Last night I dreamed of peace
Excerpts from a Vietnamese doctor's wartime diaries
As soon as they came to light in 2005, the diaries of a young doctor who worked for North Vietnam in the Vietnam War became a media sensation in her homeland. Dang Thuy Tram died in the war, but she springs to life from the journal chronicling her days as a physician on the front lines.
The diaries are a Vietnamese best seller and a cultural phenomenon — appearing as excerpts in newspapers and inspiring a documentary film. A hospital and library in Vietnam have been named in Tram’s honor. Harmony Books plans to publish an English translation in September.
INTERVIEW: Paul Costello talks to Frederic Whitehurst about finding Dang Thuy Tram's diary—and its impact. (23 minutes).
INTERVIEW: School of Medicine’s Paul Costello talks to Robert Whitehurst about his search for Tram’s family (22 minutes).
Tram’s diaries begin in April 1968 when she’s 25 and several months into her first post-medical school job, chief physician at a field hospital in central Vietnam. The Tet Offensive is raging; though her hospital is a civilian clinic, she treats mainly soldiers. Sometimes she walks for miles through the rugged terrain to care for wounded fighters. Her duties also include training new health practitioners. The last entry is June 20, 1970, two days before she is killed by U.S. soldiers.
Frederic Whitehurst, whose task was to sort through captured documents for U.S. military intelligence, found the diaries. In Vietnam in 1970, he was throwing documents into a fire in a 55-gallon drum when his interpreter, who was watching, said, “Don’t burn this one, Fred. It has fire in it already.” He saved the small diary and later saved a second. In 1972 he took both diaries home, after serving three tours in Vietnam.
Whitehurst says he often thought about returning the diaries to Tram’s family, but tracking them down eluded him. In the years after the war, he had joined the FBI, making contact with an enemy nation problematic. Eventually, U.S.-Vietnam relations normalized, and Whitehurst left the FBI. But the war had left psychological scars that flared when he revisited the diaries. So Whitehurst's brother, Robert Whitehurst, picked up the ball, arranging for them to take the diaries to a conference on the Vietnam War at Texas Tech University in March 2005. An Air Force veteran they met agreed to take copies of the diaries with him when he went to Hanoi the following month. With help from a Quaker group there, he found Tram's family, discovering that her mother and three sisters were all alive, though her father and brother had died.
The forthcoming Harmony Books edition, Last Night I Dreamed of Peace, is a translation of the diaries into English by Andrew X. Pham, with an introduction by the acclaimed Vietnam War journalist Frances FitzGerald. The following excerpts are published with permission.
20 May 1968
31 May 1968
4 June 1968
20 July 1968
25 July 1968
Lam is twenty-four this year, an excellent nurse from Pho Van. Less than a month ago, he was assigned as supplement to the District Civil Medical Department. The enemy came upon Lam while he was on the road during his recent assignment; Lam tried to get into a secret shelter, but the Americans were already upon him when he opened the cover; the small shrapnel painfully destroyed his life. Lam lay there waiting for death. In the North, a severed spinal cord is already a hopeless case, let alone here. Lam knows the severity of his injury and is deep in misery and depression. …
Oh! War! How I hate it, and I hate the belligerent American devils. Why do they enjoy massacring kind, simple folks like us? Why do they heartlessly kill life-loving young men like Lam, like Ly, like Hung and the thousand others, who are only defending their motherland with so many dreams?
29 July 1969
I stand frozen before this heartbreaking tableau.
His mother weeps. Her trembling hands touch her son’s body; pieces of his skin fall off, curled up like crumbling sheets of rice cracker. His younger and older sisters are attending him, their eyes full of tears.
A girl sits by his side, her gentle eyes glassy with worry. Clumps of hair wet with sweat cling to her cheeks, reddened by exhaustion and sorrow. Tu (that’s her name) is Khanh’s lover.
She carried Khanh here. Hearing that he needed serum for a transfusion, Tu crossed the river to buy it. The river was rising, and Tu didn’t know how to swim, but she braved the crossing. Love gave her strength.
The pain is imprinted on the innocent forehead of that beautiful girl. Looking at her, I want to write a poem about the crimes of war, the crimes that have strangled to death millions of pure and bright loves, strangled to death the happiness of millions of people, but I cannot write it.
My pen cannot describe it all, even though this is one case I feel with all my senses and emotions.
5 August 1969
Perhaps I will meet the enemy, and perhaps I will fall, but I hold my medical bag firmly regardless, and people will feel sorry for this girl who was sacrificed for the revolution when she was still young and full of verdant dreams.
20 June 1970
Now immense sea and sky
No, I am no longer a child. I have grown up. I have passed trials of peril, but somehow, at this moment, I yearn deeply for Mom’s caring hand. Even the hand of a dear one or that of an acquaintance would be enough.
Come to me, squeeze my hand, know my loneliness, and give me the love, the strength to prevail on the perilous road before me.
Reprinted from LAST NIGHT I DREAMED OF PEACE: THE DIARY OF DANG THUY TRAM. Translation copyright 2007 by Andrew X. Pham. To be published in September 2007 by Harmony Books, a division of Random House Inc.
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