A Vietnamese War Diary Finally Goes Home

By Jennifer Silverman, Series Producer
5 June 2012
Category: Behind the Scenes

Photo: Secretary of Defense Leone E. Panetta presents Vietnamese Minster of Defense, Phung Quang Thanh, with the diary of a Vietnamese soldier from the Vietnam War while visiting Hanoi, Vietnam, June 4, 2012. DoD photo by Erin A. Kirk-Cuomo (Released)

 

It's not often I get a call from the Pentagon. And by "not often," I mean, never before last week.

One of the rewarding things about working at History Detectives is the surprises that happen every day. Normally, those surprises are about American history - uncovering details about events and people from sometimes hundreds of years ago. But this time, it was something very present.

In early February, an incredible woman named Marge Garner contacted History Detectives. Her story was immediately compelling. In the process of writing a book about her brother, Pfc. Gary Sooter, who was killed in Vietnam in 1966, she befriended one of his 1st battalion-mates, Bob "Ira" Frazure. They formed a long distance friendship and through many calls Bob unburdened himself with stories of his combat experiences and his knowledge of Gary.

Bob said on March 28, 1966, soon after Gary's death, he took part in a battle "Operation Indiana," in Quang Ngai Province. There were many casualties on both sides. After the firing had subsided Bob began to recover dead and wounded, when he came across the body of an NVA soldier in a machine gun pit. On his chest was a small red diary. Inside was a photograph of two young women. He took the diary, and with mixed emotions has held on to it for 46 years. He told Marge he doesn't know what to do with the diary - he can't throw it away, but how to return it, to whom, or how?

Marge contacted History Detectives, and for months, Wes Cowan and the research team of Katherine Brown and Tierney Bonini have been working to track down the family in Vietnam and learn the story behind this diary and photograph. What they have uncovered is remarkable. We set a date in June to film with Marge and Ira next week to reveal the information.

And then we got a call from the Pentagon.

Months ago, the team contacted the American Embassy in Hanoi for help. Our information and request eventually made its way to the Department of Defense.

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta was about to embark on a trip to Vietnam. Once there, he was meeting with Vietnamese Defense Minister Phung Quang Thanh. At the meeting, Secretary Panetta was scheduled to accept the letters of an American serviceman who died in 1969, U.S. Army Sgt. Steven Flaherty. What if Secretary Panetta returned the Vietnamese Diary at the same event, so it could get to the family in Vietnam?

This was a tough decision for us. History Detectives is built on human connections - meeting and interviewing people, learning their history face to face. Although the show has never traveled beyond North America, we were considering that trip, if we found the family in Vietnam. Giving the diary over, while an amazing larger gesture between two countries, takes away from the possible small connections between people that we do so well.

Not only that, finding the family was still an issue.

Interestingly, one of the consultants on Vietnam that Katherine and Tierney were working with had a different take on the situation. He spoke of the honor that would be bestowed on the Vietnamese family if the diary came from their government. In contrast, receiving the diary from an American television show could mean less to them.

After speaking with Marge and Ira, we got the diary and photograph to members of Secretary's staff. How we got it to them in 24-hours? Well, that's another story.

Monday in Hanoi, the emotional event took place, and we are gratified for everyone involved that it is receiving press. We forget sometimes that these soldiers were real - that they had families, wrote letters, kept diaries, and took pictures. The Vietnam War is "history," yes, but the high-level attention and commitment to this diary and Sgt. Flaherty's letters prove it is also immediately present.

Tune in on October 2nd to find out how this remarkable story unfolds.

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