The Death and Life of Dang Thuy Tram

CounterPunch published this piece by Medic in 2006.

After an ambush, bodies were scavenged for souvenirs–money, pistols, photos, etc. Anything important was sent to military intelligence.

“Don’t burn this one. It has fire in it already,” said Fred Whithurst’s interpreter in 1970. Ignoring orders to burn all items without military value, the young Captain Whitehurst kept the diary of Dang Thuy Tram, a female civilian doctor who worked with the NVA, hoping to one day return it to her family. For thirty years his searches led nowhere, but in 2005, through a friend, a copy of the diary was sent to Thuy’s aging mother in Hanoi. Soon afterwards, the diary was published. A startling 300,000 copies were sold in Vietnam. In America, the book takes its title from this entry: “Last night I dreamed of peace. I came back and saw everybody. Oh, the dream of peace and independence has burned in the hearts of thirty million people for so long.”

Thuy’s diary is not a literary account of combat. The language is simple, at times redundant. It contains few compelling tales of gallantry or heroism. Instead, over the three years she fought against the Americans and treated badly wounded soldiers, starting at the age of twenty-four, Dr. Dang Thuy Tram recorded how she longed for friends and family, pined for the love of an NVA officer, and wrote of her complete devotion to the Communist Party. She recorded almost daily self-criticism, expressed deep insights into herself and others, praised her comrades, rallied against physical hardships and secret sorrows. Here and there, she pens brief accounts of ambushes, harrowing close calls, and her beloved soldier’s self-sacrifice. Numerous times she invokes the ultimate victory against the foreign invaders. The ‘Yankee bandits’, she calls them.

Towards the end, as the American attacks increase in ferocity, as casualties mount, as death draws near, her exuberant tone and self-confidence wane, but still she summons hope. Her last entry reads: “Come to me, squeeze my hand, know my loneliness, and give me the love, the strength to prevail on the perilous road before me.”

Then one day in June, this shy, young, attractive woman, this diminutive leader and devoted daughter to country and family, is dead.

Film maker Neil Alexander has spent considerable time assembling the back story of the diary’s return. During the war, Fred Whitehurst and his interpreter roughed out an English translation. WhitehBà Doãn Ngọc Trâm, the mother of Dang Thuy Tram. urst was deeply moved by it, and once home, was haunted by Thuy’s steadfast beliefs.  Alexander, a personal friend of Nam veteran Rob Whitehurst, Fred’s brother, accompanied the two men to Hanoi. They met Thuy’s mother, and Thuy’s surviving sisters, visited the doctor’s school, the locale where she died, and her grave site. Finally, the brothers are received by the nation when the diary is first published.  In private, they worship at the Tram family altar to the spirit of Thuy. Madame Tram and her daughters fly to the United States, and at Texas Tech they are presented with the original diary. In North Carolina they visit the Whitehurst family. In Washington, DC, Madame Tram and Robert clasp hands at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. The film ends full circle: in Vietnam, Thuy’s passionate words are enthusiastically read by a generation who have not known war.  At this writing Alexander is in post production and hopes to complete the film soon.

There are varying accounts of Thuy Tram’s death. In the US translation, the epilogue states that a platoon from the Americal Division spotted four individuals on a trail; Thuy and a NVA soldier were killed.  According to Neil Alexander’s website the platoon’s shouts for surrender were met with rifle fire, Thuy’s group firing back, and three, including Thuy, were killed. Robert Whitehurst has written to me that Dang was possibly a kill or capture target for the 52nd Rangers,

But the book’s introduction provides an ominous hint of what might have really occurred: “The American troops returned, and several days later she was found by a highlander of the local H’re people, dead with a bullet through her forehead.”

It’s possible that Thuy Tram was either executed or shot at close range. On both sides, such things happen in war. And Thuy’s unit, the Central Trung Bo NFL, part of the 145th Viet Cong Infantry, had inflicted heavy casualties on Delta 4/21st,  Americal. As Robert Whitehurst stated to me in an email, “The Vietnamese tell of broadcasts from US helicopters which asked for Thuy to surrender, to be treated well and to go on to medical school in the US. There are several reports of that so I tend to believe them. She was known to the command, by name, and was a target for capture or elimination.”

Made up of three separate brigades, the Americal Division in Vietnam will forever be linked with 1968′s notorious (and some say one of many) massacres committed by US and allied troops. In her introduction to the diary, Frances Fitzgerald notes that the Americal was known as the Army’s worst combat unit: its 11th Light Infantry Brigade was unusually troubled. And Pinkville, an area nicknamed for its rose color on GI maps, denoting heavy VC activity, would forever be associated with the slaughter of civilians at the hamlet called My Lai. Pinkville was also the vicinity of Thuy Tram’s death.

In a burst of naivete I thought: “What better way to conclude the film than to locate the shooter, apprise him of the diary, the Whitehursts, Neil Alexander’s project, the notion that all has been forgiven, and that a grateful nation (theirs, not ours), and Madame Tram et al will forgive and welcome him with open arms.”

