Williamsburg resident recovers dog tags of fallen U.S. soldiers in Vietnam

William & Mary senior Scott Gemmell-Davis travels the world with Global Playground, a non-profit organization, hoping to change perceptions and making lifelong relationships along the way.

WYDaily.com is your source for free news and information in Williamsburg, James City & York Counties.

Beautiful scenery from the Vietnam countryside. (Photo courtesy Scott Gemmell-Davis)

« 1 of 13 »

It was only his second day in Vietnam so Scott Gemmell-Davis was understandably overwhelmed.

And he was thirsty. So the 23-year-old Williamsburg resident did what any human being would do in such a state. He went in search of water.

Only Gemmell-Davis was not in a busy city where people scurried about in the streets and water was easily accessible. He was in a place called Khe Sanh, a rural area, inhabited by hill tribes and far off the beaten path from what anyone would find inside a Vietnam tourist brochure. It was also a place still feeling the effects from the Vietnam War more than four decades later.

“Then there's this white guy, with red hair and a beard walking around,” Gemmell-Davis said. “Yeah, I kind of stuck out.”

Williamsburg resident Scott Gemmell-Davis, left, with his friend Vo Thuat in Vietnam. (Photo courtesy Scott Gemmell-Davis)
Williamsburg resident Scott Gemmell-Davis, left, with his friend Vo Thuat in Vietnam. (Photo courtesy Scott Gemmell-Davis)

After walking more than a mile down the road, the William & Mary senior finally located hydration and then started the long haul back to his house with a case of bottled water tucked under each arm. During the walk, however, the plastic cover on one of the cases broke and bottled waters went flying everywhere.

As Gemmell-Davis scrambled in this foreign land to recover the waters, imagine his surprise when he heard a few somewhat recognizable words spoken in a very broken British accent.

“Excuse me, sir. Are these yours?”

Out walked Vo Thuat, holding three of the bottled waters.

Thuat had spent the previous five years teaching himself English and besides his obsession with the BBC and Oxford Journals, Gemmell-Davis quickly learned they had a lot in common. They were both teachers and they lived just three houses away from each other in Khe Sanh.

“It was pure serendipity,” said Gemmell-Davis, who spent four months backpacking around Europe and Southeast Asia in early 2015 before his seven-month spell in Vietnam.

“We became friends instantly. He liked it because, you know, everyone knew him as being friends with ‘the white guy’ and I was just happy to have a translator.”

In a small town, so much depends on who you know. There is no exception in Vietnam.

The 33-year-old Thuat was born in Quang Binh, a northern province of Vietnam, and originally pegged Gemmell-Davis for a much older professor because of his straggly beard. Helping retrieve the bottled waters was his opportunity to make a new and unique friend.   

“Finally, I was successful in breaking the ice,” Thuat wrote in an email to WYDaily.com. “We spent the rest of the day talking together. Scott was probably surprised because I could speak English to him. Much more than he had thought.”

Power of my privilege

Gemmell-Davis plans to graduate from William & Mary this spring. He took a ‘gap year’ during 2015 where he traveled the world before his final semester of college.

But it wasn’t all just wanderlust fun and games.

The Amherst, Mass. native, who moved to Williamsburg when he was 10 years old and graduated from Lafayette High School, served as a Global Playground fellow during his time in Vietnam.

The mission for Global Playground, a non-profit organization founded in 2006, is to raise awareness and share resources with people of the developing world to create educational opportunities where they do not exist.

Children play at the Pa Nho Primary school in Khe Sanh, Vietnam, which Global Playground helped to build. (Photo courtesy Scot Gemmell-Davis)
Children play at the Pa Nho Primary school in Khe Sanh, Vietnam, which Global Playground helped to build. (Photo courtesy Scot Gemmell-Davis)

“I think that William & Mary trains students to think broadly about the world around them, and to think about what they can contribute as forces for change in the greater community,” Global Playground founder and William & Mary Board of Visitors member Doug Bunch told the W&M Alumni Magazine.

“They think about how what they’re doing in one place connects to something that might be happening halfway around the world.”

Global Playground currently has projects in Honduras, Myanmar, Vietnam, Thailand, Cambodia, Uganda, and the Philippines and is planning a future project in Kenya. Gemmell-Davis was the first fellow in Vietnam to work for the organization in a domestic capacity.

“Their mission -- which became my ‘why’ in Vietnam -- was to promote cross cultural dialogue and understanding between the Vietnamese community within which I lived, neighboring tribes and villages,” Gemmell-Davis said.  

“I was inspired to take a gap year so that I could see first hand, and understand to a greater degree, the difficult realities of the developing world. I think that it took living in a poor country, and building lifelong relationships with many of the beautiful people that live there, for me to truly understand the power of my privilege.”

One of those lifelong relationships was with Thuat.

Mr. American

When he wasn’t tangling with the Communist government about access to classrooms -- Gemmell-Davis was later forced to set up private English classes late at night or during the weekend -- he was exploring the Vietnam countryside on his motorcycle with Thuat.

“Vietnam loves their motorcycles,” said Gemmell-Davis, who paid only $2 for a full tank of gas. “From major cities to the most remote of rice paddies, the only widely accessible way to travel is by motorbike.”

A few weeks into his Vietnam residency, he stopped relying on rides from friends and long walks, and bought a massive black helmet to go along with a little red Suzuki motorcycle for a few hundred dollars. It didn’t take long before Gemmell-Davis fell in love with riding.

After long days in the classroom, he would often ride through the mountains along the Lao border for hours on end while discovering the hidden corners of rural Vietnam.

