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Bien Hoa Cemetery: The Last of Its Kind in Vietnam

Thuong Tiec, a memorial statue to the fallen ARVN soldiers, located at Bien Hoa before April 1975, when it was destroyed

Thuong Tiec, a memorial statue to the fallen ARVN soldiers, located at Bien Hoa before April 1975, when it was destroyed

Bien Hoa Cemetery, 2008

Bien Hoa Cemetery, 2008

This scene of overgrown wild grasses and trees, broken headstones, and mounds of fresh earth was once the site of the national military cemetery of the former Republic of Vietnam. Inaugurated in 1966, it housed the remains of the soldiers of the South Vietnamese military who passed away in the latter half of the war. Now, decades later, this abandoned and vandalized cemetery outside of Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City) is the last resting place for the old South Vietnamese regime in Vietnam. Since the takeover, their cemeteries have been paved over and replaced with industrial parks and playgrounds, often without proper reburial of remains.

In 2006, the Vietnamese government opened the cemetery to public use, with a clear purpose: if anyone may bury their dead here, then it is no longer an ARVN military cemetery, and the final neglected monument to the old government will fade from the country’s memory. Now called Binh An Cemetery, a brick kiln and factory has already been established on a portion of the site where the honored graves of the dead once stood. Untended and desecrated, the cemetery throbs with the pain of an open wound, where those who should have been honored and respected were outcast instead.

Bien Hoa Cemetery in 1994, compared with a photo taken before 1975

Bien Hoa Cemetery in 1994, compared with a photo taken before 1975

Bien Hoa Cemetery in 1994, compared with a photo taken before 1975

Bien Hoa Cemetery in 1994, compared with a photo taken before 1975

A North Vietnamese military cemetery

A North Vietnamese military cemetery in Vietnam

A memorial statue in Vietnam honoring the North Vietnamese soldiers

A memorial statue in Vietnam honoring the North Vietnamese soldiers

Common Humanity

One need not look far to find historical examples of post-war respect for the dead. Just as history is littered with examples of prejudice, discrimination and vengeful behavior on the part of peoples and governments, it has also witnessed the overcoming of such prejudices in favor of a common future.

The American Civil War (1861-1865) deeply divided North and South in a bloody and brutal conflict that pitted brother against brother. For years after the war ended, the two sides remained hostile and embittered. Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia was founded during the war as a military cemetery by Union General Montgomery C. Meigs on the property of Confederate General Robert E. Lee. After the war, it was considered a Union cemetery, even though hundreds of Confederate soldiers were also buried there. As a result, families of the fallen Confederate soldiers were not allowed to decorate the graves of their relatives and, in some cases, were not even permitted to enter the cemetery.

Finally, in 1900, the US Congress authorized the establishment of a special section for Confederate war dead, as a gesture of national reconciliation. Almost 500 Confederate officers, soldiers, wives, and civilians rest in concentric circles around a towering monument to the Confederate dead. Of the many inscriptions on the base of the monument, this one, attributed to the Reverend Randolph Harrison McKim, captures the spirit of the memorial:

Confederate Memorial at Arlington National Cemetery

Confederate Memorial at Arlington National Cemetery

Monument at the center of the Confederate Memorial at Arlington National Cemetery(Photo by Vincent Lynch)

Monument at the center of the Confederate Memorial at Arlington National Cemetery


Not for fame or reward
Not for place or for rank
Not lured by ambition
Or goaded by necessity
But in simple
Obedience to duty
As they understood it
These men suffered all
Sacrificed all
Dared all-and died


La Cambe(Photo by Bjarki Sigursveinsson)

La Cambe German Military Cemetery in France

Camp Chase Confederate Cemetery Memorial in Columbus, OH (Photo by Paul LaRue)

Camp Chase Confederate Cemetery Memorial in Columbus, OH

Another example from the American Civil War, Camp Chase, located in Columbus, Ohio, was a Union POW camp for Confederate soldiers. Those who died while in captivity were buried here. After the war ended, the site was allowed to deteriorate until restored at the turn of the century. Now well tended as a historical site, at its center rests a memorial with the word, “Americans,” chiseled in its arch.

In 1954, less than 10 years after WWII, the German War Graves Commission extended its mission to the establishment and upkeep of cemeteries abroad. In Normandy alone, the Service d’Entretien des S├ępultures Militaires Allemandes (German Military Burials Maintenance Service or S.E.S.M.A.) maintains six main German cemeteries honoring WWII war dead. In the UK, the Commonwealth Graves Commission oversees the Cannok Chase German War Cemetery of WWI and II dead. The fallen German soldiers, hardened enemies to the British and French in both wars, are treated with respect. Though they were enemy combatants, they share a common humanity, and should be allowed to rest in peace. It is difficult to recognize this in a wartime enemy, but it is necessary to reconcile with the past and move forward.

Moving Forward

These men may have fought on opposing sides, but they were all Vietnamese soldiers who sacrificed their lives for the future of their cherished country. How can we allow some to be glorified while others are cast aside and forgotten? The Vietnamese government shames itself by allowing these offenses to continue, yet the administration even now has a chance to do what is honorable by respecting each of its fallen countrymen. To do so, the government must cooperate with our efforts.

