[Operation Wandering Souls]

SITREP 16 August 2010 (Translation of Vietnamese news article)

Australian vets create virtual map of Vietnam’s ‘wandering souls’ 

Australian veterans seeking to help Vietnam recover its MIAs cannot work without official support, researchers say
Phan Chien (L), chairman of the Ba Ria -Vung Tau Veterans’ Association, and Colonel Stuart Dodds, defense attaché of the Australian Embassy in Hanoi, at a memorial service held at the war martyrs’ cemetery in the southern province of Ba Ria-Vung Tau on July 27

A group of Australian military researchers have taken another step in assisting the Vietnamese government in recovering their missing war dead.

Dr. Bob Hall and colleagues have compiled available data on the burial locations of Vietnamese soldiers killed in battles with Australian and New Zealand forces during the war. They have also launched a web page dedicated to urging Vietnam War vets from Australia and New Zealand to return personal effects taken from felled Vietnamese soldiers.

Statistics have estimated that around 300,000 Vietnamese soldiers are still listed as missing in action.

During the war, Australian army forces buried the bodies of Vietnamese soldiers killed in battle and logged the burial sites in their daily unit war diaries. These logs are considered the best available information for recovering Vietnamese remains - they provide both dates and locations of battles in which one or more Vietnamese soldiers was killed. While many of these burial sites are already known to Vietnamese authorities, others may not be.

In March, Hall travelled to Vietnam with Derrill de Heer. Both men had served in the war and now work as military researchers at the University of New South Wales at the Australian Defense Force Academy.

During their spring visit, de Heer and Hall presented Vietnamese military officials with the suspected burial sites of around 3,700 soldiers killed in two provinces occupied by Australian troops from 1966 to 1972.

Vietnamese officials responded by giving the pair some names of Vietnamese MIAs as well as the dates they went missing to cross reference with the Australian burial logs.

At the end of July, Hall and de Heer returned to Ba Ria-Vung Tau Province - one of the two areas occupied by Aussie troops – to reveal their findings.

“In a number of cases, we were able to describe the people who were buried at the sites by name,” Hall told Thanh Nien Weekly.

Hall heads Operation Wandering Souls, a project funded by the Australian Research Council, which seeks to create a virtual map of Vietnamese soldiers buried on battlefield sites. So far, the research team has successfully converted military reference points to latitude and longitude and plotted them on maps generated by Google Earth.

Just the beginning
This photograph was found on the body of a Vietnamese soldier killed in action in 1968 during fighting in northwest Ba Ria -Vung Tau Province. Australian military researchers say they are hoping to return it to his family.

The Australian academics say the burial sites they have identified constitute the earliest stages of their pilot project – none of which have yet been exhumed.

“If we had the names of all the soldiers who died in battle we should be able, with a good degree of probability, to identify soldiers in specific locations,” de Heer said. “[But] this part cannot move forward until the Vietnamese officials provide this data.”

Phan Chien, chairman of the Ba Ria-Vung Tau Veterans’ Association, confirmed his organization and other local agencies would assist the group with their work.

“Vietnamese families would be very grateful to learn the fate of their loved ones killed or missing in action thanks to the project,” Chien said.

Last week, Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Nguyen Phuong Nga told Thanh Nien Weekly that Vietnam has been working to verify all the information provided by the Australian researchers.

“Vietnam welcomes any kind of cooperation in the search for Vietnamese soldiers missing in action during the war,” Nga said.

Mementos come home

Hall and de Heer launched a campaign to urge Australian and New Zealand war veterans to hand over any personal effects captured in the field (e.g. photographs, diaries, or letters). The pair have encouraged such veterans to contact the group through the website

“There is interest from retired Australian and New Zealand soldiers in returning items they have held since the war,” de Heer said - though he declined to elaborate on the number of objects recovered because the website had been up for only three weeks. So far, he added, no Vietnamese families have contacted the research group.

“Maybe we’ll come back and give an exhibition [of the photographs, diaries, and letters],” Dr. Hall said. “That would be something we would like to do in the future.”

Hall added that this part of the project was in its early stages and that the success of it would depend upon the response of the Australian and New Zealand veterans.

Colonel Stuart Dodds, defense attaché of the Australian Embassy in Hanoi, expressed enthusiasm for the effort in a recent interview. “I’m very encouraged,” Dodds said. “Australia looks forward to working with Vietnam in the future to resolve the missing in action issues as a humanitarian effort.”

Making amends

Hall said this project, named Operation Wandering Souls, aims to reciprocate Vietnam’s efforts to repatriate the remains of six Australian MIAs.

The project took its name from the Vietnamese belief that if a person dies in a place where he is not known or dies in a violent death, his spirit will wander.

As a veteran, Hall felt the need to do something for Vietnamese soldiers.

“I think this is a thing that other soldiers would recognize, as a thing that should be done. It is lucky that we [are] in a position that we can do it.”

De Heer says that his motives go all the way back to 1970.

During the war, he recalled, a Vietnamese man asked him to help him find his son who had been killed in contact with Australian soldiers a week earlier and buried near a local beach.

De Heer and his men dug the man’s son up out of the sand and wrapped it up in a poncho.

“It was a clean wound, thank goodness,” de Heer said. “But I’ve never seen so much grief in my life.”