It was during one of these motorcycle trips when Thuat uncovered something he thought his American friend would be interested in: the dog tags of a fallen U.S. soldier from the Vietnam War.

“Remember, we were in Khe Sanh. There was a major battle there and still today, there are unexploded U.S. bombs there and remnants of Agent Orange,” said Gemmell-Davis, who did not have any family members who fought in the conflict.

“When Thuat brought me the first dog tag, we looked up the fallen soldier together. Then we realized that there were probably a lot more of these out there.”

A few weeks later, Thuat and Gemmell-Davis rode back into the rugged, jungle-shrouded mountains and made an all-day trip to Ap Bia Mountain, which was a little more than one mile from the Laotian border.

It was also the setting for the Battle for Hamburger Hill, a famous and bloody 10-day battle between the U.S. and South Vietnam against North Vietnamese forces in 1969.

The first of six dog togs from fallen U.S. soldiers Scott Gemmell-David was able collect while in Vietnam. (Photo courtesy Scott Gemmell-Davis)
The first of six dog togs from fallen U.S. soldiers Scott Gemmell-David was able collect while in Vietnam. (Photo courtesy Scott Gemmell-Davis)

“It wasn’t so difficult for us to get more dog tags,” Thuat wrote. “The first one I got for free … The others were sold by some of the man’s neighbors. The families just knew that the dog tags belonged to American soldiers, but what was engraved on them was not known by them.”

Using Thuat as his trusted translator, Gemmell-Davis said he paid as much as 20 U.S. dollars for each set of dog tags and left Hamburger Hill with five sets. He interviewed the families that had found them and he knew it was important to collect as many as possible.

“I want to trace each one back and return them to the families,” Gemmell-Davis said. “I think that’s important.”

While Thuat and Gemmell-Davis traveled through the remote hill-tribe villages in search of the dog tags, the unlikely pair became instant celebrities. For most of the families in that remote area, many had never seen a foreigner before, so they celebrated by preparing a dinner feast.

“They gave Scott and I many dishes such as boiled chicken, steak and corn because they wanted to welcome their new guest who comes from America,” Thuat wrote.

“They called Scott ‘Ông Mỹ’, which means ‘Mr. American’ in Vietnamese. They think anyone who is from western countries are American.”

While enjoying the families’ food and hospitality, Gemmell-Davis learned that they were “pro-American”. The general consensus among the villagers, despite the war and the effects it still had on their land, was that the U.S. soldiers were not evil.

“They were heart-broken that some many soldiers had to die,” Gemmell-Davis said.

“These people were ethnic minorities and hill tribe people, who mostly hid out during the war. One family told me that they were so scared that they would shelter American soldiers one week and the next week, they had the Vietcong at their place.”

One of my best friends

Shortly before Gemmell-Davis left Vietnam, he met a man named Ho Van Cum, who was born in 1969 to a Kin woman and American soldier. Because of his darker skin tone, he was abandoned as a child and adopted by a woman from the Van Kieu tribe.  

His heritage and unique facial features led to him being ostracized from this community as well.  Now, at age 47, he lives with his wife and 10 children in a single-room shack on a hill removed from the rest of his village.  

Gemmell-Davis learned that Cum collects trash and recycles it for a living, which earns him about $40 a week. The two sat down and spoke for a few hours in front in Cum’s simple hut. Draped in front of the hut was one lone poster -- a full portrait shot of former U.S. President Barack Obama.

“We talked about Vietnamese-American relations, his Catholic faith, and his dream to someday retire from his 12 hours of trash-picking every day,” Gemmell-Davis said.  

“Mr. Cum’s story will stick with me for the rest of my life, and I hope to work with local Catholic churches this semester to raise enough money to support Mr. Cum and his family's medical expenses.”

Vietnamese teacher Vo Thuat takes a break from class with his students. (Photo courtesy Scott Gemmell-Davis)
Vietnamese teacher Vo Thuat takes a break from class with his students. (Photo courtesy Scott Gemmell-Davis)

While all community service projects abroad are beneficial, it’s the lasting power of the change implemented that dictates actual success.

In other words, anyone can build a school and playground for children or a well for a water-deprived community. But securing funds to maintain these projects for years to come and training locals to preserve them is just as important.

“We use Global Playground in a more metaphorical sense,” Bunch said.

“What we strive to create at our project sites is an environment where kids can be kids, where they can exchange ideas, learn about each other and educate each other on their cultures in a way that breaks down barriers of intolerance and misunderstanding. That environment we create among our schools is our global playground.”

So while physical installations always help, the name of the game is changing how people think.

Thuat said his local community’s needs are simple -- they need new efficient teaching methods, reliable textbooks and cooperation with other teachers -- but of course having people like Gemmell-Davis stay and live within the community changes perceptions.

“Some of the families I got to know are the most resilient, compassionate, and selfless I have ever met,” said Gemmell-Davis, who hopes to return to Vietnam this summer.

“At some point, we’re going to start a crowdfunding campaign for an English center so people like Thuat can teach and local students can take his courses for free.”

But this mission of changing the way people think goes both ways.

“Scott helped me so much in teaching,” Thuat wrote. “He must be one of my best friends for the rest of my life. Actually, since my students and I met Scott, we have changed much in our viewpoints about life.”

For more information, be sure to read Gemmell-Davis’ blog that documents his time in Vietnam and for Global Playground, check out their website 

Scenery from the beautiful Vietnam countryside. (Photo courtesy Scott Gemmell-Davis)
Scenery from the beautiful Vietnam countryside. (Photo courtesy Scott Gemmell-Davis)

For more information or to have your recent trip highlighted in our new travel section, please email travel editor Aaron Gray at aaron@localvoicemedia.com