HANOI, Vietnam – An American doctor arrived in Vietnam carrying an unlikely piece of luggage: the bones of an arm he amputated in 1966.
Dr. Sam Axelrad brought the skeletal keepsake home to Texas as a reminder that when a badly injured North Vietnamese soldier was brought to him, he did the right thing and fixed him up. The bones sat in a closet for decades, and when the Houston urologist finally pulled them out two years ago, he wondered about their owner, Nguyen Quang Hung.
The men were reunited Monday at Hung’s home in central Vietnam. They met each other’s children and grandchildren, and joked about which of them had been better looking back when war had made them enemies. Hung was stunned that someone had kept his bones for so long, but happy that when the time comes, they will be buried with him.
“I’m very glad to see him again and have that part of my body back after nearly half a century,” Hung said by telephone after meeting Axelrad. “I’m proud to have shed my blood for my country’s reunification, and I consider myself very lucky compared with many of my comrades who were killed or remain unaccounted for.”
Hung, 73, said American troops shot him in the arm in October 1966 during an ambush about 46 miles from An Khe, where he now lives. After floating down a stream to escape a firefight and then sheltering in a rice warehouse for three days, he was evacuated by a U.S. helicopter to a no-frills military hospital.
“When I was captured by the American forces, I was like a fish on a chopping-board,” Hung said last week. “They could have either killed or spared me.”
When Hung got to Axelrad, then a 27-year-old military doctor, his right forearm was the color of an eggplant. To keep the infection from killing his patient, Axelrad amputated the arm above the elbow.
After the surgery, Hung spent eight months recovering and another six assisting American military doctors, Hung said. He spent the rest of the war offering private medical services in the town, and later served in local government for a decade before retiring on his rice farm.
“He probably thought we were going to put him in some prisoner-of-war camp,” Axelrad said. “Surely he was totally surprised when we just took care of him.”