The lost notebook: How a Vietnam War memento's owner was found

By Duc Hung   February 6, 2023 | 03:48 pm PT
The lost notebook: How a Vietnam War memento's owner was found
A collage of two pages from a notebook that belonged to Vietnamese martyr Cao Xuan Tuat, which U.S. veteran Peter Mathews has been keeping for the last 56 years. Photos courtesy of Peter Mathews's Facebook page
Tran Nhat Tan, head of the Ha Tinh Fatherland Front Committee, said the search for soldier Cao Xuan Tuat as described in a notebook possessed by U.S. veteran Peter Mathews came to him like fate.

"I felt as if something was spurring me to find the notebook's owner," he said.

At 10:50 a.m. on January 30, Tan received a phone call from a reporter about what Ha Tinh authorities would do, following a number of news articles translated from the original interview by the North Jersey with Mathews. The 77-year-old veteran has spent decades trying to find the owner of the notebook, someone supposedly named Cao Xuan Tuat from Ky Anh District, Ha Tinh Province.

Tan contacted with leaders of both the Ky Anh District and the Ky Anh Commune, as well as other authorities in the central province of Ha Tinh, to see if there’s any deceased or former soldier who goes by the name Cao Xuan Tuat. After a population data check that went all the way back to 1921, Ha Tinh police said there was no one with the name Cao Xuan Tuat.

The Department of Labor, Invalids and Social Affairs meanwhile said there were 36 deceased soldiers from Ky Anh whose family name was Cao. Nine of them were named Tuat, and one of them was Cao Van Tuat, who’s from Ky Anh District.

Tan then came to Mathews’s website and email, preparing a link to the North Jersey report by Burrow Megan, hoping to make contact and gather information. However, he hesitated, fearing that a direct and sudden question would make Mathews and Megan reticent.

So Tan requested the help of professor Shannon Gramse, who works at the University of Alaska and had interacted with Tan during a business trip during this year’s New Year holiday. Tan wanted him to contact with Mathews and Megan, hoping their communication would be easier.

"Professor Shannon Gramse also cares about the article regarding the notes with the name Cao Xuan Tuat, so he agreed to connect me with Burrow Megan and Peter Mathews," Tan said.

With Gramse’s help, Tan wrote to Mathews and Megan, saying there was indeed a deceased soldier named Cao Van Tuat.

"It’s highly likely that Cao Van Tuat is the one you’ve been looking for. I would need all the pages in the notes; maybe there would be more concrete info inside them," Tan wrote.

Peter Mathews holds in his hands a diary belonging to a Vietnamese soldier that he has kept for the last 56 years. Photo by VnExpress/Dang Huyen

Peter Mathews holds in his hands a notebook belonging to a Vietnamese soldier that he has kept for the last 56 years. Photo by VnExpress/Dang Huyen


On January 31, Tan began to contact with Mathews through emails. However, the U.S. veteran was not exactly savvy with computers, so he could only send a few pictures at a time. With every image received, Tan would save them and hand them over to authorities for further analysis.

Communication between the two continued, and by 9:12 p.m. the same day, Tan received a photo of a page from the notes, saying that Cao Xuan Tuat’s family was located in Cao Thang Village. His father was Cao Xuan Ke, and his mother was Le Thi Vy, with a sister named Dieu.

"I got goosebumps reading it. I went silent for a few seconds, shocked at how everything fell into place so perfectly," Tan recalled.

Tan then called Ha Huy My, 63, in Cao Thang Village, who was caring for the late Cao Van Tuat’s post-death matters. He then asked about Van Tuat’s address and family members. Everything matched.

On February 1, authorities of Ha Tinh Province and Ky Anh District came to My’s house for info verification. Then they contacted Nguyen Tien Hue, from Ky Anh District, who was a comrade with Van Tuat. They sent him pictures of the notes.

"I’ve checked them very carefully. They are indeed Tuat’s handwriting," Hue said. He said he and Tuat grew up together, so he knew about Tuat’s love for art. When they were in the army, sometimes Hue and Tuat would meet, and Tuat would show his friends pages of poetry, art and music. That’s how Hue remembered Tuat’s handwriting, he said.

Tan then sent an email to Mathews and tell him what happened. Mathews then asked how had Tuat’s family reacted. When Tan said they were overjoyed, Mathews broke down in tears. It was 4 a.m. in the U.S. at the time.

Based on the data from the notes, archived documents and info gathered from living relatives and witnesses, authorities of Ky Anh District were able to confirm Cao Xuan Tuat and Cao Van Tuat to be indeed the same person.

Tuat, born in 1942, was the second-born in his family in Cao Thang Village, Ky Xuan Commune. His father was Cao Van Ke, and his mother was Le Thi Vy. He had three sisters: Cao Thi Dieu, Cao Thi Nong and Cao Thi Nanh. Tuat joined the army in 1963 and died in 1967. His final resting place was in a graveyard of Hoai Nhon Town, Binh Dinh Province.

Authorities of Ha Tinh has requested a lawyer in the U.S. to go to Mathews’s house, asking for his permission to photograph all of the notes, which include poems and paintings, as well as pages written by other people.

"The notes could be archived as education material, contributing to the friendship between Vietnam and the U.S.

Mathews said he was waiting to go to Vietnam soon, meet with Tuat’s family and return them his notebook.

go to top