Vietnam veteran Laurens Wildeboer with his wife Ronnie pictured at home. Photo: Simon Schluter
A Vietnam veteran has held on to the poetry of an ‘enemy’ for 40 years.
Around the time the Australian soldier arrived in Vietnam, one of the enemy he had been sent to fight paused after marching through the night. He sat, took out a pen and student’s notebook and wrote a poem. He called it Letter in Spring and it was addressed to ”my love who is at home”.
His loved one never saw the poem and the delicate drawing that illustrated it. But the Australian did, and even though he couldn’t read it, he knew a powerful part of its meaning.
As well as love, the Vietnamese soldier wrote of his patriotic duty, of how he was on the front line, on the eve of a battle that he hoped would defeat the foreign soldiers who would be ”buried in black mud”. He wrote in a flowing, sloping script and decorated the page with a drawing of a landscape showing a tiny bird sitting on a fragile branch, surrounded by blossom.
The Vietnamese soldier didn’t live to see what he longed for, even though the foreign soldiers were defeated. He might have been buried in black mud, if he had a grave at all.
In a way, the Australian soldier didn’t see the end of the war either, and still hasn’t seen it, even though he lived and returned home, carrying with him his enemy’s poetry.
The Australian soldier was Laurens Wildeboer. He was 20 when he arrived in what was then South Vietnam in January 1968 to fight the communist guerillas known as the Viet Cong. Phan Van Ban, the soldier poet, was one of those guerillas. In January 1968, he was 20, too.
At the time he wrote Letter in Spring, the Viet Cong were poised to launch a massive assault across the country, the Tet Offensive. It left the guerilla force decimated, but the extent and ferocity of the offensive shocked American (and Australian) public opinion and became a political turning point in the war.
Wildeboer never met Phan, and until recently didn’t know his name or where he came from, and if he had a family, although he often wondered.
But for four decades he has kept the Vietnamese soldier’s handwritten poetry, another notebook with details of his life, and a scarf, which he took from the detritus of a battlefield where Phan was killed in March, 1969.
Wildeboer, now 64, lives in Kyneton with his wife, Roni. Vietnam, the war, has never left him. At the end of this month he’ll travel back to Vietnam, the country, for the first time in 43 years.
He’ll take the notebooks and scarf with him, because now he knows who Phan was. He knows that Phan has a family, and that his mother is still alive. Her name is Nguyen Thi Hieu, and she is 85. He will return her son’s belongings to her. He hopes this will bring her some comfort, and give him some peace.
Mrs Nguyen Thi Hieu, 85, (centre) isthe mother of the Viet Cong soldier whose diary was found by Australiansoldier Laurens Wildeboer. The other women in the picture are believedto be her daughters and granddaughters.
How Wildeboer obtained and kept Phan’s poems is one story. How other Vietnam veterans were able to identify Phan and trace his family is another.
Wildeboer was 17 when he joined the army for adventure. He didn’t have a clue about the looming war in Vietnam. ”I had no idea,” he says, ”no idea at all. I had no idea that some bastard was actually going to want to send me to a war and actually shoot at people.”
All he knew was what he was told: ”All kinds of bullshit about the communist threat, the nogs, and all the derogatory terms they use to dehumanise people as part of the training.”
In Vietnam, he was in the Royal Australian Electrical and Mechanical Engineers who repaired and maintained heavy equipment, such as tanks. His views on the war started to change, and he was torn between what he had been told in training and what he saw in reality. He told himself: ”I’m just a tourist.” It was a way of disconnecting himself from what surrounded him.
In March 1969 he was stationed near the US base at Long Binh, north-east of Saigon.
”We were there for a few days and there was a lot of conflict around us. A local village was being attacked. All this shit still goes though my head …” He pauses.
”I think it was the following morning when the infantry came back – I think they were Australians – with a pile of stuff and they just dropped it near our headquarters. It was getting towards the end of my tour and I thought I’d grab some of this stuff.”
The ”stuff” included enemy weapons and packs collected from the battlefield. There might be diaries that could be gleaned for useful intelligence. But a book of poems and pretty pictures has no military value.
”I flicked through the notebooks,” Wildeboer says. ”I just looked at it and immediately felt the humanity behind it. It just added to my perspective, looking at the great pen work and the beautiful writing, and I thought: ‘Why are we here, inflicting this damage?”’
Yet he stayed in the army until 1985, when he retired after 20 years and three days’ service. In 1992, he says, ”I fell of my perch” and was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.
Over the years, he wondered about the soldier who wrote the poems. He wondered how he could return the notebooks and scarf to someone who would treasure them.
Then, around Anzac Day last year, he read a story in The Sunday Age about the work of fellow veterans, now academic researchers, who have mapped the graves of Vietnamese dead and are encouraging old soldiers to return letters, diaries and photos taken from enemy bodies.
The researchers are Bob Hall and Derrill de Heer at the Australian Centre for the Study of Armed Conflict and Society at the University of New South Wales, at the Australian Defence Force Academy.
So Wildeboer contacted them. They, in turn, showed the material to Ernie Chamberlain, a Vietnamese linguist, retired brigadier and former intelligence officer. He helped establish Phan’s identity and military unit – an elite reconnaissance company known as C205.
He joined the Viet Cong in 1963, and described himself as a ”poor peasant”. A handwritten account of his personal history gives his parents’ names. He received a certificate of commendation for his role in a battle against US troops in 1967. His loss was his mother’s second in the war: Phan’s brother, also a guerilla, was killed in combat in 1965. Phan confessed to two weaknesses – he was ”easily upset” and ”gets hot-headed”.
The researchers next point of contact was a retired Vietnamese colonel, Nguyen Thi Tien, who has worked for decades to trace Vietnam’s war dead and return artefacts to families.
From Hanoi, she confirmed Phan’s identify and revealed that his mother was still alive. So, too, are her daughters and granddaughters. But she is frail and has recently been in hospital.
Given her age, there is some urgency in getting her son’s belongings back to her. For Wildeboer, the discoveries have helped him overcome the guilt he has carried since the war, and that has prevented him from returning to Vietnam.
Ask him what he is guilty about, and he says: ”The destruction. The decimation of a Third World country, mainly villages, you know. We went over and used all our might and sophisticated equipment. We drove through their rice paddies and knocked down their fences. We destroyed their villages. The devastation of the population was just disgusting.”
Ask him why he will go back now, he says: ”It’s very difficult for me to say. It’s just something I have to do, to try to find maybe some peace, if you like, because I haven’t had much peace.
”When Derrill de Heer told me they had found the mother, the most important thing to me was to get the books back to her. Isn’t it bizarre, and I don’t know what the word is, but I’ve got this connection and I want to get this stuff back to the mother, to the family.”
Wildeboer has also been encouraged by his wife, Roni. She has her own Vietnam connection, as founder of Artists for Orphans, a charity that raises funds for Vietnamese orphanages.
She wants him to make the trip, but she’s anxious as well. ”I’m worried for him,” she says, ”but I’m hoping he’s going to have a huge epiphany. I’m hoping he’s going to get there and go, ‘Oh, it’s beautiful’. I’m hoping it’s going to give him some peace.”
There are other poems in the notebook, one composed at New Year, 1966, when Phan wrote:
Flowers are blooming when New Year comes
And we are in the heyday of youth
Greeting the New Year full of hope
PEACE will come, and I will be with you
The Vietnamese diary pages with poems & verse discovered by Laurens Wildeboer while serving in Vietnam.
One of the Vietnamese diary pages with poems & verse that were discovered by Laurens Wildeboer while serving in Vietnam.
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