Peter Mathews has kept a Vietnamese soldier’s diary since in 1967. Now he’s trying to return it to its owner.
“Found a north Vietnamese diary, 93 pages, November 1967 during the battle of DakTo on hill 724 while with the 1st Cav. Would like to find relatives and return it,” Mathews, a 77-year-old U.S. veteran from New Jersey, wrote on his Facebook page late last month.
In an interview with North Jersey, Mathews said he’s had the notebook for 56 years.
All he thinks he knows about the notebook is that what’s inside was probably written by a soldier named Cao Xuan Tat from Ky Anh in Ha Tinh Province.
Mathews said that finding the family of the soldier and returning the diary could help lend closure to a turbulent chapter of his life.
“My dream is if we can find him, to take a trip out there and present it… I plan to put closure to it. At my age, now I feel it’s time,” he said.
Born in the Netherlands, Mathews migrated to the U.S. in 1963. He was drafted in 1966 and then deployed to Vietnam.
Mathews fought in the Central Highlands in 1967, namely at the battle of Dak To in Kon Tum Province, which took place at the height of the Vietnam War, according to professor Michael Rockland from Rutgers University, who has spent years researching the Vietnam War.
He found the notebook on the battlefield after a four-day fight in November 1967, while he was searching items and equipment left behind by Vietnamese soldiers.
The notebook was full of drawings and writings in Vietnamese that Mathews thought were songs, poetry and stories. He said he did not report the notebook to higher ups because he thought it was a simple diary, not military information.
After returning from the war, Mathews went on with his life: he got married and founded a small construction company. He kept the notebook and never forgot about it. Over the years, his children often encouraged him to open up more about his time in Vietnam.
Mathews’ curiosity about the notebook was piqued when he learned that one of his customers had adopted two children of Vietnamese descent. The customer had traveled to Vietnam multiple times and offered to help Mathew translate a few pages of the notebook.
Mathews then shared some translations from the notebook on social media, hoping to find out who the diary belonged to.
He said the posts generated interest from a Harvard professor who wanted to help research the book. A collector even offered to buy it for $1,200.
Both Andrew Pham, the translator of the diary of late Vietnamese soldier Dang Thuy Tram (“Last Night I Dreamed of Peace”), and former war journalist Frances Fitzgerald proposed that Mathews consider publishing the notebook.
Tran Nhat Tan, head of the Ha Tinh Fatherland Front Committee in the central Vietnam province, on Wednesday said the committee was cooperating with local authorities to help Mathews verify the information of his story.
Authorities of Ky Anh District have verified that there was a deceased soldier who went by the name Cao Van Tuat, similar to the name which appears in the notebook.
On Monday, Mathews posted on his website that he found two of Cao Xuan Tuat’s siblings. He posted pictures of two women speaking with Ha Tinh authorities while inspecting a book.
Tan, however, said the verification process was still ongoing.
“It is likely that the late soldier Cao Van Tuat is the one mentioned in the notebook, but there is other information that requires more verification,” Tan said, adding that once the results of his investigation are confirmed, authorities may invite Mathews to Vietnam to return the notebook.
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