Let’s learn a bit more about Thuy’s remarkable diary and the journey it took to publication, shall we? Dang Thuy Tram, born in Vietnam in 1942, was a young doctor. During the Vietnam War, she worked for the People’s Army of Vietnam and Vietcong as a battlefield surgeon, clinic supervisor, and medical teacher. On June 22, 1970 she was killed by a patrol from the US 4th Battalion, 21st Infantry Regiment while fleeing from a clinic that was undergoing repeated attacks. She was 27 years old. The last two years of her life are chronicled in her diaries, published as Last Night I Dreamed of Peace.
“Last night I dreamed that Peace was established, I came back and saw everybody.”
Following Thuy’s death, her diary was discovered by Fred Whitehurst, a 22 year old military intelligence specialist under strict orders to burn any documents he encountered without military value. He defied these orders. Instead, choosing to follow the advice of a South Vietnamese translator who said, “Don’t burn this one. . . . It has fire in it already.” He kept Thuy’s pages for 35 years, hoping to some day return them to her family.
His search for her family initially fell short. Whitehurst had returned to the U.S. after the war and pursued a career in chemistry, earning a Ph.D. and joining the FBI. Eventually, he enlisted the help of his brother Robert, another Vietnam vet, and the two of them brought the diary to a conference at Texas Tech University, home of a Vietnam Archive, in 2005.
At the conference, they met up with a photographer named Ted Engelmann who was planning a trip to Vietnam for work. He offered to do some scouting efforts for the brothers while there. It worked! Engelmann located Thuy’s mom.
Shortly after finding themselves in possession of scanned copies of her work, Thuy’s family had the diary published in Vietnam. Nhật ký Đặng Thùy Trâm rapidly became a hit. 300,000 copies were sold in less than a year and reviews drew comparisons between the wartime diaries and the work of Anne Frank.
Amidst the success of the publication, the Whitehurst brothers traveled to Hanoi to meet the family and later they would all visit Lubbock, Texas where the diaries were archived. Upon seeing her daughter’s handwritten notebooks, Thuy’s mother said, “Her corpse is in Vietnam, but this is her soul.”
In 2007 Thuy’s diary was translated into English for broader publication and this book would include photographs of Thuy and her family from their personal collection. While Vietnamese readers were huge fans of the book, folks involved were worried American reactions might be mixed, due to the depiction of U.S. involvement in the war and Thuy’s frequent references to the “American devils.”
Regardless, readers found Thuy’s words provided an honest depiction of the realities of war. The deputy director of the Vietnam Archive said, “They contain an emotional element that is typically lacking in official documents.”
“Don’t burn this one. . . . It has fire in it already.”
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