This Veterans day weekend, we shared the story of Frank Harper, who served our country as a Navy See Bee in Vietnam. Part of that service was building a road up Ta Hou Mountain, 242 miles south of Saigon. During the construction, local children would hang out with the crew, looking for candy and other handouts. The men would often spend time with the kids, playing soccer and other games. “We were all in the conflict together,” Frank remembers, “And tried our best to keep our spirits up. It would take our minds off the war.”
As a photographer, Frank has a knapsack of photos from his Vietnam Days. Once home in San Jose, however, he did his best to move on with his life. He confesses to harboring guilt for so much of the pain inflicted on the Vietnamese people. “I spend my life being haunted by the war and trying to block it out of my mind. But, my photographs always pull me back.” There was one photo in particular that captures his interest. It is the image of eight young boys (probably 7-8 years old ) sitting on a pile of sandbags. They are all smiling and flashing the peace sign.
And so, Frank made the decision to return to South Vietnam to find those eight boys - to learn about their lives, their children, and perhaps stories of their own healing. He rented a dilapidated motorcycle and traveled the Vietnamese countryside, trying to find someone who would recognize faces in a photo taken forty years ago. It would take a return trip, however, before a woman approached him at a roadside water stand. Tapping him on the shoulder, she motioned for him to follow her across a number of flooded rice paddies to a small tumbledown hut. Sure enough, her husband was one of the boys in the photo. Within hours, Frank had united with 6 of the 8 boys in the photo. They are all middle-aged men now with kids and grandkids. “I had to find out for myself,” Frank said, “If the Vietnamese still hated us. To my amazement, I discovered that they do not. It has gone a long way to erasing much of the guilt that I have carried.”
Frank continues to maintain contact with the people of Vietnam. He raises money for orphanages in Hue and Saigon. He supports a non-profit organization that protects the primates on Ta Kou mountain. And, has subsequently found the other 2 “boys” in the photo. “Some of my buddies,” Frank says, “Still have a tough time coming to terms with the war. Some can’t even eat in a Vietnamese restaurant. I decided to make peace with my past.”
Well done, Frank Harper. And thank you for your service.