An American doctor has returned an arm bone he amputated during the Vietnam War to its original owner, a former Viet Cong soldier.
Sam Axelrad said Monday he returned the arm to Nguyen Quang Hung at the latter’s house in the town of An Khe in Vietnam’s Central Highlands province of Gia Lai.
Axelrad removed the arm in a 1966 operation, after which U.S. medics removed the flesh and wired it together before presenting it to the doctor.
“I was the custodian of this arm,” Axelrad told Agence France-Presse, adding he was “unbelievably happy” to have been able to return the somewhat macabre wartime memento to Hung – who now plans to use it to claim a war veteran’s pension.
Hung arrived at Axelrad’s base in 1966, close to death after having been shot and contracting gangrene.
When Axelrad left the country six months later, he didn’t want to throw the arm away, so he put it in his trunk and brought it home.
“Decades later, Axelrad returned to Vietnam and a local journalist wrote a story about the fact he still had the arm, leading to the discovery that Hung was still alive and prompting Axelrad to arrange to return the bones,” according to Agence France-Presse.
Hung, a 74-year-old father of seven whose wife recently died, told the wire service he was thrilled by the gesture.
Hung, who lost his arm when he was 27, said he hoped to use both the arm bone and Axelrad as a witness to prove that he was injured during the war and claim a state pension.
“All my army files were lost so I have not been considered a war invalid,” he said. “I hope that this arm bone (will help) me benefit from official support for war veterans.
“My arm bone is evidence of my contribution to the war,” he added. “I will keep it in my house – I will put it in the glass display cabinet. I will tell everyone who visits my home now that ‘Look, I was in the war.’”
He added that he planned to be buried with the arm bone.
According to Ron Ward, of the US Joint Prisoners of War, Missing in Action Accounting Command, which handles the search for American MIAs, the return of the arm bone to a living Vietnamese veteran was a “one-of-a-kind event.”
Some three million Vietnamese civilians and soldiers died during the war, which also claimed the lives of almost 60,000 American soldiers before ending in 1975.
(Above: Nguyen Quang Hung and Sam Axelrad laugh during a gathering in which Axelrad returned Hung’s arm bone to him after nearly 50 years.)