(CBS/AP) HANOI - "If Dad calls, tell him I got too close to being dead but I'm O.K. I was real lucky."
U.S. Army Sgt. Steve Flaherty, of Columbia, S.C., wrote those words to his mother, in an undated letter which survived him - Flaherty was killed in combat in March 1969.
But the letter is only now, 43 years later, making its way into American hands.
It was one of several artifacts of the Vietnam War that was exchanged at a ceremony in Hanoi. Vietnamese Defense Minister Phung Quang Thanh delivered the letters to Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, who in turn gave Thanh a small, maroon diary - taken from the body of a Vietnamese soldier - which had been brought to the U.S. by an American GI.
Officials said this is the first time such a joint exchange of war artifacts has occurred. The two defense leaders agreed to return the papers to the families of the deceased soldiers.
At a news conference, the Vietnamese government also announced its agreement to open three new sites in the country for excavation by the U.S. to search for troop remains from the war.
Ron Ward, U.S. casualty resolution specialist at the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command in Hanoi, said there are at least four U.S. troops believed to be lost in the three areas that were opened by the Vietnamese Monday. With those three areas now open, Ward said there are now just eight sites left that are still restricted by the Vietnamese.
Defense officials reviewing the packet of papers given to Panetta said it appears there are three sets of letters, including the four written by Flaherty. It was not clear how many other service members' letters were there, but officials were going through them Monday.
Sgt. Flaherty, who was with the 101st Airborne, was one of seven U.S. soldiers killed in a 5-hour-long battle with North Vietnamese fighters while on patrol in the northern section of South Vietnam on March 25, 1969. According to defense officials, Vietnamese forces took his letters and used them in propaganda broadcasts during the war.
In a letter to "Betty," Flaherty wrote:
"I'm sorry for not writing so long but we have been in a fierce fight with N.V.A. We took in lots of casualties and death. It has been trying days for me and my men. We dragged more bodies of dead and wounded than I can ever want to forget.
"Thank you for your sweet card. It made my miserable day a much better one but I don't think I will ever forget the bloody fight we are having.
"RPG rockets and machine guns really tore my rucksack.
"I felt bullets going past me. I have never been so scared in my life. Well I better close for now before we go in again to take that hill."
From Flaherty's letter to "Mother":
"I definitely will take R&R, I don't care where so long as I get a rest, which I need so badly, soon. I'll let you know exact date."
"If Dad calls, tell him I got too close to being dead but I'm O.K. I was real lucky. I'll write again soon.
"Our platoon started off with 35 men but winded up with 19 men when it was over. We lost platoon leader and whole squad.
"The NVA soldiers fought until they died and one even booby trapped himself and when we approached him, he blew himself up and took two of our men with him."
From a letter to "Mrs. Wyatt":
"Our platoon leader was killed and I was the temporary platoon leader until we got the replacement. Nothing seems to go well for us but we'll take that ridge line.
"This is a dirty and cruel war but I'm sure people will understand the purpose of this war even though many of us might not agree."
Vietnamese Col. Nguyen Phu Dat kept the letters, but it was not until last August - when he mentioned them in an online publication - that they started to come to light.
Early this year, Robert Destatte, a retired Defense Department employee who had worked for the POW/MIA office, noticed the online publication, and the Pentagon began to work to get the letters back to Flaherty's family.
The small diary belonged to Vu Dinh Doan, a Vietnamese soldier who was found killed in a machine gun fight, according to defense officials. Officials said that a Marine, Robert "Ira" Frazure of Walla Walla, Wash., saw the diary - with a photo and some money inside - on the chest of the dead soldier and took it back to the U.S.
The diary came to light earlier this year when the sister of a friend of Frazure's was doing research for a book and Frazure asked her help in returning the diary. The sister, Marge Scooter, brought the diary to the PBS television program "History Detectives."
The show then asked the Defense and State Departments to help return the diary.
Search for MIAs
Military officers briefing Panetta at the command's office said they had five to seven years to complete their excavation work. The acidic soil in Vietnam erodes bones quickly, leaving in many cases only teeth for the military teams to use to try and identify service members, one of the team members said.
In addition, many of the potential witnesses with information about remains are getting older and their memories are fading.
There are about nearly 1,300 cases that are still unaccounted for, and officers briefing Panetta said about 600 of those remains could be recoverable.
Ward said that opening the three new sites will enable the U.S. to try and find:
- Two Air Force members who were lost when their plane was shot down in Quang Binh Province in central Vietnam in 1967;
- An Army private first class who went missing when he was out with his unit on a search-and-destroy mission in 1968 in the tri-border area of Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam; and
- A Marine who was on a surface-to-air combat mission and was lost when his plane went down in Quang Tri Province. Another Marine on the plane ejected and was rescued.