Reported by An Dien 

SITREP 10 August 2010 (email from Bob Hall)

The visit to Vietnam was very successful i n regard to Operation Wandering Souls (but a little less so in regard to research about the battle of Binh Ba – but that’s another story). We took over our database, including the new data we have showing the locations of some 33 PAVN Regiment, 274 Regiment and D445 contact sites for which we know the names of persons buried at the site. We also took over copies of Alastair’s photograph and a couple of the commendation certificates that vets have given us through our website.

 We had meetings with the Vung Tau Veterans Association, whose Chairman, Mr Phan Chien, arranged a second meeting for us with representatives of the Department of Labour, War Invalids and Social Affairs (the Vietnamese equivalent of our DVA), and a representative from the Vietnam People’s Army. We also visited the Dat Do Veterans’ Association, specifically to demonstrate to them the info we had on burial sites of D445 soldiers. Likewise, we demonstrated to representatives of 33 PAVN Regiment the info we had on the burial sites of 33 Regiment soldiers.

 Bob and Derrill meeting with representatives of the Department of Labour, War Invalids and Social Affairs, the Vietnam People’s Army and the Vung Tau Veterans Association, at Vung Tau,
Thursday 29 July.

 We were received very positively by each group. They expressed their strong support for our work and left us in no doubt that they valued what we were doing. They were particularly excited by Alastair’s photo and the commendation certificates. On giving them the photo they examined it closely agreeing that it was of a Medical Corps Sergeant, a member of the PAVN. We gave them the story behind the photo and showed them on the maps we had where the contact had taken place. They were very interested in the story and wanted to know whatever information we could provide them about where the photo had been found. They were also very interested in the commendation certificates. They studied them closely and noted the units involved.

 The Vung Tau Vets Association (and Department of Labour, War Invalids and Social Affairs and the VPA representatives) said that they greatly appreciated any effort we could make to return items like the photograph to the families of the martyrs. They said that they would do whatever they could to give us the names of the martyrs. They told us that the lists of names are controlled at the District level by the District People’s Committee and a complete list for the whole of the Province would have to be assembled from each of the District lists. But they seemed to suggest that this could be done.

 While in Vung Tau we were interviewed by a journalist, Mr An Dien, from Thanh Nien newspaper. It’s a national newspaper with a circulation of about 1 million. He was very interested in the background of the project and wanted to help as much as he could. He offered to include the photograph in a story about the project. He asked us what the media could do to help the project. We told him that by publishing the photograph and other items we might be given later, he would help by improving our chances of linking these items with the families they belong to.

 His article should be out in the next few days. When I get a copy I’ll relay it to you.  Link to newspaper article or link to translation above.

 So far we’ve had about 12 responses to our website with vets providing commendation certificates and giving other info identifying by name those interred at specific sites. Hopefully, info will continue to trickle in. Thanks to all those who have given us information to this point.

 While at the 33 Regiment reunion at Binh Ba we were given the opportunity to tell the assembled veterans about our project and how we hoped to be able to identify by name those 33 Regiment soldiers interred at particular sites. After the formal speeches were over many veterans came up to us and thanked us for what we are trying to do. One of the things that struck me was that during the proceedings several people made announcements appealing for anyone who knew anything about the fate of soldier X or Y to please tell his family members who are anxious to find out anything about his death and burial place.

An elderly lady took my hand and led me to some photographs where she pointed out her husband. She said he had been killed in 1974 and she wanted to know where he was buried. We told her that unfortunately we could only account for those killed by 1ATF which had departed from Vietnam at the end of 1971. But it brought home to us the longing for some resolution of the fate of their loved ones that many Vietnamese still feel.

SITREP 22 July 2010

The web page went live on 16 July 2010 and already Bob has done radio interviews on Darwin ABC and Radio Australia.  There are articles in the The Australian and Australian Online and we expect that there will be media coverage from the Vietnamese language edition of the BBC  World service and Thanh Nien, a major Vietnamese newspaper with a circulation of 1 million.

In that six days 10 responses have been submitted through the web form, including a couple of people who have emailed scanned images of commendation certificates for named soldiers where they know the details of the contact. So we are starting to get the info that we are hoping for. Bob will be taking copies of the photo below, plus copies of the scanned commendation certificates to Vietnam for their discussions with the Veterans’ groups there. The group flies out on the 23rd (tomorrow as this update is posted).

The team has also found several 1 ATF intelligence reports that identify by name some D445 and 274 Regiment soldiers killed in action at particular contacts. These have been plotted on Google Earth and that work will go to Vietnam as well.

We’re hoping that by seeing what we can do to identify the resting places of specific soldiers, the Vietnamese will be encouraged to give us more info on the names and dates of death of their MIAs and we’ll be able to do a much more complete job of linking names to burial sites for them.

The team will also be meeting the Australian Defence Attache in Vung Tau and with him will attend the Vietnamese ‘Remembrance Day’ at the Go Cat cemetery – the biggest war cemetery in the Province – just on the outskirts of Baria.

The photograph (above right) was found on the body of a Vietnamese killed in action (KIA) by 3 Platoon W Company, 4 RAR/NZ (ANZAC) in a contact on 12 Aug 1968 in the Nui Dinh hills. We are now hoping to return it to his family.

Thanks very much for your help

If you would like to contact the project team you can do so as follows:

Or call him on 02 62688848 during working hours or on 0439 887580

Or call him on 0262688921 during working hours

I If you would like to contact the team by mail the postal address is:
Dr Bob Hall
Northcott Drive