HANOI, Vietnam An American doctor has arrived in Vietnam carrying an unlikely piece of luggage: the bones of an arm he amputated in 1966.
Dr. Sam Axelrad flew into the Vietnamese capital, Hanoi, on Saturday from Houston. He was traveling through central Vietnam with his sons and two grandchildren Monday to meet the amputee, Nguyen Quang Hung, a former North Vietnamese soldier.
After Hung was shot in the arm by American troops, Axelrad, then a 27-year-old military doctor, amputated his infected right arm at a military hospital in Phu Cat in central Binh Dinh province. His medic colleagues boiled off the flesh, reconstructed the arm bones and gave them to him, he said.
Axelrad, now a urologist, said he brought the skeletal keepsake back to the United States as a reminder of doing a good deed. They sat in a military bag in Axelrad's closet for decades, and he didn't look at them because he didn't want to relive his wartime experiences, he said.
When he finally went through his wartime mementos in 2011, "it just blew me away what was in there," Axelrad said by telephone last week from his home. "That kind of triggered my thoughts of returning."
By Sunday he was in Hanoi. "It's just time for closure," he said at a hotel bar.
Hung was surprised, to say the least, to hear that he will be reunited with his lost limb.
"I can't believe that an American doctor took my infected arm, got rid of the flesh, dried it, took it home and kept it for more than 40 years," he said by telephone last week from his home. "I don't think it's the kind of keepsake that most people would want to own. But I look forward to seeing him again and getting my arm bones back."
Hung, 73, said he was shot in October 1966 during an ambush about 75 kilometers (46 miles) from An Khe, his hometown in central Vietnam. 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 Axelrad's no-frills military hospital.
After the amputation, Hung spent eight months recovering and another six assisting American military doctors, he said. He spent the rest of the war offering private medical services in the village, and later served in local government for a decade before retiring on his rice farm.
It took a little luck for Axelrad to reunite Hung with his amputated arm. He had traveled to Vietnam last summer partly for vacation, but also to try to find the man.
He said he wasn't sure Hung was still alive, or where to begin looking for him. Axelrad visited Hung's hometown but didn't ask for him there because he assumed he would be living in northern Vietnam.
But by chance, Axelrad met Vietnamese journalist Tran Quynh Hoa at a Hanoi hotel, and she later wrote an article in a widely read Vietnamese newspaper about his quest. Hung said his brother-in-law in Ho Chi Minh City read the article and contacted the newspaper's editors.
Hoa arranged the reunion, which was planned for Monday morning in An Khe, near the coastal city of Qui Nhon.