Last Night I Dreamed of Peace: the Story of Dr. Dang Thuy Tram

Bombing raid in South Vietnam
Bombing raid in South Vietnam | © Nguyen Ngoc Chinh / Flickr

On June 22nd, 1970, American combat troops in central Vietnam spotted four people trekking through the dense jungle. They identified one as a North Vietnamese soldier and opened fire on the group, killing the soldier and one woman as the others fled. The woman’s name was Dr. Dang Thuy Tram; when the troops searched her belongings, they found a radio, a medical journal, and a diary that later became one of the most important pieces of literature chronicling the Vietnam War.

The Diary’s Journey

American troops on patrol in Vietnam

Dr. Dang Thuy Tram’s diary was taken by the Americans and eventually ended up in the hands of a 22-year-old military intelligence specialist named Fred Whitehurst. He was ordered to destroy the diary but acted on the advice of his Vietnamese translator who encouraged him to save it. He hid it for safekeeping with the intention of returning the diary to Tram’s family.

Decades later, in 2005, Whitehurst brought the diary to a conference on the Vietnam War in Texas. He gave a copy of the diary to an Air Force veteran travelling to Hanoi who was eventually able to locate Tram’s family. Her diary was published just four months later.

The Courageous Doctor

The first entry of her published diary, Last Night I Dreamed of Peace, is dated April 8, 1968. She had just operated on a soldier with appendicitis without adequate anesthesia, and recalls how he had smiled during the painful procedure to encourage her. Her diary is full of excruciating moments, such as when she describes sitting with soldiers doomed to die, dear friends killed by enemy forces, her beloved North Vietnam, her parents, and her four younger siblings. When she wasn’t busy with patients, she helped collect firewood, dig shelters, and haul heavy sacks of rice. After difficult battles, she operated through the night on injured soldiers without any electricity.

A destroyed field hospital in Vietnam

Her diary is compelling, heartbreaking, and poetic; Thuy (as she refers to herself) writes about her difficulties as a battlefield surgeon, as well as her hatred for the war. She fondly writes about the kind patients she formed deep friendships with and muses about an army captain she was in love with, referring to him only as “M.” She often gives herself advice about coping with the difficulties she faced everyday, chastising herself for being a “dreamy girl, demanding so much of life,” whenever her thoughts stray to the happiness she felt before the war. She resolves to be an exemplary doctor and Party member, while facing one of the most brutal wars ever fought; her account of her experience is extraordinarily moving.

Dr. Dang Thuy Tram’s Last Entries

The war caught up to Thuy and her cadre. As her diary progresses, she describes the war vividly, noting the sounds of jets on bombing raids, the sound of artillery fire and bombs, and the unique terror of being in a silent jungle, where she expected to die at any moment. She also writes about the debilitating nature of Agent Orange and how she was almost killed numerous times.

Bombing raid in South Vietnam

Thuy’s field hospital was bombed on June 2, 1970, killing several people. The clinic was bombed again 12 days later. Knowing that the clinic’s position must have been detected, everyone in the hospital fled except for Tram, three female medics, and several wounded soldiers. Waiting for her colleagues to return with food and supplies, she describes the terror she felt when no one returned after 10 days. Her last entry details how she yearned for her mother and the strength to prevail on the “perilous road ahead” of her. She was shot and killed two days later.

The Legacy of Dr. Dang Thuy Tram

Last Night I Dreamed of Peace (a title that’s based on an except from her diary) has been translated into 16 different languages and has been read by millions of people. Her diary is a household name in Vietnam. As her story gained international attention, former classmates and friends spoke out about her dedication, beauty, intelligence, and warmth towards her patients. One of her favorite cadres survived the war and named his daughter in her honor.

Dr. Dang Thuy Tram will always be remembered for her bravery in the face of immense danger, her ability to tenderly care for the wounded, and for her dedication to Vietnam’s freedom. Last Night I Dreamed of Peace is a moving read for anyone who wishes to understand war’s toll on a country and its people.

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