VVA’s Veterans Initiative in Ho Chi Minh City

“Their spirits will live, as long as we do not forget them”—Dr. Tran Van Ban

By Grant Coates, POW/MIA Co-chair

While in Hanoi, Vietnam, on the 2015 mission of the Veterans Initiative, the team had the pleasure of meeting Lady Borton, a friend of Mokie Porter, the team’s Protocol Officer. Lady Borton wished for the team to meet a Doctor Tran Van Ban while in Ho Chi Minh City, formerly known as Saigon. Dr. Ban knew of the past activities of the Veterans Initiative Program of Vietnam Veterans of America, and he wished to exchange information regarding missing in action from the war.

Lady Borton had translated “Nguyễn Thị Ngọc Hải” (I Died. The World Started Living ), written by Dr. Ban. The account won Vietnam’s highest literary prize in 1997. The story encapsulates Dr. Ban’s experiences during the war–leaving his home in Phuong Tru, near the Red River south of Hanoi; enduring years as a doctor in the districts of Cu Chi, Trang Bang, and Ben Cat; and his post-war years recovering war dead by using information from personal notes, maps, and diagrams of burial sites in South Vietnam.

When the team met with Dr. Ban, he brought five worn composition notebooks, similar to those most of us had used during our school days. Each notebook was filled with his notes, diagrams, and hand-drawn maps. This was his personal library of body locations, which he had buried and, in many cases, recovered. His reason for meeting with VVA’s Veterans Initiative was to request our assistance in obtaining archival information that might assist him with the further identification and retrieval of bodies from the war. For over two hours, Dr. Ban and the team reviewed the master list of the V.I. case files, comparing them Dr. Ban’s journals. Dr. Ban was particularly interested in the cases located in the areas where he had buried war dead– several V.I. cases were of particular interest to Dr. Ban, and information was exchanged to aid with his recovery missions.

During the meeting, Dr. Ban spoke in detail of his successful record-keeping and how, before he buried his fallen comrades, he would write their name on a piece of paper, place it in a glass vial, and insert it in their mouths,  with the hope of, one day, returning to recover and return remains.  In his essay, he described his actions dealing with the memories of war. He would record all memories and “dreams” in a book and recreate maps of events, which have aided him in locating burial sites. “Their spirits will live, as long as we do not forget them, ” he wrote in his memoir.

Of the 653 soldiers who traveled with him from the north to the south, Dr. Ban is one of less than 50 from his unit to survive the war. He has aided U.S. recovery teams in past missions, helping to locate U.S. MIAs. Dr. Ban stated in a PBS documentary “I’m sad that the number I’ve found is so small compared to the number of mothers and fathers dreaming of finding their children.”  In a letter to the VI team after meeting with Dr. Ban in 2015, Lady Borton wrote regarding his memoir, I Died. The World Started Living :  “It seems to me that this piece has the ability to reach across to people on all sides who lost family, friends, and loved ones.”

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