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Mementos of War



Sang approached me at break time. "Teacher, I have problem. My father, he live in Vietnam. He find four dog tag from U.S. soldier. He find bone too. He keep in box under his house."

"How does he know they're from American soldiers?"

"Sure! He send the letter."

"Where did your father find them?"

"He farmer. He cut the tree and he see."

"Did he send you the dog tags?"

"He make copy. I show you."

"What does your father want? Money?"

"No! He give to family in U.S. But he afraid. Maybe he go to jail if Vietnam government find out he talk to U.S. Army."

Sang is not the first student with news from the war. I've heard lots of other stories teaching English to adult refugees at Truman College. Many of the Vietnamese students in the college's refugee program arrived just in the last year or two, though they've been trying to come here since the war ended. For them, the war is not history; it is their life. And they carry it with them in little bits.

"Bring me the copies of the dog tags," I told Sang, expecting him to show up with them later that week. "I'll see what I can do."

He nodded and disappeared down the stairs. I thought he went for coffee, but he didn't come back after break. A half hour later he returned with a worn envelope. Inside were rubbings of four dog tags: Cooleen M., Dep. Daughter of Baumgartner, F., Catholic; Corrin, Roy J., Pentecostal; Gutierrez, Gilbert, Methodist; Riedel, Bruce P., Congregational.

I was stunned and for a moment couldn't speak. "Do you remember the war?" I finally asked the rest of the class. No one responded to my question. They just looked at me, expressionless. I asked Sang to explain in Vietnamese. They just looked at him too. A few nodded.

The next morning I called a local Army recruiting office to find out whom I should talk to. A friendly recruiter promptly put through a three-way call to Tom Vhay at the Pentagon's MIA/POW office. Vhay looked up the four soldiers' names on a computer and matter-of-factly declared that they weren't listed as missing. I thanked him for checking, and he hung up.

The Chicago recruiter stayed on the line. He asked about my students. I told him some of them were former soldiers who'd spent time in reeducation camps. Over the last few years several had insisted they'd seen American soldiers as prisoners. "You're kidding," the recruiter said. "Someone ought to know about this." He thanked me for calling, and I hung up.

He must have notified someone else at the Department of Defense, because later that day I got a call from John Glover, an intelligence officer at the MIA office in Arlington, Virginia. Sang's father's find was no big deal to him. "People call in dog tags all the time," he said. As if following procedure, he asked for Sang's address and phone number, adding that his office had "a Vietnamese on staff so we don't mistranslate something like this." He boasted that he'd just been assigned to the "live sightings" division, and explained, "The government will investigate the bones and dog-tags thing, but more than likely the bones don't belong to the soldiers and this will turn out to be another case of a poor Vietnamese peasant hoping to extort some money out of the U.S. government."

Then he said, "I heard a couple of your students said they saw American soldiers as prisoners."

"That's right," I said. "Maybe four or five students since I started teaching a few years ago. And I'm just one teacher. I don't talk to everybody."

"I'm not surprised," he said. "Lots of Vietnamese refugees report live sightings."

"Why hasn't someone bothered to follow up?"

"We do. Most sightings are reported during the exit interview with immigration officials. It's one of the questions on the form. Rest assured that we look into every single sighting reported."

"These students, a couple former commanders, acted very upset that no one seemed to be doing anything."

"We intend to interview Vietnamese refugees. That's our next step. In fact, I may be coming to Chicago."

He reminded me to tell Sang that someone would be calling him. "I'll let you know what comes of this dog-tag thing," he promised.

That was three months ago. Last week Sang came up to me on break. "Teacher, what happen? Why nobody call? It a long time!"

"I don't know. I gave them your number," I said.

One of my more advanced students has switched roles with me and is trying to teach me Vietnamese. Two weeks ago Phuong laughed and told me that the way I pronounced the Vietnamese word for "English" changed the meaning to "crazy." But then he assured me that if I practiced I would eventually get it, and told me he'd once talked with an American who spoke flawless Vietnamese. "I don't believe it, but I heard him speak the same as me."

Phuong had been interviewed by the man when he was in a refugee camp in Malaysia. Earlier, camp officials had driven around in a jeep with a portable PA system announcing that if any refugees had information about missing American soldiers it could help them get to the U.S. sooner. "They lied to us," Phuong said. "They give us nothing for helping them."

When he left Vietnam Phuong smuggled out a roll of microfilm and bits of bone and teeth, remains from a downed U.S. fighter jet, that his uncle, a high-ranking government official, had given him. His uncle hoped the microfilm would open a door for Phuong, maybe even bring him a reward. Phuong mimed unrolling the microfilm and pointed to three frames in the air. "In three pictures you can see American soldiers. One picture, one soldier. Too skinny! They hold the prison number under their neck. Another picture you see the big table with many American bones on it. They made little white signs and wrote the number of the U.S. plane for the bones. You can read the number in the picture. Very clear." His uncle claimed the pictures had been taken in 1979.

Phuong had carried the microfilm and bone fragments in a secret pocket he'd sewn on the inside of his jacket. His uncle had given him explicit instructions: "Don't show this film to anyone unless the person works for the U.S. Army." During his exit interview in Vietnam Phuong was asked if he knew anything about missing American soldiers; he said he didn't because the man conducting the interview wasn't an American soldier.

But the man who interviewed him in Malaysia had been a pilot during the war. He'd been shot down in 1970 and spent three years as a POW in Hanoi. Phuong thought it was safe to give him what he carried in his secret pocket.

"What did the man say when you handed him the microfilm?" I asked.

"Thank you," Phuong said, still sounding shocked. "'Thank you.' He only say 'Thank you.' That's all. 'Thank you.' I carry the film, the teeth, and the bone pieces in my pocket all the way from Vietnam. A long way. If they find me, I get in big trouble. Maybe I die. For sure I die! My uncle tell me to take the film, the small pieces of the bone, the teeth, maybe it will help me get to the U.S. quickly. But the man only say 'Thank you.' That's all he do for me. He take it and say 'Thank you."'

"What about the American prisoners? What do you think happened to them?"

"I don't know. He take the film. It's gone. Maybe they gone too."

"What year was this?"


"Do you know the name of the man who interviewed you?"

"Yes. He gave me the small card. It have his name. I keep it at home in a special place. Always I keep it. It make me think about what happened to me." He paused. "Thank you." He shook his head. "They give me nothing. Only send me back to the camp."

Phuong brought the card to the next class. It was tucked in a clear plastic pouch with faded pictures of his father and his brother, both in uniform.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Jon Randolph.

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