This series is an adaptation of an article that originally appeared in the August 2015 American Legion Auxiliary Magazine. Look for the remaining parts of this blog series in the days and weeks ahead. Please remember: More than 83,000 servicemembers are still classified as either prisoners of war (POWs) or missing in action (MIA).
Recovering Artifacts, a Soldier’s Letters, and a Diary
In addition to the recovery of human remains, investigation teams of The Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA) — the agency born from the U.S. Department of Defense’s combination of two agencies in 2015 — also have retrieved many artifacts, which can assist in the identification process. These have included everything from aircraft fuselage and weaponry to personal letters, dog tags, and worn photographs of loved ones.
One of the most publicized retrievals of documents in recent years is that of U.S. Army Sgt. Steve Flaherty, whose unmailed letters were confiscated by enemy troops during the Vietnam War and returned to his family 43 years later. The bundle of letters was presented to then-Defense Secretary Leon Panetta in June 2012 during a historic exchange of wartime artifacts. In return, Panetta gave Vietnamese Minister of Defense Phung Quang Thanh a red diary of Vietnamese soldier Vu Dinh Doan. The diary had been in the possession of a Marine, who had taken it in the 1960s before returning it in 2012.
The artifacts give a glimpse into the lives of these enemies. In a letter to his mother, Flaherty, who enlisted shortly after graduating high school, said: “If Dad calls, tell him I got too close to being dead but I’m OK. I was real lucky. I’ll write again soon… Our platoon started off with 35 men but winded up with 19 men when it was over. We lost platoon leader and whole squad … The NVA soldiers fought until they died and one even booby trapped himself and when we approached him, he blew himself up and took two of our men with him.”
In another letter to a friend by the name of Betty, Flaherty wrote: “We have been in a fierce fight with NVA. We took in lots of casualties and death. It has been trying days for me and my men. We dragged more bodies of dead and wounded than I can ever want to forget… Thank you for your sweet card. It made my miserable day a much better one, but I don’t think I will ever forget the bloody fight we are having … I felt bullets going past me. I have never been so scared in my life. Well I better close for now before we go in again to take that hill.”
Doan’s diary contained this excerpt: “I was sitting around when I heard someone call for Doan. It was 7:00 at night on 9 February 1966. I ran over and saw my friend Truc, the husband of Aunt Ty in Quang Ngai. It is wonderful to see a friend in a difficult situation, and it turned out we were both living in the same combat area. Then we talked about the long march and the hardships of the life of a soldier.”