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Enemy Journals

The Author Left Vietnam With Diaries Full of Poetry and Remembrances of Men From the North. Now He's Working to Return Them.

April 11, 1999|JAMES CACCAVO | James Caccavo is a Los Angeles-based writer and photographer

Last month on television, I watched red and yellow Vietnamese flags flicker like 30,000 flames outside a video store in Orange County's Little Saigon. Enraged Vietnamese immigrants were protesting a shop owner's display of Ho Chi Minh's portrait and Communist Vietnam's flag. I watched the scuffles and heard the screaming and thought about how long it takes people to heal from war. I drifted back to a humid night in 1968 when I fell asleep to the hum of a generator, the popping rotors of a Huey chopper lifting off near the hospital . . . . Even farther out in the night, artillery thundered and small-caliber weapons cracked against the background rhythm of Vietnam's crickets and geckos. At 2 in the morning, I awakened to the sound of a distant thump. "Incoming!" a soldier yelled. The air filled with a whistle and hiss as Soviet 122 mm rockets and mortars crashed in on us.

I was with the 25th U.S. Infantry Division in Tay Ninh, Vietnam. It was my first time under fire. Metal fragments ripped into my arm and foot. As we waited for the attack to end, I wondered: What kind of men are out there in the darkness trying to kill us? Like most Americans, I saw the North Vietnamese Army and Viet Cong only as phantoms. They attacked and then disappeared. So I crouched in the bunker and wondered who these people really were--a riddle that would stick in my mind like shrapnel and spur me on a decades-long quest.

*

During the final days that I was in Vietnam, a friend in military intelligence showed me a selection of enemy diaries that his unit had screened and was about to discard. He said they had been taken from dead NVA regulars or found on the ground after a battle. I rescued five diaries from the incinerator and studied them, mesmerized by the delicate calligraphy and watercolor paintings of flowers. It was my first intimate glimpse of the enemy.

As a photographer and correspondent for the American Red Cross and later for Newsweek magazine, I traveled more than 20,000 miles up and down the slender contour of South Vietnam. My credentials were a visa allowing me to photograph and document human suffering. By 1970, however, I had lost two photographer friends to North Vietnamese gunners. I was war- weary and exhausted and sensed my own death pending if I stayed on. I left Vietnam in April, carrying the five diaries home.

I settled in Los Angeles. As an instructor at the Art Center College of Design, I developed a bond with Charlie Potts, the school's photo department chairman. He had seen heavy action during WWII on Edward Steichen's U.S. Navy Pacific photo team, so I showed him the North Vietnamese diaries. With a faraway look he said that this wasn't the first time he had seen the "hopes and dreams of young men."

"You know, Jim," he continued in his deliberate manner, "you will have to return these some day." He paused and looked through me, then looked back at the journals and said: "These are the souls of men." Only later would his widow tell me that Potts had come back from the war with a chest full of souvenirs from Japanese soldiers. Unable to return them to their owners, one day he rowed into Santa Monica Bay and, in a quiet, personal ceremony, returned them to the sea.

At night when I would awaken from poignant dreams (usually about deceased friends), I would study the diaries. Whose were they? What were the authors like? Were they dead? How did they die? What was the message written in them? Was it hope? Fear? Love? Anger? One of the diaries had small photos of a group of young Vietnamese, including two beautiful young women. What was their fate? So many questions. Yet, for some reason, looking at the diaries with their delicate handwriting and exotic watercolors calmed me. I felt more of a kinship with these unknown authors--my former enemy--than my own countrymen who knew nothing of the war.

In 1975, South Vietnam fell to the North Vietnamese Army. The war was over. America had lost 58,471 sons and eight daughters (nurses). More than 1,500 were missing. The Vietnamese on both sides suffered 4 million civilian dead. North Vietnamese military casualties were 1.1 million dead, 6 million wounded and 300,000 missing. Of the South Vietnamese, 223,748 had been killed. I lost 13 friends from the U.S. France, Japan, Great Britian, Germany and South Vietnam.

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