The VVA Veteran® Online

May/June 2016

Photo: Mokie Porter

”Their Spirits Will Live: Tran Van Ban and the Veterans Initiative”


While in Ho Chi Minh City last year, the Veterans Initiative met with Dr. Tran Van Ban. He was familiar with VVA’s VI program and wanted to exchange information regarding those missing in action from the war.

Photo: Mokie PorterIn his book, Nguyen Thi Ngoc Hai (I Died. The World Started Living), Dr. Ban recounted his experiences during the war—leaving his home in Phuong Tru, near the Red River south of Hanoi; enduring the war years as a doctor in Cu Chi, Trang Bang, and Ben Cat; and his postwar years recovering war dead by using information from personal notes, maps, and diagrams of burial sites in South Vietnam. The account won Vietnam’s highest literary prize in 1997.

Dr. Ban brought to the meeting five worn composition notebooks, similar to those owned by schoolboys. Each was filled with his notes, diagrams, and hand-drawn maps. This was his personal library of the locations of bodies that he had buried and—in many cases—recovered. He asked the VI team to help him obtain archival information that might further the identification and retrieval of war casualties.

For more than two hours, Ban and the VVA team reviewed the master list of VI case files, comparing them with his journals. Dr. Ban was particularly interested in cases located in areas where he had buried war dead, and information was exchanged.

Photo: Mokie PorterDuring the meeting, Dr. Ban described his own record-keeping and how, before he buried each fallen comrade, he would write his name on a piece of paper, place it in a glass vial, and insert it in each man’s mouth—with the hope of one day returning to recover the remains. He recorded his memories and “dreams” in notebooks. They helped him relocate burial sites. “Their spirits will live, as long as we do not forget them,” he wrote in his memoir.

Of the 653 soldiers who traveled with him from the North to the South, Dr. Ban is one of fewer than fifty to survive the war. He has worked with U.S. recovery teams in past missions, helping locate American MIAs. In a PBS documentary, Dr. Ban said: “I’m sad that the number I’ve found is so small compared to the number of mothers and fathers dreaming of finding their children.”

Grant Coates is the POW/MIA Affairs Committee co-chair. His email is

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