HUONG NON, Vietnam – In 1968, young American soldier John Wast was scouring a battlefield in central Vietnam for weapons and intelligence when an enemy helmet with an image of a dove scratched onto it caught his eye. He tied it to his rucksack, and five months later took it home as a war souvenir, where for 46 years it had sat on a shelf.
When a U.S. veterans' charity approached him asking whether he would like to see the helmet returned to the family of its onetime owner, he said yes, so long as it didn't cause them any more pain. The group, the Development of Vietnam Endeavors Fund, located the family of the soldier, Bui Duc Hung, who was killed in the war, his remains never recovered.
On Tuesday, four U.S. veterans returned the helmet in a ceremony in the Hung's family's village 70 kilometers (45 miles) northwest of Hanoi that stressed the need for peace and reconciliation.
"This is a very sacred moment for my extended family," said Bui Duc Duc, the 52-year-old nephew of the slain solider.
Duc wept as the helmet was placed in front of a family altar in his house. The Americans, along with around 100 villagers and local officials gathered for the ceremony, looked on. A bust of Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam's victorious war time leader was also in the room.
"We consider this helmet as part of him and we will keep as a reminder for our family's future generations," he said.
Up to 3 million Vietnamese were killed in the war, which the United States undertook to stop the spread of Communism in Southeast Asia.
Wast, a 67-year-old from Toledo, Ohio, didn't travel back to Vietnam. But in a statement that was read out at the ceremony, Wast said that Hung had "fought with skill and courage."
"The time has now come for me to return this helmet to those who knew and cared for Bui Duc Hung," he said. "I do this with thoughts of love and peace to you all."