The Returning Casualty has applied for a permit to restore the Bien Hoa Cemetery. When given permission, we intend to properly bury the unidentifiable remains we discover in reeducation camp graves and a group of unknown soldiers found in a mass grave on the grounds. While those who died in the reeducation camps were civilians imprisoned by the Vietnamese government after the war ended, many were ARVN soldiers and officers, and all were servants of their country who deserve distinction for their sacrifice.

In Vietnam, there will be a place to remember the past. Left untended, the wounds of the war cannot heal.

Related Links

Selected articles on Bien Hoa Cemetery compiled by an American Vietnam War Veteran
German War Graves Commission Homepage (In English)
Confederate Memorial at Arlington National Cemetery
National Park Service Lesson on Camp Chase in Columbus, Ohio, USA

TRC Envoy Meets US Officials in Vietnam

Timothy Swanson, Chief of the Humanitarian Resettlement Section at the US Consulate, meets with Chairman Thanh Nguyen of TRC in November

Timothy Swanson, Chief of the Humanitarian Resettlement Section at the US Consulate, meets with Chairman Thanh Nguyen of TRC in November

Brian Aggeler, Counselor of Political Affairs at the US Embassy, meets with Chairman Thanh Nguyen of TRC in October

Brian Aggeler, Counselor of Political Affairs at the US Embassy, meets with Chairman Thanh Nguyen of TRC in October

While in Vietnam last October and November, TRC met with US officials at the Embassy and Consulate regarding our efforts in the reeducation camps.

Mr. Brian Aggeler, Counselor of Political Affairs at the US Embassy in Hanoi, pledged his support to our humanitarian project. During the meeting, we discussed the most efficient and tactful way to solicit information and permits from the Vietnamese government.

After this meeting, Mr. Aggeler introduced us to Mr. Timothy Swanson, Chief of the Humanitarian Resettlement Section at the US Consulate General in Saigon. He oversees the immigration of former US allies in Vietnam to the United States under the Orderly Departure Program (closed in 1994 and reopened in 2005). This program was established as the Humanitarian Operation in 1979 to allow for the immigration of former South Vietnamese officials and soldiers who would suffer discrimination and abuse under the new regime. It was later extended to include the wives and, under the McCain Amendment, the children of those who died in reeducation camps. These family members of the deceased must produce their relative’s death certificate with their application for resettlement.

In Saigon, we brought the cases of three families who were denied resettlement because they could not produce a death certificate to Mr. Swanson’s attention. While the reeducation camps were still in operation, many families were not informed of their relative’s whereabouts and some did not receive a death certificate upon their relative’s death. Having recently assisted these families with the recovery of their relative’s remains, Chairman Thanh Nguyen offered to act as a witness confirming that their relative had indeed passed away in the camps. The families also provided photos and other documents proving their relationship with the deceased.

In the future, we hope to be able to provide DNA testing of remains, so that the families will know for certain that they have finally found their loved ones. In lieu of a death certificate, DNA test results will prove invaluable to those who wish to apply for resettlement. We are currently seeking a meeting with the Joint POW-MIA Accounting Command (JPAC) at the US Embassy in Hanoi, a detachment of the US Military already using DNA testing to confirm the identities of American remains discovered in Vietnam.

Related Links

US Embassy in Hanoi
US Consulate General in Saigon
US Joint POW-MIA Accounting Command (JPAC)

New website to launch October 27th

We’ve been hard at work on our official website and are finally ready to reveal it to the public. The new site will feature personal histories, a photo gallery, news, and more in depth information about The Returning Casualty. It also offers a chance to get involved by contributing through a secure online donation page.

We’re excited about expanding our presence on the web and connecting with more people in the community. Visit this web address on Monday, October 27, to experience our new website in action!

TRC travels to Vietnam

A marked grave located at Yen Bai, December 2007

A marked grave located at Yen Bai, Dec 2007

Many sites are only accessible by motorcycle

Many sites are only accessible by motorcycle

On the train to Hanoi

On the train to Hanoi

The camp burial grounds are abandoned and overgrown.

The camp burial grounds are abandoned and overgrown

This morning, Chairman Thanh Nguyen and members of our Foundation boarded a plane for a 2 month trip to Vietnam. While overseas, they will engage in another round of remains recovery, assisting a new group of families locate and recover the remains of their relatives in the isolated jungle camps. Over the next 2 months, more of these brave family men will finally be reunited with their families and given the honorable burial they deserve.

Return to this blog in the coming weeks for specific updates from our members about their experiences and accomplishments as they travel in Vietnam.

Official Blog Launch

Welcome to the blog for The Returning Casualty, a project of the Vietnamese American Foundation. Here you’ll find updates on all of our latest actions. If you want to know more about our organization, check out the “About Us” page. Until our official website launches, this will be our home on the web, so check back often and look for our new website in October!

Mission

The mission of The Returning Casualty is to bring closure and peace to the South Vietnamese people who lost relatives in the post-war re-education camps by helping them locate and recover the remains of their loved ones.

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