He found an enemy soldier's diary after a Vietnam War battle. Now he seeks its owner
After four days of intense fighting in one of the longest and bloodiest battles of the Vietnam War, Peter Mathews, an Army sergeant with the 1st Cavalry Division, swept through an area of South Vietnam's Central Highlands near Dak To with his unit as they prepared to leave.
As he rifled through a group of backpacks left by North Vietnamese soldiers at the bottom of a hill, he came upon a small booklet covered in plastic to protect it from the elements.
Its lined pages were decorated with beautifully intricate drawings of flowers and landscapes and what appeared to be poetry, songs and journal entries. Mathews didn’t know what the handwritten words meant, but it looked like the booklet was a personal diary, not a military document, so he stuck it in his pocket, where it remained for much of the next month until his tour ended in December 1967.
“I just thought it was such a beautiful thing," he recalled. "I was amazed by the detail, the artistic ability.
"Maybe I should have turned it in, but I just couldn’t part with it," he said. "It didn’t look to me like military or secret information. I didn’t show it to anyone, I just put it in my pocket.”
When he returned home to New Jersey, Mathews tried to put his war experiences behind him. He got married, started a family and built a small construction business. The small 93-page diary was set aside in a box in his Bergenfield attic.
Now, more than a half-century later, Mathews, 77, is searching for the author of the diary and hopes to return it to the soldier or his surviving relatives.
“My dream is if we can find him, to take a trip out there and present it,” he said. “I plan to put closure to it. At my age, now I feel it’s time.”
Waiting for green card, then drafted
Mathews, a native of the Netherlands, came to the United States in 1963. He was living in Teaneck and working odd jobs while waiting to get his green card. Then in 1966, within months of getting the documentation, he was drafted into the U.S. Army.
In Vietnam, Mathews was a machine gunner. After five months he became a squad leader in the 1st Cavalry, which would fly in to help other units if they needed backup.
In late 1967, when Mathews found the diary, the Vietnam War was at its very height, said Michael Rockland, a professor of American Studies at Rutgers University who has taught extensively on the war.
“If you go to the Vietnam Memorial in Washington and see the names of all 58,000 American soldiers carved on the rock and look at the dates of when they died, it was the late 1960s when the vast majority were killed,” he said. “By 1967, we had half a million American soldiers there.”
The battle of Dak To in November 1967 was a brutal monthlong fight in the wild terrain of the Central Highlands. Mathews’ unit had come in to help the soldiers there who were exhausted from weeks of combat.
North Vietnamese soldiers would often drop their backpacks in a staging area rather than lugging the heavy packs up a hill while battling American soldiers, Mathews said. It was at the bottom of Hill 724, named for its elevation from sea level, where he found the diary in a backpack strewn among several other bags and dead North Vietnamese soldiers.
“It was inside of a backpack. It was not attached to a person,” he said. “Maybe he survived and ran away and didn’t have a chance to get his backpack, or maybe he got killed. It’s impossible to say.”
That the book was found during such a major battle may help in the search for its author, said Grant Coates, the chair of Vietnam Veterans of America’s POW/MIA Affairs Committee.
Revisiting their war experiences
Through a program called the Veterans Initiative, Coates works with counterparts in Vietnam to recover the bodies of missing soldiers. In the program’s 29 years, using personal items veterans had taken home with them and hand-drawn maps of battles, the initiative has provided information on the possible locations of roughly 14,000 bodies of Vietnamese soldiers.
While there are many veterans’ groups in the U.S., there is just one in Vietnam: the Veterans Association of Vietnam, with more than 3 million members, Coates said.
“The Vietnamese kept meticulous records on units,” he said. “This was taken from a major battle scene in 1967. If we can give them even partial information, they might be able to finish the puzzle. That the diary has his address will help quite a bit.”
Coates said many veterans in recent years have begun revisiting their war experiences.
“Many veterans are wanting closure and feeling like now is the time to get these items back to family members,” he said.
The summer after Mathews got home, he became a U.S. citizen. Every now and then, he took the diary out of storage to show family members, but he never talked much about his war experience with his four children, now in their 40s and 50s.
“You know, you put it in a box, it goes in the attic and it’s not on your mind,” he said. “My son has always complained how I never talk about it. This has opened me up a bit.”
As he left Hill 724 on an army helicopter, Mathews remembers looking down at the land he and others had fought so hard to take. The hill looked just like any other in the Central Highlands. It was covered by dense jungle, except for a brown scar across the top.
“That’s the crazy thing. You fight up there, people kill each other and then we leave, and they leave,” he said. “It’s not like you’re holding that hill for the duration of the war, you just walk away. It was senseless.”
Translating pages reveals soldier's name
It wasn’t until he was working at a job in Upper Saddle River a little more than a year ago that his interest in the book was rekindled.
He spotted a nón lá, a traditional conical straw Vietnamese hat in a customer’s home office. That sparked a conversation with the client, who had adopted two children from Vietnam and had visited the country several times. Mathews returned to the man’s home with the diary, and the client offered to have one of his friends translate some of its pages.
Mathews began posting pages from the diary on social media, hoping to get more information. He heard from a professor at Harvard who was interested in researching the diary with his students, and a collector who offered $1,200 for the booklet.
Andrew Pham, who translated “I Dream of Peace,” the wartime diary of Dang Thuy Tram, a doctor who cared for wounded Viet Cong and North Vietnamese soldiers, and Frances Fitzgerald, a journalist who covered the war and wrote the introduction to the book, both gave advice should Mathews want to explore getting the diary published. The diary of the young doctor, who was killed in 1970, had been found by an American soldier and later became a runaway bestseller in Vietnam.
A Vietnamese American with a friend in Vietnam who was once a high-ranking officer in the North Vietnamese Army also offered to help Mathews find the soldier and his family.
As he got some of the pages translated, to Mathews’ surprise one of them held the soldier’s name, Cao Xuan Tuat, as well as his address in a commune in the rural Ky Anh district of Ha Tinh province on Vietnam’s north central coast.
The area was heavily bombed during the war and many people left, Mathews said, which may make it difficult to find the soldier’s relatives.
Mathews plans to create a website, myyearinvietnam.com, where he will post pictures and pages from the diary.
Based on the writings in the diary, Mathews believes the soldier’s job may have been to spread communist propaganda among people in villages taken over by North Vietnamese soldiers.
There is poetry praising Ho Chi Minh and pages where the soldier writes of his hatred for American troops and the South Vietnamese who fought against him. He also writes of his love for his family and the realization he likely had just a small chance to see them again.
Mathews' research on the diary — still covered in the plastic wrapping the soldier used to protect it, its pages now brittle with age — has raised complicated emotions.
“I had put a lot of Vietnam behind me," Mathews said. "Now it's bringing up difficult memories and feelings. But maybe it’s good, because now I am talking about it.
“There’s a certain sadness that I have — there’s no hatred," he said. "This is a person like anyone else.”
This article originally appeared on NorthJersey.com: Vietnam vet seeks owner of enemy soldier's diary he found after battle