One of 37 sketches in a notebook of a Vietnamese soldier killed during a battle at a rubber plantation in Ba Ria-Vung Tau
Australian veterans of the Vietnam War are continuing their quest to return items that belonged to Vietnamese soldiers to the war martyrs' families.
"Operation Wandering Souls," initiated by an Australian team including Derril de Heer and Bob Hall from New South Wales University at the Australian Defense Force Academy, will send more items back to Vietnam including letters, sketches, poems, commendation certificates and photos of Vietnamese veterans.
The repatriations are part of celebrations marking 40 years of diplomatic ties between Vietnam and Australia, according to a report by news website VnExpress.
The program, which was instituted in 2010, makes use of Australian war records, maps, soldiers' diaries and other artifacts from the battles between 1966 and 1971 that took place in the former Phuoc Tuy Province, which is now part of the southern coastal provinces of Ba Ria-Vung Tau and Dong Nai, both of which neighbor Ho Chi Minh City.
It created a comprehensive database the first of its kind that indicates the approximate burial site of 3,796 Vietnamese soldiers. The remains of around 450 Vietnamese war martyrs have been located so far as a result.
"In Vietnamese culture it's very important to find the remains of those who die, particularly those who die a violent death and whose gravesites are unknown," Hall, a military historian and the project's leader, told ABC News, a major US television network.
"If that [finding the remains] doesn't happen, then the souls are deemed to be wandering."
Hall said the operation was launched as a way of returning the favor Vietnam showed Australia in helping it locate the remains of its last six soldiers missing in action.
Vietnam is still searching for the remains of approximately 300,000 soldiers listed as missing in action during the US-led war, including those of nearly 4,000 believed to have been killed in battles against troops from Australia and New Zealand.
Hall said his project aims to help Vietnamese families heal as much as possible from the loss of their loved ones.
The belongings set to be returned include a photo of a Vietnamese soldier printed from the negative found in his pocket. He died during a mission in Ba Ria-Vung Tau on August 12, 1968.
Another item is a gold ring that belonged to a Vietnamese soldier killed during a battle in the province on the morning of December 9, 1970.
Derril de Heer said in an ABC report last year that he was very happy to be able to return these personal remnants.
"Soldiers get on [well] with [other] soldiers. We have a particular sense of humor. We'll drink beer together, eat noodles together. And I think that while there are some very disgruntled people at home in Australia, this is really a peaceful thing."
He and Australian veteran Laurens Wildeboer visited Vietnam April last year, returning books and a scarf of a fallen Vietnamese soldier to his 85-year-old mother in Dong Nai Province, which Wildeboer had been holding onto for more than 40 years, after Vietnamese veterans helped track her down.
"You know I've often heard guys say you should come back here to purge the soul or purge the spirit. And it's amazing. It's not until you go through it yourself that you realize how beneficial it is to return and have a look at the place and meet the people who show no sign of resentment or misgiving," Wildeboer told ABC.
Related findings from the project were also handed over to Vietnam's Ministry of Defense during the visit.
People in possession of personal artifacts from the conflict and would like them to be returned to family members in Vietnam can contact Bob Hall, Operation Wandering Souls Project, UNSW at the Australian Defence Force Academy, at:
PO Box 7916, Canberra BC, ACT 2610 Australia
Ph: +61 2 6268 8848
fax: +61 2 6268 8879
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