American veteran's tribute to Heroic Mother

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Former soldier and sculptor makes the bust of a 96-year-old Vietnamese woman who lost her husband and four sons on the battlefield

Jim Gion, American sculptor and Vietnam War Veteran, hugs Heroic Mother Nguyen"ˆThi Nhut. PHOTO COURTESY OF TIEN PHONG

Jim Gion served in Vietnam for two years and since 2000 has been making regular visits to the country where he has a few close friends.

He speaks quite good Vietnamese, but it was not until a month ago that the 66-year-old sculptor learnt the phrase Me Viet Nam Anh Hung (Vietnamese Heroic Mother), a reference to women whose children died fighting during the war.

He learned it from Hoang Thi Kim Dung, a police officer in the central city of Da Nang, when she asked him to sculpt the portrait of her mother-in-law Nguyen Thi Nhut.

The first question he asked Dung was whether Nhut's eyes were still good.

She told him a story that left him speechless.

In 1963 Nhut lost her sight after being tortured by American soldiers. They wanted her to reveal where she was hiding Vietnamese soldiers after being tipped off about it.

While her husband and all five sons were fighting in the battlefield, she built six underground rooms in her garden for Vietnamese soldiers to hide.

But she refused to tell the enemy anything despite the torture.

A year earlier her second son had been killed by the Americans, who then hung his body outdoors for several days. Finally they cut him down and had a bulldozer run over and bury him.

His remains were found 30 years later.

In 1966 two other sons and her husband died in battle. Two years later her youngest son was arrested and exiled to Con Dao Island, which became notorious for its tiger cages. Three years later her eldest son was killed. 

The story so touched Gion's heart that he visited Nhut almost immediately and began making a bust of her on March 13.

He took photos of her from various angles and also studied photos taken of her before she fell sick and became bed-ridden during Tet, Vietnam's Lunar New Year, this year.

Nhut would remain in bed, unaware of what was going on around her because she could not hear or see, while Gion worked busily outside her window.

Sometimes he would stop working and gaze into the room, other times he would sit next to Nhut, holding her hand, telling her stories about himself and his mother.

There were also times when he would repeatedly murmur "Thank you" and "I'm sorry" to her.

He has made the bust in plaster and sent it to be cast in bronze to the southern province of Binh Duong.

He said he would give it the finishing touches in the US before bringing it back to Dien Hoa Village in Quang Nam Province to give it to Nhut.

Ask about the bust, he said the most difficult part was the hair, because Nhut's has been shaved. He got around it by asking one of her daughters-in-law to model for him.

As for her eyes, he said he used his imagination after deciding they had to be those of a brave and kind-hearted woman.

 
The life sized bust of Nguyen Thi Nhut. PHOTO COURTESY OF ARTDOG.INFO

Gion was also shocked to learn that a small village like Dien Hoa had 158 heroic mothers who lost hundreds of their children to the war.

He has asked Dung to tell eight of them who are still alive that he wishes to make their busts too. 

Friendship

Gion, who hails from Portland in Oregon State, was enlisted in May 1969, after he dropped out of university, where he had been studying sculpture, following a breakup with his girlfriend.

He chose the navy though it required longer service than the other branches of the military, because he "did not want to shoot anyone or to be shot."

In fact, during his one year each in Da Nang and Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City), he did not have to point his gun at anyone.

In May 1971, after he was discharged, he returned to the US and completed his degree.

He then went and lived in Japan for nearly 10 years, marrying twice and fathering two daughters.

"During those days I felt depressed thinking about the war I had witnessed. Americans should not have been in Vietnam."

In 2000 he made his first trip back to Vietnam to see how the country ravaged by the war was recovering.

Since then he has been visiting the country almost every year, staying one or two months every time, because of Vietnamese "honesty and kindness."

During his first rail trip from HCMC to Da Nang, a Vietnamese woman happily shared her food with him.

In 2006 he made friends with a xe om (motorbike taxi) driver he met at Da Nang railway station. Nguyen Nghia, who fought for the North Vietnamese, has become a close friend, and the two often swap stories about the war.

Another close friend is Doan Tan Hue, who runs a bronze casting factory in Binh Duong, and the two of them have travelled around the country to make statues.

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