Steve Flaherty Vietnam war letters arrive 43 years late

Flaherty's letters The letters were retrieved from Vietnam by US Defences Secretary Leon Panetta

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Forty-three years ago, US Army Sgt Steve Flaherty wrote a letter home to his mother from the jungles of Vietnam. On Saturday, his letters came home to the US.

Sgt Flaherty was born in Oiso, Japan, to an American father and Japanese mother.

Ronald Flaherty, stationed in Japan with the US Army in the early 1950s, convinced his parents to adopt Steve after meeting him in a local orphanage. Flaherty was nine years old when he came to the US.

Steve Flaherty in a Department of Defences handout Flaherty was 22 when he was killed

He was raised in Columbia, South Carolina, and won acclaim at Dentsville High for his baseball ability. In 1966 he entered Bryan College in Tennessee on a baseball scholarship.

His uncle, Kenneth Cannon, said that Major League Baseball scouts had contacted him, but Flaherty chose instead to enlist in the army in October 1967.

Flaherty joined the 101st Airborne Division and was sent to Vietnam in 1968. He wrote home telling horrific tales of booby traps and fallen comrades.

"If Dad calls, tell him I got too close to being dead but I'm okay, I was real lucky," he wrote. "I'll write again soon."

Official exchange

Flaherty was killed in the A Shau Valley on 25 March 1969 at the age of 22. Before he was declared dead by US officials, Vietnamese soldiers took the letters from his body, says Robert Destatte, a retired defence department expert on prisoners of war and soldiers missing in action.

To Mother:

If Dad calls, tell him I got too close to being dead but I'm okay 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.

Four never-posted letters were confiscated from Flaherty's body and sent to Vietnamese Colonel Nguyen Phu Dat, who was responsible for directing propaganda messages for Radio Hanoi.

Dat would have lifted passages out of Flaherty's letters and read them on air in an effort to persuade American soldiers to refuse to go into battle, says Destatte.

In 2011, Destatte noticed a mention of the unsent letters in an online magazine Dat wrote on the website Bo Dat Viet Online, which loosely translates to "The Vietnam Nation."

With help from local police in the US, Destatte found Martha Gibbons, Sgt Flaherty's sister-in-law and the rest of the Flaherty family.

The letters were delivered to Defence Secretary Leon Panetta during his meeting with Vietnamese Defences Minister Phuong Quang Thanh in Hanoi on 4 June. It was the first official exchange of war artefacts between the two countries.

To Betty

We have been in a fierce fight with NVA. 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.

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.

In return, Panetta gave Thanh the diary of Vietnamese soldier Vu Dinh Doan, which was taken by US Marine Robert Frazure after Operation Indiana in 1966. Included in the transfer were letters written by two other American soldiers killed in Vietnam; but the Army Casualty Branch will not release the identities of these soldiers until next-of-kin are located.

The family received the four unsent letters on Saturday. The letters were addressed to Steve's mother, Lois; Mr And Mrs Barnes, Flaherty's neighbours; the family of a classmate named Wyatt; and Betty Buchanan.

Betty, Destatte had discovered, was the younger sister of Coleen, a girl Steve had dated before leaving for Vietnam.

Although Steve and Coleen ended things before he shipped off to Vietnam, Betty decided to remain in touch, and the two exchanged letters.

Panetta and Phung Quang Thanh Enemies no longer: Phuong Quang Thanh presents the letters to Panetta

The Flaherty family plans to donate the letters to the South Carolina State Museum.

"It's a miracle these letters have shown up after all this time," Kenneth Cannon told the Associated Press on Sunday in Columbia.

"They are in remarkable condition to be 40 years old," he said. "I know Steve would be glad they are back home."

Listen to more on this story at PRI's The World, a co-production of the BBC World Service, Public Radio International, and WGBH in Boston.

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