- Associated Press - Monday, June 4, 2012

HANOI, Vietnam — In a poignant postscript to war, the writings of an American soldier describing the carnage and exhaustion surrounding him before he was killed more than 40 years ago were seen for the first time when Vietnamese officials traded his letters for the diary of a Vietnamese soldier.

Vietnamese Defense Minister Phung Quang Thanh delivered the letters to Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta in Hanoi on Monday. Mr. Panetta, in turn, gave Mr. Thanh a small maroon diary that had been taken from the body of a Vietnamese soldier by an American soldier who then had brought it back to the United States.

Defense officials said the Vietnamese had used the letters by Army Sgt. Steve Flaherty as propaganda.

“I felt bullets going past me,” Sgt, Flaherty, from Columbia, S.C., wrote to someone named Betty. “I have never been so scared in my life.”

To his mother he wrote, “If Dad calls, tell him I got too close to being dead but I’m O.K. I was real lucky. I’ll write again soon.”

To a Mrs. Wyatt, he nevertheless suggested he believed in the mission.

“This is a dirty and cruel war but I’m sure people will understand the purpose of this war even though many of us might not agree,” he wrote in excerpts released by U.S. defense officials.

Officials said this is the first time such a joint exchange of war artifacts has occurred. The two defense leaders agreed to return the papers to the families of the deceased soldiers.

Sgt. Flaherty, who was with the 101st Airborne, was killed in the northern section of South Vietnam in March 1969. According to defense officials, Vietnamese forces took his letters and used them in broadcasts during the war.

Vietnamese Col. Nguyen Phu Dat kept the letters. It was not until last August, when he mentioned them in an online publication, that they started to come to light.

Early this year, Robert Destatte, a retired Defense Department employee who had worked for the POW/MIA office, noticed the online publication, and the Pentagon began to work to get the letters back to Sgt. Flaherty’s family.

At a news conference, the Vietnamese government also announced its agreement to open three new sites in the country for excavation by the United States to search for troop remains from the Vietnam War.

The two defense chiefs also said their countries want to work together, regardless of whether the enhanced relationship troubles China.

Beijing has expressed concern over America’s new defense strategy of putting more focus on the Asia-Pacific region, including plans to increase the number of troops, ships and other military assets in the region.

Mr. Panetta said the U.S. goal is to help strengthen the capabilities of countries across the region.

“Frankly the most destabilizing situation would be if we had a group of weak nations and only the United States and China were major powers in this region,” Mr. Panetta said.

Defense officials reviewing the packet of papers given to Mr. Panetta said there appear to be three sets of letters, including the four written by Sgt. Flaherty. It was not clear how many other service members’ letters were there, but officials were going through them Monday.

Ron Ward, U.S. casualty resolution specialist at the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command in Hanoi, said there are at least four U.S. troops believed to have been lost in the three areas that were opened by the Vietnamese Monday. Mr. Ward said the Vietnamese are still restricting access to eight other sites.

Nearly 1,300 troops are still unaccounted for, and officers briefing Mr. Panetta said the remains in about 600 of those cases could be recoverable.

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