A diary taken in war, offered in peace

A diary's long road back from a Walla Walla man's home to Vietnam is featured on a PBS show, 'History Detectives.'

Vietnam veteran Bob Frazure of Walla Walla talks about his experiences during the war. After 46 years holding on to a little red diary he picked up from a dead Vietnamese soldier, Frazure tried to free himself of the event by giving the diary to a friend who, with the help of PBS's show "History Detectives," returned it to Vietnam.

Vietnam veteran Bob Frazure of Walla Walla talks about his experiences during the war. After 46 years holding on to a little red diary he picked up from a dead Vietnamese soldier, Frazure tried to free himself of the event by giving the diary to a friend who, with the help of PBS's show "History Detectives," returned it to Vietnam. Photo by Matthew Zimmerman Banderas.

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Bob Frazure

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Walla Walla resident Bob Frazure will be featured in PBS's premiere of "History Detectives" on Tuesday (8 p.m. ET). Check local listings for the time.

The episode description: "Can HISTORY DETECTIVES return the diary of a fallen North Vietnamese soldier to that veteran's family? U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta takes part in the exchange. Then, this notebook, with recipes for large volumes of liquor, makes an Indiana man wonder if his rich uncle earned money bootlegging during the Prohibition. And, what can this ledger tell us about how Hollywood treated Native American actors? How did they earn their pay? Did producers treat them fairly?"

The little red book sat untouched in a porcelain bowl for at least 35 years.

What will go down in history in the first exchange of soldiers' artifacts between the U.S. and Vietnamese governments last summer was possible largely because Walla Walla resident Bob Frazure didn't know what else to do with that red booklet.

He realized early on it was a diary after stuffing it into his shirt on the grisly battlefield in North Vietnam in 1966. There was a picture of two girls tucked safely in its pages, scrawls on the pages in a language he couldn't understand.

Originally intended as a souvenir from Operation Indiana, the booklet was picked up by Frazure from the chest of a dead North Vietnamese Army soldier he spotted near a machine gunner pit. It seemed odd at the time that it had been so prominently displayed.

Once Frazure returned to U.S. soil nine months later, it didn't take long before regrets sunk in about having it. But returning it proved more difficult than he could have imagined. It sat undisturbed in his home for decades.

With help from a television show, Frazure finally found the answer. The result was a miraculous return of the diary to Vietnam last summer in the historic exchange between the Vietnamese and U.S. governments.

"It's finally back now where it belongs," Frazure said across a table on the patio of his part-time home on Isaacs Avenue.

What started as a wartime memento has become a family's link to their fallen soldier, a treasured artifact for the Vietnam government destined for a military museum in Hanoi and a symbol of progress in the relationship between the U.S. and its former foe, hand-delivered by U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta.

Its return is credited largely to PBS television show "History Detectives," which will feature the story in its premiere episode Tuesday.

Frazure, a retired Walla Walla County roads department employee, would have liked to have made the trip to Vietnam with diary in hand himself, but he has battled health problems over the last several years. He has chronic pulmonary disease, for which he has been on oxygen 10 years, and his voice is weakened from a battle with cancer. Doctors told him he might not speak again when he started radiation earlier this year. But his soft rasp is still unwavering, and his memory of his time in Vietnam is even stronger.

On March 29, 1966, Frazure was a corporal and squad leader for Bravo Company, First Battalion 7th Marines. His unit was sent in to clean up after a brutal firefight that left 11 Charlie Company Marines dead and about 55 wounded.

Along the bloodied battlefield, they carried out their fallen brethren. While moving through the area, Frazure came upon the North Vietnamese soldier, Vu Dinh Doan. On his chest was the booklet. Frazure picked it up, shoved it in his shirt and took it back to base. He packed it in his seabag and didn't open it until his return to America. At that point he said he merely found a new spot for it.

Newly married to his wife, Pat, Frazure was discharged in 1967 and returned to Walla Walla with his bride. He worked for numerous outfits -- Pringle's Sew & Vac, Lousiana Pacific, Craik Lumber and many others -- before going to work for the county.

The book vexed him. "At different times, something would bring back the memory of that diary," he explained.

"It started to be something I didn't want. Something I wasn't so proud of."

In the 1970s, when the Veterans Administration was reaching out to Vietnam vets because of the effects of Agent Orange he recalled asking someone at the local VA hospital about what to do with it. No one knew. The same was true with media resources. The challenge was certainly exacerbated by the tensions that continued to exist between the two countries.

"Nobody knew what to do," Frazure said.

He and Pat set up their home on remote Saddle Mountain Road where they were eight miles from commercial electricity and continued to live like that until recently. They only got the internet about five years ago.

Despite his desire to rid himself of the diary, Frazure said he couldn't bring himself to throw it away.

"At one point, I was going to burn it. But something kept telling me, it ain't mine," he said.

Around Memorial Day 2011, Frazure got an itch to see if he could track down Marine friends on the Internet. He found one in Texas. Within days he heard from the sister of another who had died in action. Missouri resident Marge Garner wanted to know everything she could learn about the death of her brother, Gary, about whom she had written a book.

As a "thank you" to Frazure -- known during his Marine days as "Ira" -- she sent a copy of one of the books she'd written. In exchange, he asked if she would like to have the red diary. It was this gesture that set the ball in motion for the book's return to Vietnam.

Not knowing what to do with the journal, Garner contacted PBS's "History Detectives." The show's contact with the federal government began the journey.

Last June, Panetta made a historic visit to Hanoi with the diary in hand. The trip was designed to boost military ties with a tour of Asia.

Panetta presented Vietnamese Defense Minister Phuong Quang Thanh with the diary. In exchange, Panetta brought back letters penned by U.S. Army Sgt. Steve Flaherty that had reportedly fallen into the hands of North Vietnamese soldiers when Flaherty was killed in March 1969.

Panetta's trip included a visit to a former U.S. Navy base in Cam Ranh Bay. It was the first of its kind by an American defense secretary since U.S. forces had pulled out of Vietnam.

The next day Panetta announced Vietnam was opening three new areas of the country for U.S. recovery operations of remains, a development that is huge for America, Frazure said.

"We've still got a lot of men over that they've never found," he said.

On the homefront, Frazure received a note of thanks from Panetta for the diary. Unfortunately, the widow of Vu Dinh Doan died just weeks before the Vietnam government released it for the family to see, Frazure said.

Nevertheless it has been viewed by other family members, including the soldier's children and grandchildren. Vu Dinh Doan has become a martyr in his country.

Last summer Garner organized a reunion in Missouri. Frazure and his wife traveled cross-country for the event. It was there that "History Detectives" shot their interview of Frazure for the upcoming episode.

Frazure said his email inbox has been more active than it's ever been. A man who has lived a relatively quiet existence in a remote mountainside where the crisp air feels better on his lungs has received probably 40 emails from Hanoi or other parts of Vietnam over the last two weeks. Another dozen or so have come from Washington, D.C. On Friday, he and Pat host reporters from the Vietnamese Army's military newspaper.

He still marvels at how everything came together: the red book, the years wondering what to do with it, the decades of tension slowly lifting, the connections to the Marines and their family members, the timing of Panetta's visit.

"All the stars and everything had to be perfectly aligned for this to happen," Frazure said.

"I'm so glad (the diary) got back to the family. I just wish I could have gotten it back earlier."

Comments

wondering 2 years, 2 months ago

Wow what a great story! You really are a true hero Bob Frazure! Thank you so much...

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