The Life and Death of a Young Woman Physician to the Viet Cong
John R. Guthrie
Between March and December of the pivotal year 1965, 200,000 members of the armed forces of the United States were added to the limited number of American military advisors already in South Vietnam. This marked the onset of the ground war in that small and impoverished nation of farmers and fishermen, the beginning of an era that still haunts our national psyche.
One of the many North Vietnamese who volunteered to make the three-month trek down the Ho Chi Minh Trail to help fend off the invaders was Dr. Dang Thuy Tram. It was 1967. She was twenty three.
She was called by her middle name, Thuy, by friends and family. At first she seems an unlikely candidate for such an arduous undertaking. She was a child, not of wealth, for no one was wealthy in North Vietnam, but of culture and privilege. Her long walk ended in Quang Ngai province in central Vietnam. Quang Ngai is an area both formidable and lovely at once, a region where the imposing mountains of the Truong Son range sweep down to the topaz grandeur of the South China Sea.
Thuy was the oldest of five children. Her mother was a pharmacologist. Her father was a surgeon--when he was eventually informed of Thuy’s death, he collapsed and died a short while later, this calling into question U.S. Commander General William Westmoreland’s assertion that ''The Oriental doesn't put the same high price on life as does a Westerner. Life is plentiful. Life is cheap in the Orient."
While Thuy’s formal training was in science and medicine, she was also fond of music. She was a guitarist and enjoyed listening to both European classics and popular Vietnamese music. She also relished poetry and literature. Her classmates recall her as alluring, wholesome and friendly, the girl with that charming smile.
Thuy was a public health service physician. In South Vietnam, she worked under the aegis of the National Liberation Front; the Viet Cong. In her small hospitals sequestered in the forested mountain redoubts of Quang Ngai, she received as many as eighty wounded soldiers at once. The hospitals were generally located in “free fire zones,” areas in which American policy allowed any Vietnamese to be shot on sight, the assumption being that they were either enemy soldiers or collaborators. Three of her hospitals in succession were overrun or destroyed by American aerial bombardment.
Whether amputating a shrapnel-torn limb or performing an emergency appendectomy, Dr. Tram proved to be remarkably adept. The diary entry for 8 April, 1968 reads, “Operated on one case of appendicitis without adequate anesthesia. I had only a few meager vials of Novocain to give the soldier, but he never groaned once during the entire procedure. He just kept smiling, to encourage me.”
The operation proved to be life-saving. The patient, Huyn Doan Sang, now approaching 70, still works in his family’s noodle shop in Duc Pho.
Thuy often evidenced a deep animosity toward the American invaders, as in her July 25, 1968 diary entry, “Oh, my God. How hateful the war is. And the more hate, the more the devils are eager to fight. Why do they enjoy shooting and killing good people like us? How can they have the heart to kill all those youngsters who love life, who are struggling and living for so many hopes?
Thuy’s prose is at times lyrical as well as emotionally charged: “Afternoon in the forest, the rain has left the leaves wet and fragile, pale and lucid in the sunbeams, these emerald hands of a maiden imprisoned within a forbidden fortress.”
She wept as she held the hand of a dying soldier, longed for her home and her family of origin, and pined for the love of her life, the mysterious “M” who was a captain in a North Vietnamese Army unit also in the south.
If Dr. Tram’s love-struck longing for “M” is a bit repetitious at times, this is readily forgivable. She is struggling with unrequited love as well as all the loneliness, fear and homesickness that are a young soldier’s due. She did not, after all, set out to be the writer of an historical document. The reader is engaged in the vaguely voyeuristic act of reading, without her permission, her private thoughts. She does demonstrate herself to be intelligent, sensitive, and caring. She’s also possessed of a streak of romanticism as wide and the Mekong River.
The diary, actually two small diaries, came into the hands of a young U.S. Army intelligence officer, Frederic (Fred) Whitehurst. He was preparing to burn the diaries but his South Vietnamese translator saying “'Fred, don't burn them; it already has fire in it.” Whitehurst kept the Diary for 35 years, always wanting to return them to the family, but unable to locate them. In 2005, he attended a conference concerning the Vietnam War at Texas Tech University. There, photographer and Vietnam veteran Ted Engelmann offered to attempt to locate the family on an upcoming trip to Vietnam. Aided by Do Xuan Anh, a staff member in the Hanoi Quaker office, Engelmann was able to find Tram's mother, 82-year-old Doan Ngoc Tram, and present Thuy’s diary to her.
The diary was first published in Vietnam. In a land where an average press run is 2,000, the diary sold 350,000 copies in its first year and continues to sell vigorously in a variety of languages. Thuy Tram became a folk hero. Her remains were moved from her remote grave and placed in a hero’s mausoleum.
On 20 June, 1970, Tram wrote, “No, I am no longer a child. I have grownup. I have passed trials of peril, but somehow at this moment, I yearn deeply for Mom’s caring hand. Even the hand of a dear one or that of an acquaintance would be enough. Come to me, squeeze my hand, know my loneliness, and give me the love, the strength to prevail on the perilous road before me.”
Two days later as Dr. Tram fled down a jungle trail, she and her companions were spotted by a patrol from the Americal Division. The Americans opened fire. Dang Thuy Tram fell dead with a gunshot wound through the forehead.
Her rucksack was found by her body. It contained a small Sony radio, bandages, Novocain, and sketches and notes concerning wounds she had treated. There was also a photograph of a North Vietnamese Army captain bundled with a number of poems written to him. The two books that made up her diary lay on the forest pathway close by. The long and perilous war of Dr. Dang Thuy Tram was over. She was 27.
Last Night I Dreamed of Peace: The Diary of Dr. Dang Thuy Tram
Harmony Books: (September 11, 2007)
Hardcover: 256 pp. $19.95
Dr. John R. Guthrie practiced family medicine in the Smokey Mountain foothills of Appalachia for years. As an adolescent he was a U.S. Marine infantry rifleman and later served as a physician in the U.S. Navy Reserve. He lives in Southern California and is a writer and social activist.
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