‘The book from the enemy’: A lifetime after Vietnam, U.S. veteran delivers a diary to its home

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KY ANH DISTRICT, Ha Tinh Province, Vietnam – On a spring evening at the end of January, Ha Huy My received the phone call his family had been waiting for.

A few days before, local officials had contacted him looking for information about his uncle, who had died in 1967 in the war.

At his family home, nestled beneath its red tile roof among a village of blue and green houses by the sparkling sea, Huy My wondered: Why are they asking? About his uncle who had gone to war and died so long ago, a man named Cao Van Tuat, a man he never really knew?

Then, a short time later, he heard a rumor about a fallen soldier’s diary that had been found by an American veteran.

The diary was elegant, apparently, with poetry and drawings etched amid the entries. The American soldier had found it on a battlefield. For his job, for wartime strategy, the thing to do would have been to hand it over to military intelligence. But the book was too beautiful to hand over.

So he had kept it, hidden away, for more than 50 years. In the space of so much time, the American vet had come to realize the book was not too beautiful to hand over. It was too beautiful to keep.

The American was a man named Peter Mathews. He had no idea who had written the diary. But he wanted to find that Vietnamese soldier’s family and give it back.

At first, Huy My couldn’t imagine how he was involved. He had been only 2 years old when his uncle left for the war and never came back.

“I personally did not know his handwriting,” Huy My said. He had never even seen his uncle’s picture.

Even as he started to realize why local officials had called him, Huy My was unsure.

The book was reportedly filled with poems by renowned Vietnamese poets like Te Hanh and To Huu, which Huy My assumed his uncle had not had the chance to study in school before he left for war.

The worst thing, he thought, would be to take this diary as his uncle’s and be mistaken.

“It would be a tremendous sin and guilt had the diary belonged to some family’s loved one,” he said. “We would be like robbing away their deceased member’s memento, a treasure to the family.”

But then, the official called and confirmed the names of the soldier’s parents – Huy My’s grandparents – and the soldier’s older sister – Huy My’s mother.

“That was when we were sure it was my uncle’s,” he said.

He poured cups of warm lid eugenia tea and sat down in his home. It was early March by now, and outside, the peach and apricot trees dotted the village with blossoms.

Huy My, a rice and soybean farmer, was more than 60 years old himself. Though he remembered almost nothing of the day his uncle left home in 1963, he knew that tomorrow would be a day just as important for his family.

The American veteran, Peter Mathews, was set to arrive. He would come to the village of Cao Thang. He would meet the family. He would be carrying Cao Van Tuat’s diary.

“Now,” Huy My said, “we just want to be able to touch it, to see it for ourselves.”

Peter, 1967

The four days of fighting came amid one of the longest and bloodiest battles of the Vietnam War.

Mathews, an Army sergeant with the 1st Cavalry Division, was sweeping through an area of South Vietnam’s Central Highlands near Dak To with his unit. In November 1967, they had flown in to help the 4th Infantry Division, which was engaged in the fight for a nearby airstrip.

They were preparing to leave when Mathews found the book.

The soldiers in his unit had been rifling through backpacks left at the bottom of a hill, known to the Americans as Hill 724, named for its elevation above sea level.

North Vietnamese soldiers would often drop their backpacks in a staging area rather than carrying the heavy packs up a hill while fighting, Mathews said.

Mathews’ pale blue eyes scanned the stash left on the ground. His team’s job was to look for anything useful, any notes that could give them an inside look at battlefield plans.

Instead, wrapped in plastic, he found a work of art.

Mathews was struck by the elegance of the book’s pages, which were decorated with intricate drawings of flowers and landscapes and what appeared to be poetry, songs and journal entries.

He didn’t know what the handwritten words meant, but it looked as if the booklet was a personal diary, not a military document. Instead of handing it over to commanders, Mathews put it in his pocket.

And there 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.”

Vietnam, 1967

Cao Van Tuat was 21 and living with his family in a small village in the province of Ha Tinh. His village lay beneath the distant mountains, on a small river near a sparkling sea.

His family earned a living growing rice and catching fish. They sent him to school, but by 1963, he was ready to fight.

