Media Release  

Harvard research project aids return of wartime personal effects to Vietnamese veterans and families

U.S. Embassy event in Hanoi was culmination of months of detailed archival research – and helped to unearth information about the final resting place of fallen soldiers.

Ambassador Marc Knapper returns the diary of Bùi Trọng Thụy to his family

Cambridge, MA — Today, the Rajawali Foundation Institute for Asia’s Unseen Legacies of the Vietnam War Project aided the return of letters, diaries, certificates, and other personal effects to Vietnamese veterans and their families in a ceremony hosted by the U.S. Embassy in Hanoi.

During the ceremony, held to support the efforts of Vietnam’s National Steering Committee 515 — a Vietnamese government committee to identify the remains of fallen soldiers, U.S. Ambassador to Vietnam Marc Knapper, Colonel TJ Bouchillon, and Unseen Legacies Project Director Dr. Hai Nguyen returned eleven individuals’ ephemera, which had been stored for almost half a century in U.S. archives. In one case, a journal was returned to its author, a veteran, and the rest to fallen soldiers’ families.

The returned documents, the product of months of research by the Unseen Legacies team, not only encompassed personal records and writings — sometimes hundreds of pages worth — but were presented alongside a research report about individual’s lives and, often, deaths. For those who died during the conflict, the report included details about their possible burial site. For many families in attendance, the research helped answer decades-old questions about their relative’s fate and final resting place.

“The information received today has helped us to confirm the details and the circumstance under which my father passed away,” shared Vu Quoc Khanh, the son of fallen soldier Vu Duy Hung. “Since my father passed away, his death anniversary has always been without a connection to a specific artifact. And we are very emotional today that we have received an artifact.”

“The foundation of our two countries’ relationship today really is our efforts to address legacies of the war,” said Knapper. “The small gestures of returning these items will help the families here to closure.”

The event concluded with the presentation of a letter from President Biden to veteran Nguyen Van Thien. During his historic visit to Hanoi in September, Biden oversaw the return of Van Thien’s journal, which had been discovered by the Unseen Legacies team months prior.

The journal and other returned materials were all found in a captured documents archive — a repository of materials taken from North Vietnamese and Viet Cong soldiers on the battlefield and stored by the U.S. and allied forces during the War. The archive remained largely untranslated and unorganized in the years following the conflict. Since 2021, the Unseen Legacies Project, supported by a grant from the Department of Defense, and working in collaboration with Vietnam’s Ministry of National Defense and National Steering Committee 515, has helped to untangle the archive as a part of a broader effort to uncover the history of the estimated 200,000 Vietnamese soldiers unaccounted for and 300,000 unidentified remains.

Leveraging these captured document findings, records from the People’s Army of Vietnam, and interviews with veterans and military experts, to date, the Unseen Legacies Project team has returned several personal effects, developed reports on 1,316 Vietnamese war dead, and shared research on the possible burial sites for more than 2,000 fallen soldiers.

“Days like today are a reminder of why we do this work,” said Harvard’s Nguyen. “As we now know, the Vietnam War left scores of unseen scars, across memory and time. Providing these materials and most importantly, information on fallen soldiers is a step towards soothing that pain and facilitating healing for the hundreds of thousands of families who deserve closure.”

Contact

Dan Harsha
Daniel_Harsha@hks.harvard.edu

Sarah Grucza
Sarah_Grucza@hks.harvard.edu

About the Rajawali Foundation Institute for Asia

The Rajawali Foundation Institute for Asia at the Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation advances research and teaching about policy challenges both within the region and Asia’s place in the global community. The Institute works to deepen understanding of the region, explore possibilities for innovation, and advance important initiatives that will affect millions of lives in Asia.

 

Moments from the Event

Unseen Legacies Project Director Hai Nguyen talks with veteran Phan Xuân Diệu about the return of his journal.

Lead Project Researcher Giang Trinh speaks with family members about the reports and returned materials.

Many reports include returned journals or diaries, with pages ranging from personal notes to sketches.

Vu Quoc Khanh, the son of fallen soldier Vu Duy Hung speaks about how meaningful it is to have more information about his father’s death.

For many families, the reports and personal items were the first new information they received about their relatives in almost fifty years.

A family of fallen soldier Nguyễn Văn Hoạch gathered to receive his items, including certificates and accolades from his service.

Ambassador Marc Knapper hands a letter from President Biden to Nguyen Van Thien.

From left to right: Lieutenant Colonel Chad Somerville, Pham Thi Hong Ha, Mark Seah, Giang Trinh, Caryn Duffy, Ambassador Marc Knapper, Hai Nguyen, Sarah Grucza, and Colonel TJ Bouchillon

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