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Photos: The forgotten children of Chon Thanh, Vietnam, found 46 years later

Reed Young
46 years later, Sa owns a dragon fruit farm near Phan Thiết
  • Caitlin Hu
By Caitlin Hu

Geopolitics Editor

Published This article is more than 2 years old.

Most stories told by Americans about the Vietnam War conclude with the fall of Saigon, 40 years ago today. This one keeps going.

Bob Shirley was 23 when he snapped a few shots of children in Chon Thanh, Vietnam, in 1969, and then put his camera away. “I put the pictures in a box and forgot about them,” Shirley, a former US Army medic, told the New York Times. “They would have stayed in the box and if I was institutionalized or died suddenly, they probably would have ended up in the local rubbish bin.”

But his pictures were rescued from their box by a stranger and fellow American named Larry Johns, who lost his brother in the Vietnam War and recently started a project to collect anecdotes and photos from veterans who had been stationed at the same base—like Shirley.

Shirley sent Johns his pictures, and Johns—struck by the images of the children—contacted Reed Young, a New York-based photographer to help find and photograph Shirley’s original subjects. “These pictures just haunted me, so beautiful and expressive,” Johns said. “I got obsessed with them, and what happened to them.”

Bob Shirley, 1969
Thành: the teenager on the left. Thanh: the boy on the left peeking through. Minh: the boy peeking through on the right. Sơn: wearing the helmet.

It took two years of searching and travel in Vietnam to find out. By distributing posters of Bob Shirley’s photos around the village of Chon Thanh, near the site of the former US military base, Johns and Young eventually were able to find and photograph 16 of the children, now adults with children and farms of their own, as well as other people Shirley photographed.

Shot in December 2014, these new portraits provide striking insight into the lives of Vietnamese children who survived the conflict. The captions reveal what they remember of that time, and of the young US soldiers based nearby.

Thành, Thanh, Minh, and Son

Reed Young, 2014
Two years into his service for the South Vietnamese Army, Thành was almost killed by a B40 grenade launched by the North Vietnamese. The blast barely missed him, but he was struck by two metal fragments, one in the head and the other in his back. Today Thành is married with 4 children. He enjoys morning walks in the park and taking care of his grandkids.
Reed Young, 2014
Thanh’s father was a rice farmer and when things were slow he’d travel to other areas to find work. One day he was riding his bicycle to a village 8 km away when he was mistaken for a Viet Cong soldier and killed by US troops. Thanh told us this was such a common occurrence that the US normally gave financial compensation to the family of an accidently killed South Vietnamese civilian man; this way, the family could survive without the father’s income. Today Thanh owns a contracting business and lives in Vung Tau with his wife. His 4 children live nearby.
Reed Young, 2014
Not long after the original photos were taken in October of 1969, Minh’s family evacuated Chơn Thành for Bình Dương. The family lived in a refugee camp for a year and even though it was very crowded, Minh has fond memories of it because they felt safe and had plenty of food to eat. Today Minh lives with his wife and children in Vũng Tàu. Cockfighting is a favorite pastime.
Reed Young, 2014
In 1984 Sơn was desperate to leave Vietnam so he paid 3 million Dong to take an illegal boat ride with the promise of a better, more prosperous life in an unknown location. They didn’t make it far offshore before the boat was stopped by police and everyone on board was arrested. This was so common in Vietnam that Sơn was only jailed for 8 days before he was sent home. Sơn and his wife live in Vũng Tàu.


Lâm and Rod

Bob Shirley, 1969
The man with the sunglasses on the left is Lâm. The American in the middle is Rod. The priest on the right is Father Hieu.

“At the time the original photos were taken, Lâm was teaching literature while pursuing priesthood alongside him,” writes Reed on his blog.

“One morning Father Hieu (second right), who has since died, hosted an American soldier named Rod for lunch in hopes of getting some antibiotics for the local people. When Rod and Lam were reunited 45 years later they embraced; it was the most emotional moment of his return to Vietnam.”

Reed Young, 2014
Lâm never became a priest because he met a woman and married. They live together in Nha Trang and enjoy gardening, raising chickens and spending time with their grandchildren.
Reed Young, 2014
Rod served as a first lieutenant in Vietnam from July of 1969 to July of 1970. He lives in Pasadena, California with his wife Carmie.


Thành and Cường

Bob Shirley, 1969
Trường is on the left. Thành is in the middle and Cường is on the right.

“Thành and Cường’s father was originally from North Vietnam, but in 1954, he and his sisters decided to move to the South in hopes of escaping poverty,” writes Reed.

“They were warned against moving by the government in the North, who told them they would surely starve, but decided to take the chance anyway. When the family arrived in South Vietnam they were relieved to learn this was not true.”

Reed Young, 2014
Thành has a wife and child and hopes to provide a good life for them. Cường has a wife and 4 children and works hard to provide them with an education. Both families live in Vũng Tàu.
Reed Young, 2014
When Trường was a kid he and his friends would collect things they found outside of the American military base near his home. One day he found a green metal box used to hold the ammunition for a machine gun and his father thought it would work well for cooking. The first time he used it to make corn, it exploded and burned him badly all over his body. Today Trường and his wife have 6 grown kids and a farm near Phan Thiết.



Bob Shirley, 1969
Sa, on the right.

“When Sa was 10 years old her mother was bitten by a snake and taken by helicopter to a hospital by US troops,” writes Reed.

“Sa’s sister and the snake, which was taken in for testing, accompanied her mother on the 300 km trip. Sa, her 7 other siblings and their father waited for 3 months without hearing a word or knowing where they were before they finally returned in good health.”


Reed Young, 2014
Today Sa and her husband own a dragon fruit farm near Phan Thiết. Their 3 children are all married and live nearby.



Bob Shirley, 1969
Tuàn, on the right.

“As the North Vietnamese Army closed in on the village of Chơn Thành, Tuàn’s family was forced to evacuate,” writes Reed. “On their way out of town they stopped at a local school.

While everyone was inside the school the North Vietnamese Army arrived and fired at them with a 105 mm M2A1 howitzer. While nobody was killed, his mother was left badly injured with metal fragments from the blast in her leg.”

Reed Young, 2014
Today Tuàn, a cancer survivor, lives in Vũng Tàu with his wife and children.

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