The village and surrounding region had sent a flow of thousands of young people in North Vietnam heading to the southern front to fight the Americans in the war.

Ha Tinh, government reports show, sent 92,912 young men and women – more than 10% of the province’s population – and mobilized more than 330,000 civilians and 10,600 young volunteers in the war effort.

By the war’s end, 28,455 of them would not return.

Tuat joined the North Vietnamese troops and left home in March 1963.

He left behind his parents, an older sister and two younger sisters. His family did not even have a photograph of him to hold on to.

The soldier sent one letter home shortly after he enlisted. It would be nine years later before they received his death certificate.

The story they had of the end of his life had no artwork, no poetry, nothing to remember him by.

“We did not know where he was, how his life was on the battlefield. We didn’t even know where he died,” Huy My said. “For the whole nine years before we heard of his death, our family was thinking, and wishing, he was alive. He did not send many letters. All communications were complicated and rare back then.”

All they knew from official records was that he had been killed, somewhere on the battlefield, in 1967.

Peter, 1967

In December 1967, about a month after he found the diary, Mathews returned to New Jersey. He wanted the war put behind him, so he tucked the diary away.

All the same problems he had when he left before the war were still there waiting for him, plus the new burdens he brought home.

Mathews had come to the United States from the Netherlands four years earlier, in 1963. He landed just a week before the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.

He had lived in New Jersey and worked odd jobs for a few years before he found someone willing to sponsor him for a green card.

Then, just months after getting the documentation, he had been drafted into the U.S. Army.

“When I was drafted I was young and stupid,” he said. “I was a young guy and I went along. I had to – they gave me the option to go home or go there.”

Mathews was a machine gunner during the war. He eventually became a squad leader in the 1st Cavalry, which was tasked with flying in to help other units if they needed backup.

Finally, in 1967, he came home.

By the time Mathews returned, “school was secondary,” he said. “I had to make a living.”

He applied for citizenship, thinking he was immediately eligible because of his military service, but he was denied because the Vietnam conflict was not a formally declared war. By the next summer, those rules had changed, and Mathews became a U.S. citizen.

He got married shortly after returning home, but that marriage lasted just four years, ending in divorce, he said, because of his drinking problems and depression.

He remarried, began a small construction business and focused on raising his four children.

The diary he had stuffed in his pocket on the battlefield now stayed in a box in his attic in Bergenfield, New Jersey.

But every once in a while, someone would come to visit, and he would pull the book out to let them see. People called it “the book from the enemy.”

Vietnam, 2023

Just a year after Tuat was killed, his youngest sister, who loved singing and dancing and was almost finished with school, died in a bombing.

As a strategic zone and a main traffic hub for troops and the flow of materials from the North to the Southern battlefields, as well as Lower Laos and Cambodia, the province of Ha Tinh was a prime target for American airstrikes. According to Vietnamese records, 200,000 tons of bombs were dropped on the province during the war.

One of those bombs fell as the 17-year-old girl was hanging out with friends after school. It tore off her legs, and she bled to death. At the time, in 1968, the family had not yet learned of Tuat’s death.

“Before she died, she was still thinking she could meet her brother at the other end of the war,” Huy My said. “It turned out they died just months apart.”

Tuat had a girlfriend from the same village, who is now in her 80s. They promised each other that after his return, his family would visit her house to ask for her hand.

“But it was wartime, I think few would hold out their hope,” Huy My said.

Huy My, the little boy whose uncle had gone away to war, had been the first grandchild in the family. As a child he lived with his grandmother, who gave him stories to remember.

“My aunts and uncle showered me with love,” he said. “My uncle, I was told, loved taking me out to the beach to play in the afternoons. He liked carrying me around on his back, roaming around the village.”

Huy My grew, and eventually he also went to war, in 1981 in Cambodia, fighting against the Pol Pot regime.

“At the time I thought of my uncle, of how he gave up his life for the peace of this country,” he said. “I wanted to follow his footsteps.”

Time passed and Huy My became a farmer like his family. He lived long enough that he has to pause to remember some things now. To remember how his family moved from the home where they lived by the beach then – it’s a seaside resort now. To remember the dates his other relatives have died.

