in Vietnam at the end of March. Having spent much time in Vietnam, Engelmann has many friends here. One of them is the American writer Lady Borton, who has been living in Vietnam for more than a decade and is an expert on the country. 
Borton helped Engelmann find the doctor’s family. They went first to the Dong Anh Hospital where Dr Tram’s father used to be deputy director; but the hospital sent them to the Pharmaceutical University where Doan Thi Ngoc Tram, the doctor’s mother, used to teach. There they discovered that the teacher had retired and moved to a new address. The search at a dead end, Engelmann traveled to Ho Chi Minh City to take photos of the reunification celebration.
Although Engelmann had a great time in Ho Chi Minh City, he felt anxious to return to Hanoi and resume his search. 
On the afternoon of April 25, Engelmann received a telephone call from Kim Tram, the younger sister of the diary’s author, who had tracked him down with the help of the university. He immediately flew back to Hanoi.
When he finally arrived at the house, he was greeted warmly.
“It has been many years since the death of my daughter, and my family knew that she had a diary, but we were sure that it was lost,” Dr Tram’s mother said.
“Through the letters that she sent from the front, we all imagined the difficulties of the war, the too-small gap between life and death. However, we believed in her, because we knew that she was a strong person,” she said.
After she died, the family recovered some of her belongings – but not the diary.
“That is why I am so moved to be seeing the words of my beloved daughter again, the last words just some months before she fell down. It’s like I can see her again, a dream that I never believed could happen,” she added. 
Fred Whitehurst remembers the day he found the diary “as if I am there right now”. 
He recounted the story: “The soldier was Sgt. Nguyen Trung Hieu. He was a translator working with the American unit to which I was assigned. And he was my very close friend. We had received many documents that day and when we finished looking for those with military value we took the rest to burn. 
“As I set fire to the documents he stopped me. He was holding your sister’s diary and told me, ‘Do not burn this book, Fred. It already has fire in it.’ I was so moved that he would honour an enemy soldier that I did as he asked. We sat together on evenings after that and started the translation. But soon the war took us over and I set the diary aside. 
“Your sister was, and is, special, and even this man, Nguyen Trung Hieu, who fought against her, was so moved by her heroism that he could not destroy her words. I have often wished to know where Hieu went after the war ended but have not been able to find him all these years. So you see, it was not simply me who carried Dr Dang’s words for these 35 years but a very courageous man, Nguyen Trung Hieu, who was so moved that he gave me the task.”
After finding the doctor’s family, Engelmann telephoned Fred in the US.
Fred wrote the following to the family:
“I am Frederic Whitehurst. I have carried the memory of your sister, Dr Dang Thuy Tram, for 35 years. I have carried her diaries for 35 years. It has been a dream of mine for these many years to find your family and the discovery brings me to tears too easily. A mother should know of her daughter’s days, a country should know of a hero such as Dr Dang. It seems so fitting that your mother should receive her daughter’s words almost 30 years to the date from the liberation of her country on April 30, 1975.” 
Robert, Fred’s older brother, spent a year in Army Language School learning Vietnamese before serving in Vietnam for two years in the early 70s. Fred served in Vietnam for over three years. 
Robert wrote: “Everyone to whom I have ever shown the work has been moved by her writing. We feel that she is not a private hero, meaning that though her memory is very precious to you and us, that there is a meaning for everyone in her work. Her words have a universal appeal, to all people. 
“Although she was on the opposite side of the conflict we were in, as early as 1970 Fred and I both felt that she was admirable, honourable and a good person. I hope after you have read the words from so long ago that you will eventually come to agree with this...that she belongs in a private way to you, but she also belongs in an important way to us all.
“I am so moved to know that Dr Dang’s remains did not stay in the jungle but were taken home to her family. I am also moved so deeply by all of this that it is difficult to type these words to see the computer screen through my tears.”
He continued: “My mother is also 81 years old and has known about this diary since I returned home from the war in 1972. When she read the original rough translation she told me to be careful of this because it could burn me. Her meaning was obvious. 
“Our countries were in conflict and my countrymen would see my describing Dr Dang as a hero as inappropriate. But my mother’s words were an echo of the very words from the Vietnamese soldier who told me not to destroy the diary.”

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