Australian veterans return objects found on dead Vietnamese soldiers

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Derrill de Heer (in black) shows the online database that Australian veterans have built of battle locations and burial sites of Vietnamese soldiers killed between 1966 and 1971. Photo courtesy of Tuoi Tre

Australian veterans from the Vietnam War last Thursday visited the southern province of Dong Nai to continue an ongoing campaign to return letters and other belongings they found on Vietnamese soldiers killed between 1966 and 1971.

They visited the province museum to also provide information about the items they had found on fallen Vietnamese soldiers in battles in Dong Nai and nearby Ba Ria-Vung Tau Province, and an online map of where they found the items and possible burial sites of the soldiers, Tuoi Tre (Youth) newspaper reported.

Among the items are 93 letters belonging to soldiers from the central province of Binh Dinh, some still with the senders and receivers' addresses, commendation certificates, and a medical officer's journal with nearly 40 names.

The veterans also have a collection of sketches they found after a battle on August 18, 1966, at a rubber plantation in then Phuoc Tuy Province, now Ba Ria-Vung Tau.

They wanted the information to be used to take the items to the soldiers' families.

A meeting with family members and survivors is being held in Dong Nai Tuesday.

Australian veterans Derril de Heer and Bob Hall from the Univeristy of New South Wales started "Operation Wandering Souls" in 2010.

The program makes use of Australian war records, maps, soldiers' diaries, and other items.

It has created a comprehensive database indicating the approximate burial sites of 3,796 Vietnamese soldiers and so far helping identify the remains of around 450 Vietnamese martyrs.

"In Vietnamese culture it is 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 US television network ABC.

"If that [finding the remains] doesn't happen, then the souls are deemed to be wandering."

He said the operation was launched as a way to return the favor Vietnam did to Australia by helping locate the remains of its last six soldiers missing in action.

Vietnam is still searching for the remains of around 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.

Derril de Heer and his colleague Laurens Wildeboer visited Vietnam in April last year, returning books and the scarf of a fallen Vietnamese soldier to his 85-year-old mother in Dong Nai Province, whom Vietnamese veterans helped track down.

Wildeboer had been keeping them for more than 40 years.

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