In a moment that held great significance during U.S. President Joe Biden’s recent visit to Vietnam, Thien was finally reunited with a notebook that he had long believed was lost forever.

It all began about a year ago when Thien received a phone call inquiring about whether he was the writer of a war diary.

Upon hearing this, Thien immediately recognized the diary in question as the notebook he had misplaced during the ‘Junction City’ military operation in early 1967.

Now, after several decades, the diary serves as a powerful reminder of the intense war and the camaraderie Thien shared with his fellow soldiers.

Thien, who is the only son of a martyr from Vietnam’s revolution against France, was exempt from conscription during the American war in Vietnam. However, as the war escalated in 1965, the 17-year-old Thien felt compelled to join his fellow countrymen in the war effort.

After numerous attempts and applications, Thien was finally granted permission to join the war.

Months later, after undergoing extensive training with a 443-strong air defense battalion from Thai Binh, Thien traveled south to engage in battle.

It was during this time, amidst the heart-wrenching loss of brave soldiers on the battlefield, that Thien began documenting his observations and emotions.

According to Thien, losing the diary felt like losing a part of himself and the memories that shaped his youth – both the profound and agonizing moments.

During those days, soldiers were restricted in terms of what war-related information they could document. As a result, Thien refrained from including personal details in the diary, believing he would never see it again.

Years later, as a group of Vietnamese researchers at Harvard University worked on the ‘Unseen Legacies of the Vietnam War’ project, they stumbled upon Thien’s diary.

As they flipped through the pages, the researchers came across a note written by Thien mourning the loss of a comrade.

“February 13, or the 24th day of the first lunar month, [is] the most sorrowful day as my brother, my comrade, laid down his life while on duty. Nguyen Van Xuan, [in] Dong Quach Village, Nam Ha Commune, Tien Hai, Thai Binh,” Thien had written at the time.

In early 1965, when Thien’s battalion made a stop in the Central Highlands province of Kon Tum, some soldiers, including Thien’s close friend Nguyen Van Xuan, were tasked with collecting rice for the battalion.

Unfortunately, Xuan contracted malaria during this rice-gathering mission and passed away. Before he died, Xuan left three keepsakes for Thien and asked him to give his watch to his wife in their hometown.

Xuan’s death marked the first fallen soldier in Thien’s battalion.

Dr. Nguyen Hai, the director of the ‘Unseen Legacies of the Vietnam War’ project, stated that it was Thien’s note about Xuan that gave the researchers hope of finding the rightful owner of the diary.

Subsequently, the researchers visited Xuan’s family in the hopes of shedding light on the identity of the diary’s owner.

During the meeting, Xuan’s daughter expressed her belief that Thien was the author of the diary. Furthermore, she revealed that Thien had returned to Thai Binh in 1972 to seek treatment for wartime injuries and had brought Xuan’s watch with him, placing it on his altar where it remains today.

Martyr status recognized after almost 6 decades

As part of President Biden’s visit to Vietnam, the U.S. Department of Defense handed over a report from Dr. Hai’s team regarding the fate of 563 Vietnamese martyrs.

Vietnam goes to great lengths to locate the remains of martyrs as a means of honoring their sacrifice for the country.

One such martyr was Dang Thanh Tuan from An Duc Commune, Hoai An District, Binh Dinh Province in south-central Vietnam, who was recognized as a martyr more than 50 years after his death in late 2022.

Tuan, who was studying in the north as a student from the south, wrote letters in his own blood to request enrollment in the army in 1964. His request was granted in 1965.

In early 1966, he left home for the south, and his family never heard from him again despite spending nearly half a century searching for information.

Fortunately, with the support of various individuals, the family discovered documents confiscated by the U.S. military during the Vietnam War that were available online. These documents included a list of Vietnamese martyrs and their death notices, with Dang Thanh Tuan’s among them.

In early 2020, Tuan’s family wrote to the U.S. Embassy in Hanoi, seeking assistance in verifying the information.

After much research, Dr. Hai and his team unearthed a significant amount of information on Tuan. As a result, on September 8, 2022, the Vietnamese prime minister issued a decision recognizing Tuan and eight others as martyrs in Hanoi and Hai Duong Province.

“We leave no stone unturned, as we understand that a single piece of paper can determine the fate of a soldier or family,” said Hai.

The ‘Unseen Legacies of the Vietnam War’ project is part of a memorandum of understanding signed in July 2021 between the Vietnamese Ministry of National Defense and the U.S. Department of Defense.