US doctor returns bones of arm he amputated from Viet Cong fighter

Piece of luck allows ex-US army medic to give macabre memento back to one-time Vietcong

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 02 July, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 02 July, 2013, 1:55am


A US doctor yesterday returned arm bones to their former Vietcong owner, more than 40 years after he amputated the arm during the Vietnam conflict.

The bones were handed back to ex-soldier Nguyen Quang Hung at his house in the town of An Khe in Vietnam's highlands province of Gia Lai.

My arm bones are evidence of my contribution to the war. I will keep them in my house

"I was the custodian of this arm," United States doctor Sam Axelrad said, adding he was "unbelievably happy" to have been able to return the somewhat macabre war-time memento to its rightful owner.

After Hung was shot in 1966, Axelrad, then 27 and a military doctor, amputated his infected arm at a military hospital in central Binh Dinh province. Colleagues boiled off the flesh, reconstructed the arm bones and gave them to him, he said.

Axelrad, now a urologist, said he brought the skeletal keepsake back to the US as a reminder of doing a good deed. They sat in a military bag in his closet for decades, and he didn't look at them because he didn't want to relive his wartime experiences, he said.

When he finally went through his mementos in 2011, "it just blew me away what was in there", Axelrad said. "That kind of triggered my thoughts of returning."

Ex-soldier Hung, 73 and a father of seven, whose wife recently died, said he was thrilled to have his arm bones returned to him. "My arm bones are evidence of my contribution to the war. I will keep them in my house," he said yesterday.

Hung was surprised, to say the least, when he heard that he was to be reunited with his lost limb. "I don't think it's the kind of keepsake that most people would want to own," he said.

He was shot in October 1966 during an ambush about 75 kilometres from An Khe, his hometown in central Vietnam. After floating down a stream to escape the fighting and then sheltering in a rice warehouse for three days, he was evacuated by a US helicopter to Axelrad's military hospital.

It took luck for Axelrad to reunite Hung with his arm. He had travelled to Vietnam last summer - partly for a holiday, but also to try to find the man.

He said he wasn't sure Hung was still alive, or where to begin looking for him. Axelrad visited Hung's hometown but didn't ask for him there because he assumed he would be living in northern Vietnam.

But by chance, Axelrad met Vietnamese journalist Tran Quynh Hoa at a Hanoi hotel, and she later wrote an article in a widely read Vietnamese newspaper about his quest. Hung said his brother-in-law in Ho Chi Minh City read the article and contacted the newspaper's editors.

Additional reporting by Agence France-Presse