Viet Cong soldier gets arm back 47 years after amputation

Dr Sam Axelrad, right, hands over arm bones belonging to former North Vietnamese soldier Nguyen Quang Hung. Pic: AP

A former American military doctor has returned the bones of an arm he amputated in 1966 to their Vietnamese owner.

Dr Sam Axelrad took them home as a reminder that when a badly injured North Vietnamese soldier was brought to him, he did the right thing and treated him. The bones sat in a cupboard for decades, and when he finally pulled them out two years ago, he wondered about their true owner, Nguyen Quang Hung.

The men were reunited at Mr Hung’s home in central Vietnam. They met each other’s children, and grandchildren, and joked about which of them had been better looking back when war had made them enemies. Mr Hung was stunned that someone had kept his bones for so long, but happy that when the time comes, they will be buried with him.

“I’m very glad to see him again and have that part of my body back after nearly half a century,” he said. “I’m proud to have shed my blood for my country’s reunification, and I consider myself very lucky compared with many of my comrades who were killed or remain unaccounted for.”

Mr Hung, 73, said American troops shot him in the arm in October 1966 during an ambush near An Khe, the town where he now lives. After floating down a stream to escape a firefight and then sheltering in a rice warehouse for three days, the Viet Cong fighter was evacuated by a US helicopter to a no-frills military hospital in Phu Cat, in central Binh Dinh province.

“When I was captured by the American forces, I was like a fish on a chopping-board,” he said. “They could have either killed or spared me.”

After surgery, he spent eight months recovering and another six assisting American military doctors. He spent the rest of the war offering private medical services in the town, and later served in local government for a decade before retiring on his rice farm.

“He probably thought we were going to put him in some prisoner-of-war camp,” said Dr Axelrad, a now-retired civilian doctor. “Surely he was totally surprised when we just took care of him.”

He said his medic colleagues boiled off the flesh, reconstructed the arm bones and gave them to him. It was hardly common practice, but he said it was a reminder of a good deed performed.

Mr Hung said: “I can’t believe that an American doctor took my infected arm, got rid of the flesh, dried it, took it home and kept it for more than 40 years. I don’t think it’s the kind of keepsake that most people would want to own.”

Vietnam is now a country full of young people who have no direct memory of the war, which ended in 1975 and killed an estimated 58,000 Americans and 3 million Vietnamese. But the war’s legacy persists in the minds of combat veterans who still are dealing with the events they witnessed in their youth.

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