Haunted Vietnam War veteran returns to former enemy territory, hoping to "˜set some ghosts free'
Laurens Wildeboer presents Nguyen Thi Hieu with a scarf at her home in Dong Nai Province's Long Thanh District on April 3. Wildeboer brought the scarf as a gift after returning (another) scarf and a book of poems he had found on an Australian base in 1969. The items belonged to Hieu's son, Phan Van Ban, who perished in 1970 after stepping on a landmine. PHOTO: CALVIN GODFREY
Laurens Wildeboer clutched a small red box and stared out a bus window at frenetic traffic along Highway 1A.
"It's a beautiful country," he said.
Last week, the 64 year-old Australian veteran returned to Vietnam for the first time hoping to bring peace to a bereaved mother and himself by returning a long lost book of poetry.
"I came to relieve the frustration and anger I felt as a result of the Vietnam War and set some ghosts free," he said.
His trip represented the first successful effort by "Operation Wandering Souls" to reunite bereaved Vietnamese families with martyrs' remains as well as personal effects seized during the war.
The team of academics and veterans has spent two years working to provide Vietnam with the locations of every soldier killed and buried by Australian forces during the conflict. Now there is some concern that the project will end for lack of funding.
Wildeboer was born to a Dutch Marine who came to Vietnam as a prisoner of war (POW).
During World War II, the Japanese forced the elder Wildeboer to build an airstrip in Vietnam. After the war ended, he moved his family to Australia and remained restless until the end of his life.
"My dad ended his life as a lighthouse attendant," Wildeboer says. "Where no one could bother him."
At the age of 17, Wildeboer joined the Australian army. "I didn't have a clue about anything then," he said.
By the age of 20, he was dispatched to present-day Ba Ria - Vung Tau Province to repair tanks for Australia's force of about 5,000 soldiers.
In spring of 1969, Wildeboer came across a pile of weapons, knapsacks and other possessions taken from the battlefield to a base in Long Bien.
Wildeboer took a blue scarf and a ration book containing a CV and simple poems.
"When I found the notebook, it was already early in the piece, but I was disillusioned with what was happening in Vietnam," Wildeboer said. "It seemed to me that we weren't doing an awful lot of good. So I took the notebook and carried that with me for a number of years."
Once back in Australia, he remained in the army until retirement. "It was an embarrassment," he said. "But I had a wife and two kids, so I stayed in."
Soon after his return, he says, he began to withdraw from the world.
"I formed an opinion over a period of time, of the damage we had done, in fact I became quite angry about the small part that I had played," he said.
His first marriage ended in divorce and his hearing slowly deteriorated, thanks to the report of a 25 pound gun.
In 1992, he had to stop working for his security firm due to the cumulative effects of Post-traumatic Stress Disorder.
Around the same time, he began sending emails off to Vietnam, looking for a way to return the things he'd taken home.
In 2009, Vietnam returned the remains of two Australian bomber pilots discovered at a crash site in the central province of Quang Nam.
The bodies represented the last two of Australia's half-a-dozen missing soldiers.
Inspired by Vietnam's act of good faith, a researcher and war veteran named Bob Hall at the University of New South Wales began to generate an electronic map detailing the location of all Vietnamese bodies buried by the army from 1966-1971.
"The Geneva Convention contains a provision requiring both sides to return artifacts and notify one another about the burial sites of their soldiers following the end of a conflict," said Derrill de Heer, a former commando who volunteered time and money for the project. "The Australian government hasn't lived up to its obligation."
The team compiled the locations of 3,700 battlefield graves using old intelligence reports and daily activity logs.
In 2010, Hall and de Heer presented the initial map to the Veterans Association of Ba Ria-Vung Tau.
This week, they delivered a list containing the full names, ranks and unit numbers of 535 Vietnamese soldiers buried by Australians.
In addition to some funding provided by the University, de Heer estimates he and Hall have spent about US$40,000 of their own money, not counting hours of unpaid research, on fulfilling their sense of obligation to Vietnam.
Following the completion of their initial list, they have continued to pour through old intelligence reports to add names, ranks and unit information to the anonymous graves. They also launched a website, urging veterans to relinquish any personal effects they were harboring from the war to help them in the process.
They soon heard from Wildeboer.
The keeper of lost things
On Tuesday (April 3), Wildeboer and de Heer boarded a bus bound for a small farm in Dong Nai Province to the northeast of Ho Chi Minh City.
Senior Lieutenant"”Colonel Nguyen Thi Tien sat behind them, dressed in a pressed green uniform. Tien says she's managed to identify the remains of 549 war martyrs over the past twenty years and has helped some 30 foreign veterans return captured objects to bereaved families.
Like de Heer, she says she has financed these efforts largely by herself and through small donations.
Since retiring as the content director of the Vinh museum in the north-central province of Nghe An in 2009, Tien has dedicated her life to the effort and often participates in remote excavations in harsh conditions. Last October, she began helping the Australians track the notebook to its rightful owner.
After reviewing a handwritten CV in the notebook found by Wildeboer, Tien was able to determine that it belonged to a Dong Nai soldier named Phan Van Ban, the oldest of nine children.
At around noon, the bus carrying Tien, Wildeboer and de Heer pulled up to the two-room home of Ban's mother, Nguyen Thi Hieu, 85.
Cameramen fanned out into her living room, crowding onto her wooden bed and filling every inch of her home. Neighbors pressed their faces against the windows as de Heer and Wildeboer presented her with her son's personal effects and a few gifts from Australia.
"I've been waiting for 43 years to return this to her," Wildeboer told a translator. "She's a lovely, lovely woman and I'm sorry she lost her son."
Hieu let out a few slow tears as she thumbed through the yellowed pages of her son's poems.
The last time Hieu saw her boy was September of 1970"”a year after his notebook and scarf showed up on Wildeboer's base. Ban had come home from the jungle to ask for moon cakes in advance of the mid-autumn festival.
Weeks later, ten days before his intended marriage, his comrades returned with his watch and told her that Ban had shared the cakes with them.
Ban died, they said, after stepping on a landmine placed near a Thai base in Long Thanh.
No one was able to determine the location of his remains.
For years, the family clung to the hope that Ban had been interred in an anonymous grave at the war veterans' cemetery.
Every year they burned extra incense at the grave of his younger brother Nghia, who died, at 15, after refusing to surrender to the US-backed Army of the Republic of Vietnam soldiers.
"Now he can be reunited with his brother," Hieu said, as she placed the scarf and notebook on an altar containing a certificate recognizing Nghia's role in the revolution.
De Heer stepped out of the home and into the shade of a tree. He did not expect to see any additional funding from his government.
The next day, he planned to deliver the final findings of the project"”535 grave sites in Vung Tau, complete with names, ranks and unit details.
Senior Lieutenant"”Col. Tien plans to take the list and continue her efforts in Vinh Town"”though she too worries about funding.
De Heer heard that their work had led to some recoveries and reburials. But he did not know how many.
"We've declined to contribute to the project," said Crew Captain Matt Dudley, Australia's Defense Attaché in Hanoi. "We've got other priorities."