Australian vets create virtual map of Vietnam's "wandering souls'

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Australian veterans seeking to help Vietnam recover its MIAs cannot work without official support, researchers say

Phan Chien (L), chairman of the Ba Ria -Vung Tau Veterans' Association, and Colonel Stuart Dodds, defense attaché of the Australian Embassy in Hanoi, at a memorial service held at the war martyrs' cemetery in the southern province of Ba Ria-Vung Tau on July 27

A group of Australian military researchers have taken another step in assisting the Vietnamese government in recovering their missing war dead.

Dr. Bob Hall and colleagues have compiled available data on the burial locations of Vietnamese soldiers killed in battles with Australian and New Zealand forces during the war. They have also launched a web page dedicated to urging Vietnam War vets from Australia and New Zealand to return personal effects taken from felled Vietnamese soldiers.

Statistics have estimated that around 300,000 Vietnamese soldiers are still listed as missing in action.

During the war, Australian army forces buried the bodies of Vietnamese soldiers killed in battle and logged the burial sites in their daily unit war diaries. These logs are considered the best available information for recovering Vietnamese remains - they provide both dates and locations of battles in which one or more Vietnamese soldiers was killed. While many of these burial sites are already known to Vietnamese authorities, others may not be.

In March, Hall travelled to Vietnam with Derrill de Heer. Both men had served in the war and now work as military researchers at the University of New South Wales at the Australian Defense Force Academy.

During their spring visit, de Heer and Hall presented Vietnamese military officials with the suspected burial sites of around 3,700 soldiers killed in two provinces occupied by Australian troops from 1966 to 1972.

Vietnamese officials responded by giving the pair some names of Vietnamese MIAs as well as the dates they went missing to cross reference with the Australian burial logs.

At the end of July, Hall and de Heer returned to Ba Ria-Vung Tau Province - one of the two areas occupied by Aussie troops to reveal their findings.

"In a number of cases, we were able to describe the people who were buried at the sites by name," Hall told Thanh Nien Weekly.

Hall heads Operation Wandering Souls, a project funded by the Australian Research Council, which seeks to create a virtual map of Vietnamese soldiers buried on battlefield sites. So far, the research team has successfully converted military reference points to latitude and longitude and plotted them on maps generated by Google Earth.

Just the beginnin

This photograph was found on the body of a Vietnamese soldier killed in action in 1968 during fighting in northwest Ba Ria -Vung Tau Province. Australian military researchers say they are hoping to return it to his family.

The Australian academics say the burial sites they have identified constitute the earliest stages of their pilot project none of which have yet been exhumed.

"If we had the names of all the soldiers who died in battle we should be able, with a good degree of probability, to identify soldiers in specific locations," de Heer said. "[But] this part cannot move forward until the Vietnamese officials provide this data."

Phan Chien, chairman of the Ba Ria-Vung Tau Veterans' Association, confirmed his organization and other local agencies would assist the group with their work.

"Vietnamese families would be very grateful to learn the fate of their loved ones killed or missing in action thanks to the project," Chien said.

Last week, Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Nguyen Phuong Nga told Thanh Nien Weekly that Vietnam has been working to verify all the information provided by the Australian researchers.

"Vietnam welcomes any kind of cooperation in the search for Vietnamese soldiers missing in action during the war," Nga said.

Mementos come home

Hall and de Heer launched a campaign to urge Australian and New Zealand war veterans to hand over any personal effects captured in the field (e.g. photographs, diaries, or letters). The pair have encouraged such veterans to contact the group through the website

"There is interest from retired Australian and New Zealand soldiers in returning items they have held since the war," de Heer said - though he declined to elaborate on the number of objects recovered because the website had been up for only three weeks. So far, he added, no Vietnamese families have contacted the research group.

"Maybe we'll come back and give an exhibition [of the photographs, diaries, and letters]," Dr. Hall said. "That would be something we would like to do in the future."

Hall added that this part of the project was in its early stages and that the success of it would depend upon the response of the Australian and New Zealand veterans.

Colonel Stuart Dodds, defense attaché of the Australian Embassy in Hanoi, expressed enthusiasm for the effort in a recent interview. "I'm very encouraged," Dodds said. "Australia looks forward to working with Vietnam in the future to resolve the missing in action issues as a humanitarian effort."

Making amends

Hall said this project, named Operation Wandering Souls, aims to reciprocate Vietnam's efforts to repatriate the remains of six Australian MIAs.

The project took its name from the Vietnamese belief that if a person dies in a place where he is not known or dies in a violent death, his spirit will wander.

As a veteran, Hall felt the need to do something for Vietnamese soldiers.

"I think this is a thing that other soldiers would recognize, as a thing that should be done. It is lucky that we [are] in a position that we can do it."

De Heer says that his motives go all the way back to 1970.

During the war, he recalled, a Vietnamese man asked him to help him find his son who had been killed in contact with Australian soldiers a week earlier and buried near a local beach.

De Heer and his men dug the man's son up out of the sand and wrapped it up in a poncho.

"It was a clean wound, thank goodness," de Heer said. "But I've never seen so much grief in my life."

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