20 Apr 2013

Australian team seeks to return Vietnam artifacts

11:04 am on 20 April 2013

A team of Australian researchers is seeking Vietnam War artifacts taken from dead soldiers on the field to give back to families in Vietnam

As troops have done in every war, Australian soldiers took personal items from the bodies of slain Viet Cong and North Vietnamese soldiers as battle souvenirs.

Australian veterans, museums, military history rooms and even RSL clubs hold letters, certificates, diaries, photos and more that belonged to the dead, AAP reports.

Now, University of NSW researchers at the Australian Defence Force Academy (ADFA) want to find the items and return them.

The mission led by Vietnam veteran Dr Bob Hall grew out of a long-running project analysing operations of the Australian task force in Vietnam in 1966-71.

Operation Wandering Souls was conceived as a private humanitarian venture to help find some of Vietnam's estimated 300,000-600,000 missing dead of the Vietnam conflict.

Records enabled the researchers to eventually locate sites on battlegrounds where hundreds of Viet Cong and North Vietnamese soldiers were buried.

It appears some 3796 bodies were hastily interred in unmarked graves.

"There's a belief in Vietnam that if you die violently or die where you are not known, your spirit will wander," fellow researcher Derril De Heer said.

Victorian Vietnam veteran Laurens Wildeboer contacted the team to reveal he had a scarf, notebook and book of poetry from his time in Vietnam and asked if they could help give back the artifacts.

In a widely reported ceremony in Vietnam last year, the scarf and notebook were handed over to the dead soldier's mother.

"As a result, people have been giving us artifacts that have been taken from bodies - letters, photographs and other stuff," Mr De Heer said.

Among the cache is a collection of 40 pencil and charcoal sketches taken from the body of a soldier killed at the 1966 Battle of Long Tan. Other material is likely being held at the Australian War Memorial and RSL clubs. One military museum is believed to hold a gold ring taken from a dead soldier.

The research group wants federal government help to repatriate the materials to families and present unclaimed documents to appropriate institutions in Vietnam, but this has so far been refused.

The Geneva Convention specifies that at the end of hostilities, opposing sides must notify locations of war dead and return artifacts.

Australia has officially done neither, even though Vietnam helped in the search for the six Australians missing in action in Vietnam - all of whom were found and their remains returned to family.