|Veteran Peter Mathews keeps the notebook and related articles and documents carefully in his house. (Photo: VOV)
In Peter’s small house in Bergenfield, the notebook and related articles and documents are carefully arranged on a table.
“We found a book while we were on a hilltop, and they gave it a number. It was Hilltop 724, and it was a couple of miles outside of Dac To and so we went in there to relieve another unit who had been on top of that hill. I spent about, I think, four or five nights there. By that time, the conflict of that hill died down so we knew that they probably left to a different area,” Peter recalled.
“It was normal after something like that, we would go down the hill and look for evidence or try, you know, call it the body count. And I came up on an area where, I say, four or five backpacks pretty much scattered, but none of them was attached to a person. There were some persons around who were killed. So we looked through it. We looked for papers, military information, and I happened to open this and found a booklet. And upon looking at it, I realized that there is no way that was military information. It was stunningly beautiful, the artwork, the handwriting. So I was thinking if I turn this in, it has no value as far as military. And I had no conflict but keeping it cuz I appreciated the work.”
“Well, in back of my mind, I had hope to find the writer, himself, because I can't even say that, you know, since I did not see it on the body itself, I wasn't even a hundred percent sure that the person was indeed deceased. So that was my ultimate goal to return it possibly, and that's why I took it with me,” said Peter.
|The notebook has been with Peter for over 50 years. (Photo: VOV)
After the war, Peter returned to the US and put away his medals, military uniform, and the war notebook as a way to forget his memories of the war time. Now, at the age of 80, Peter thinks it’s time for him to return the notebook to its owner. The notebook is full of drawings, writings, songs, poetry, President HCM’s teachings, and stories in Vietnamese, mostly written in 1966.
Following a report on Peter’s notebook by a US newspaper, the news spread and martyr Cao Van Tuat in Ky Anh district, Ha Tinh province was identified as the likely owner of the notebook. Peter was moved to receive a response from Vietnam and conceived a trip to Vietnam to return the notebook to its owner.
“I remember it was about three o'clock in the morning here when they found, and when they went to the sister (of martyr Tuat)’s house and I saw it on camera, and I cried. I must say, you know, my tears, some of it from emotional and some of it from happiness, but to see the sisters, you know, it was very, very nice and I can't wait to meet them and give it to them. So I thought for me, I'm just the keeper of the book for these years, but it's never mine to keep, and I hope the family, they can do whatever they want to do. It's not mine, it's theirs. I hope it gets published, maybe or some people will read about it. I now start to feel better because I know it's going to go someplace where it belongs.”
|Peter shares his story with a VOV reporter. (Photo: VOV)
Peter and his wife have arrived in Vietnam and is scheduled to pay a visit to martyr Cao Xuan Tuat’s family in Ha Tinh province to give back the notebook.
“I was thinking of writing something to tell them, but I'm not good at that. I don't want to just stand there and sound like I'm gonna read something to them. I want to face them and I wanna speak from the heart at the time. Maybe it's just crying. Maybe it's silence in 10 minutes, two minutes. I have no idea. Because I don't want it to be written or anything like that. I need to be myself,” he said.
This is Peter’s first trip to Vietnam since he returned to the US in 1967. He is excited to find out how Vietnam has changed.
“I'm looking to see a country that is prosperous, that's at peace, that is open to visitors. And I think it is like I said, the responses I have from the Vietnamese people have been so kind, and it's amazing. So in that respect, I'm very happy to go back, take a look at the new Vietnam.”