But it’s his job to remember. As the family’s only son, Tuat would have traditionally been the one expected to continue the bloodline, take care of his parents as they got older, and after they died, care for their altar, a place in Vietnamese homes where families traditionally pay homage to their ancestors.

In Vietnamese culture, family members who die are honored at an altar with incense, prayers, flowers and other offerings.

Tuat’s family never learned where his body was buried. His sister’s family has cared for his altar since his death.

But in time, Tuat’s sisters grew older. As their health declined, Huy My had to take over. For the past seven years, he has been the one to honor his uncle.

On Lunar New Year this year, Huy My’s family, and families all across Vietnam, again lit incense at their altars and called to their relatives who had died. It was Jan. 22, 2023.

That day, as with each Lunar New Year, Huy My worried about who would eventually care for his uncle’s altar. The next generation would have no way to remember Tuat – not even a picture of him.

Four days later, on the other side of the world, a newspaper story appeared. In it was a man with pale blue eyes and a shock of silver hair, carefully cradling the yellowing pages of a diary.

Peter, 2023

More than a half century after he left Vietnam as a soldier, Mathews, now 77, was reminded of his time in the Army as he was working in a client’s home. He spotted a nón lá, a traditional conical straw Vietnamese hat, in the man’s home office.

The client had adopted two children from Vietnam and had visited the country several times. Mathews told him about the diary, and he offered to have one of his friends translate some of its pages.

Mathews began posting pages from the diary on social media, looking for more information in the hopes of one day returning the book to the soldier or his surviving relatives.

As he got some of the pages translated, to Mathews’ surprise, one of them held the soldier’s name and address.

Mathews’ social media posts seeking answers got him only so far. So he contacted a reporter in New Jersey. A story about his quest on northjersey.com caught the attention of a reporter in Vietnam.

Mathews already knew the idea of a lost soldier’s diary held a special place in Vietnamese popular imagination.

In 2005, a wartime diary found by an American soldier had become a sensation when it was published in Vietnam. The diary, published as “Last Night I Dreamed of Peace,” was a personal account of the war experiences of Dang Thuy Tram, a young doctor who cared for wounded Viet Cong and North Vietnamese soldiers before she was killed in 1970. It sold nearly half a million copies within a year and a half.

Peter had even made inquiries about getting this diary published, but they never seemed to go anywhere. A newspaper story, though, has a way of changing things.

When the Vietnamese reporter noticed the story about Mathews in 2023, he noticed the soldier’s home address was listed as in the province of Ha Tinh.

How the story began:He found an enemy soldier’s diary after a Vietnam War battle. Now he seeks its owner

Vietnam, 2023

When a Vietnamese reporter forwarded him information about an American newspaper story, Tran Nhat Tan, the provincial chairman of Ha Tinh, set about his work quickly.

Tan scoured records and called family members to verify dates and information gleaned from the diary’s pages.

The search for Tuat’s identity was complicated by just two small letters in a middle name. The book carried the name “Cao Xuan Tuat.” The file of soldiers from Ha Tinh listed an entry for “Cao Van Tuat.”

Records showed 36 soldiers from Ky Anh District with the last name Cao who had died in the war, nine with the name Tuat, and just one with both.

The names that the soldier had written of his father, mother, sister and hometown address were identical to the ones that Huy My had given. Another soldier from Ky Xuan commune who joined the army at the same time as Cao Van Tuat recognized the handwriting from a photo.

With that information, Tan and other local officials confirmed the diary’s author was Tuat and called his surviving relatives to give them the news.

This time Huy My knew that the rumors he had pushed out of his mind were true. The diary had belonged to his uncle.

His family would even be able to explain the confusion about the name. Tuat, at birth, had been given the common middle name Van. But like many people, he tired of his middle name and casually used another one. As an artist and poet, he chose Xuan, meaning “spring.”

Local officials soon arrived in Cao Thang, a quiet village that sits somehow untouched by the industrial development that has stormed much of Vietnam. They were there to see Huy My’s mother and aunt – Tuat’s sisters.

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