In the summer of 1998, this writer met the former NVA soldier Bao Ninh, author of the acclaimed novel The Sorrow of War. The encounter, marked by much weeping and long embraces, proved a turning point. Blinded by enCULT BOOKS3218thusiasm, I contacted persons acquainted with Pinkville.  A flurry of emails lead to one source asserting that he likely knew the man or men who killed Thuy. Imagining  that the shooter or his accomplices would eagerly step forth to redeem themselves, I informed this source of the likely outcomes of rapprochement: the merciful purging of life long guilt; the easing of attendant shame; the quieting of nightmares and fitful sleep; a triumphant and welcoming return to Vietnam. This, I believed, would make for the film’s perfect ending.

After careful consideration, the source declined to name those he believed murdered Thuy. He described their angry outbursts when her death was discussed, and feared for their emotional well being.  He intimated his own safety was at risk. Better to drop the matter, he said. Leave it alone.

Of course he was right. It is one thing for grim-faced infantry, slogging through jungle, hunting and being hunted by other human beings, to kill and scavenge and sometimes torture or mutilate survivors after an ambush. It is quite another for a clean safe well-groomed rear echelon officer to examine captured enemy documents without benefit of terror.

Fred Whitehurst had the emotional clarity and moral courage to return Thuy’s diary to her family. But it is simplistic to think that the persons who killed her would gladly step into a spotlight’s merciless glare. War is a bruBao-Ninh-his-wife-Robert-and-Fredrick-Whitehurst-Hanoi-Vietnam-2006.-Seetal, ugly, and nasty business that especially scars the front line combatant. The men who shot Thuy may have kept the deed secret out of terrible shame, and/or fear of being charged with war crimes. It is also possible that they had committed other illegal acts.  Better to hide the truth. Shut it down. Lock it behind an impenetrable gate and throw away the poisoned key. For some who have survived combat killing its memory is a way of life.

How could I have missed the obvious? Easy. I wanted a story book ending. But things don’t often work that way.

Ten years ago, with much fraternal fanfare, sixty-five American and Vietnamese vets, many of them war wounded, bicycled together, the 1,200 miles from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City. All was smooth sailing until the group reached My Lai. Nearly every American angrily refused to visit the massacre ditch or the monument to the slaughtered. Political manipulation was the reason cited. But an infantry officer could barely choke back his tears. He had lost too many good men under his command, and would not dishonor their memory. A group of villagers and survivors’ next-of-kin confronted the American vets. Cursed them. Wept and spat. After a time, awkwardly, the cyclists re-mounted and departed. For some, in every war, old rivers of blood will forever run deep.

On the other hand, citizens and soldiers have long spokenout against war. Most famously, in 1971, Vietnam Veterans Against the War held the electrifying Winter Soldier Investigation. For three hectic days in Detroit, one hundred and nine veterans and sixteen civilians described war crimes they had committed or witnessed. Cynics, among them B. G. Burkett, have raised doubts about their credibility. Gerald Nicosia’s rebuttal in Home To War: A History of the Vietnam Veterans’ Peace Movement, instructive.BOOK COVER LAST NIGHT I DREAMED OF PEACE

In March 2001 Iraq Veterans Against the War gathered at the National Labor College near Washington, DC to conduct Winter Soldier: Iraq and Afghanistan. Veterans and civilians gave personal accounts of sometimes ghastly and sometimes haunting and other times redemptive, but always remarkable events often censored by the main stream media. It was an historic occasion.

The hopeful diary of Dang Thuy Tram and the extraordinary journey of the Whithurst brothers’ have broken new ground in understanding war and its aftermath, a subject never short of students or survivors.

Addendum: In 2014 my source indicated that an individual who may have killed Dang Thuy Tram had committed suicide in 2011.

Addendum: In July 2020, fourteen years after writing this article, Medic received an email from Robert Whitehurst. He noted that over time he’d posted queries to veterans groups, hoping to hear from men in the unit indicated in the after action reports which documented Thuy’s death. Years passed. Then an email from a member in the platoon who was actually one of two point men on the day Thuy died. Robert confirmed the man’s service record through NARA. After an email exchange the two met in person. The veteran told Robert that he and the other point man were down hill, well in advance of the platoon, when they heard rifle fire up on the trail. As they ran back to the platoon they passed Thuy’s body. She had been killed only moments before. The Kit Carson’s, said the veteran, felt she was some sort of medic. The platoon felt much the same. Robert sent this information to Thuy’s family, who’d recently been told someone had information on Thuy’s capture and subsequent death in August 1970. Given the indisputable facts, many Vietnamese and Americans who hoped to be part of that narrative realized they were wrong. Robert also learned that Thuy was most probably killed by several rounds, and not necessarily the bullet to her forehead. Hit by rifle and machine gun fire, the gunner man could probably be identified, even now, but why pursue it? Thuy had not been captured, tortured, raped or abused. She had died quickly under fire.

Vietnam: Long Time Coming (an excellent documentary about American and Vietnamese vets bike riding from Hanoi to Saigon)