A Diary That Crossed the Battle Line

The Trâm family, Đặng Thùy Trâm’s mother is seated at right, reading her diaries for the first time. (Photo © 2005 by Ted Engelmann)




Ted Engelmann helped direct air strikes in Việt Nam, worked to establish a counseling program for veterans after the war, became a teacher, and began making photographs—artistic, documentary, stunning—of veteran-related events in the U.S., Việt Nam, and our allies there, Korea and Australia. He also embedded with troops in Iraq and Afghanistan and brought back a photographic record of those wars. He thinks a lot about memory—the traumatic sort, but also the historic, cultural, and sociopolitical memories that should never be erased.

In March 2005, he was invited to give a presentation at the preeminent Việt Nam Center and Archive at Texas Tech University. At the time, he was putting together a photographic memoir, so when he skimmed the conference schedule and saw the word “diary,” he thought, “Oh, good! Somebody is teaching people how to write! Go see that.”

The presenters were two brothers, Fred and Rob Whitehurst. Both had served in Viet Nam. Rob was a tugboat captain and had gone to Vietnamese language school; Fred did intel work near Duc Pho, reviewing seized documents and destroying any that had no military value. Among the documents seized was a diary—followed by a second diary—written by a young physician who had worked for two years in a nearby Việt Cong field hospital. She was ambushed and killed in June 1970 by U.S. troops.

The diary had no military significance. The physician, Dr. Đặng Thùy Trâm, poured out her heart, moved by the suffering of the soldiers, agonized when she had to set bones or do surgery with only Novocain as anesthetic, moved by their courage in brushing off the pain to make it easier for her. Through his translator, Fred also read about her homesickness, her eagerness to join the Communist Party and drive foreigners from her land, and her slow mending from an unrequited love affair. “That person doesn’t deserve me, does he?” she asked herself lightly. Courage, resilience, and resolve blazed through the elegant, old-fashioned cursive handwriting.

The normal procedure would be to toss the diaries into a 55-gallon drum with other inconsequential documents and set them afire. He hesitated, and the translator exclaimed, “Don’t burn that! It has fire in it already.”

Fred broke procedure and brought home the diaries. After earning a Ph.D. in chemistry, he became a supervisory special agent with the FBI. What he saw in the crime lab disturbed him. So he blew the whistle, exposing procedural errors and misconduct. His actions opened the way for extensive reforms—and in the interim, forced him to sue the government for retaliating. He won an unprecedented $1.42 million settlement, and because of his case, President Bill Clinton directed the U.S. Attorney General to establish whistleblower protections for all FBI employees.

Meanwhile, Fred had gone to law school. He had also thought more seriously about those diaries, which would have been impossible to return while he was in the FBI. His brother had managed to translate most of the content, helped by his Vietnamese wife, but there were language differences between the North and the South, so some of the text remained a mystery. Rob reached out to the Texas Tech archive, and they arranged for the brothers to present at the conference, then leave the diaries for the archive.

Engelmann sat in the audience watching Fred, this clearly brilliant guy who looked classically FBI—muscled, broad-shouldered, and clean-cut, with a flat-top haircut—“blubbering at the podium.” The emotion moved Engelmann, who went up afterward and said, “I’m flying to Ha Noi in four days. Is there anything I can do for you there, anything I can bring back?”

The Whitehursts had a few beers with him that evening, and Rob handed him a CD. In the blur of all the talk, Engelmann was not quite sure what he now had in his possession. When he reached Ha Noi, he asked a Vietnamese friend to translate the contents.

Rob had scanned every page of the diaries, cover to cover. The woman who was translating began to cry as she read. She pulled the CD from the computer and handed it back, saying, “I can’t do this for you.”

He took it to another friend, leaving the CD with her while he flew to Sai Gon for a few days to photograph the ceremonies for the thirtieth anniversary of the fall of South Việt Nam. April 30 would be Reunification Day.

On April 24, he woke in his Sai Gon hotel with an inexplicable, searing stress headache. He was desperate for dark and quiet, but his phone rang insistently. When he answered, a woman said, “I understand you have diaries. I’m in Ha Noi. I want to see you.” He promised to return the next day, scrapping plans for Reunification Day. As soon as he had booked a flight, the headache subsided, which struck him as odd. He flew back and found the CD waiting for him at his hotel.

That evening, an SUV pulled up outside the hotel to pick him up. The woman who had called was the youngest sister of Đặng Thùy Trâm. She was taking him to meet her mother.

Engelmann had no idea how his friend had even found the Trâm family. Years later, when they had a chance to talk at length, she explained that she had not been terribly interested in what she was translating until she came upon the name of Đặng Thùy Trâm’s father—who happened to be her family physician. Then she reached a description of Đặng Thùy Trâm’s mother meeting her for the last time at a hotel, a former French convent, which was now the translator’s office building. They could have said their last goodbyes in her office.

Unable to contain herself or wait for Engelmann’s return, she contacted the family. When he walked into the family home, it was crowded with relatives, reporters, and camera crews.

“I was almost scared,” he recalls now. “What was I getting into? I didn’t know what my friend had told the family. So the family now knew things I did not know about what I had brought.”

His unease soon dissolved. The mother, Doãn Ngọc Trâm, was warm and gracious and reminded him of his mom. Her brothers, colonels in the North Vietnamese army, treated him with flawless courtesy. Far more, he thought privately, than he ever received as a veteran in his own country.

Engelmann brought up the CD and scooched over so Doãn Ngọc Trâm could read, for the first time in thirty-five years, her daughter’s words. Her daughter’s worry that if she dies, her mother “will suffer forever because her child has fallen in a fiery battlefield. Oh, Mom! What can I say when I love you a hundred, a thousand, a million times over and still I had to leave your side.”

The youngest daughter completed the translation easily and had the diaries published in Việt Nam. The book sold more than half a million copies—in a country where six thousand is a bestseller. In 2007, Random House published an English-language version. Francine Prose called it “remarkable,” writing in O: The Oprah Winfrey Magazine that the diaries were “a gift from a heroine who was killed at twenty-seven but whose voice has survived to remind us of the humanity and decency that endure amid—and despite—the horror and chaos of war.” The Chicago Tribune said the book should be “included in any course on the literature of war…. A major contribution.”

Engelmann watched with deep satisfaction. It was good for the world to hear Đặng Thùy Trâm’s words. It had been good for him to read the diaries of someone “on the other side” and see the same need for courage, the same impulse toward common human decency. He nodded at her frustration when the Communist Party rejected her, sure that because her father was a physician and her mother a university professor, she was already a corrupted bourgeois. He had felt similar frustrations with his own political system.

Đặng Thùy Trâm’s body was recovered from the south and brought back to Ha Noi. She was buried in a martyr’s grave, alongside the soldiers she had cared for so tenderly, so they could protect her in the afterworld. The Communist Party, at first shocked and resistant, saw that their rejected applicant was a beloved martyr: “She is now an esteemed party member,” Engelmann says wryly. He spent the reunification anniversary visiting her grave with her family.


Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.