Dr. Marjorie Nelson

Dr. Marjorie Nelson


Jill Richards, Marjorie Nelson and Nguyen thi Xuan Lan, Quang Ngai, Vietnam, circa 1967-1968

Photo Credit: Marjorie Nelson

Dr. Marjorie  Nelson  was a  member  of  the  American Friends Service Committee (AFSC)  team  in Quang Ngai,  South Vietnam, serving as a doctor at the Quaker Rehabilitation Center.  A 1970 report from the Center noted that nearly 90% of the injuries treated at the center are war-related, with landmines and artillery being the principle causes. Of these injuries, 75% were leg amputations.

During the Tet Offensive in 1968 Dr. Nelson and her friend Sandra Johnson who was serving in Vietnam as an International Voluntary Service worker, were taken captive by the National Liberation Front of Vietnam. These excerpts from Dr. Nelson’s report to AFSC recount her  experiences  with  the  NLF  during  the  fifty plus  days  she  was  a  'guest'  of  the  Front.  

Surviving many days and nights of walking through the jungle, blisters and amoebic dysentery, Marjorie was grateful for the care she received from her captors until her release on April 1, 1968.

nvietnamese soldier 
Journal Excerpts from June, 1968, Marjorie Nelson, Quaker Service Vietnam Report # 17

On  the  9th  of  February  we  were  officially registered  as  Prisoners  of  War.  We  were  told  in English  that  we  were  going  to  be  taken  to  the mountains  and that  when  there  was  peace,  we  would  be returned to  our families.  I  therefore  assumed  we  were  in  for  a  long  stay!  We  left  that  night  and walked  most  of  the  night  before  resting  for  a  few  hours  at a  small  village  in  the hills.  The  next  morning  we  set  out  again  after  breakfast  and  walked  until  late afternoon  to  a  jungle  camp  on  a  mountainside.  I was  so  exhausted  after  this  long trek  that  I  didn't  move  much  for  the  next  two  days.

The  evening  we  arrived  a  young  soldier  appeared  and  again  questioned  us  in English  about  our  names,  professions,  the  agencies  for which  we  worked,  etc.  After answering  his  questions  I  in  turn  asked  him  his  name.  He  was  momentarily  nonplussed  but  then  replied  that  his  name  was  Nam.  He  turned  out  to  be  the  cadre  responsible  for  the  care,  interrogation  and  indoctrination  of  the  prisoners  in  the camp.  We  came  to know  him  quite  well  as  every  afternoon  he  visited  with  us  for  a few  minutes,--sometimes  talking  about  politics  but  more  often  about  other  topics such  as  teaching,  medicine  and  life  in Vietnam.

Sandy  and  I  spent  about  ten  days  at  this  camp  living  in  a  jungle  house  with  a Vietnamese  family  group.  About  the  third  day  we  were  told  to  go  up  and  eat  our meals  with  the  other  prisoners,--it  was  at  this  point  that  we  first  knew  that  there were  other  American  prisoners.  Approximately 25  American  men,  both  civilians  and military  personnel  assigned  to work  in Hue,  had  been  captured  and  brought  to  this mountain  camp. 

Countless  times  I was  thankful  for  the  effort  I had  put  into  Vietnamese language  study  during  my  four  months  in  Quang  Ngai,  for  being  able  to  communicate, however  simply, in Vietnamese  was  invaluable. We spent a great deal of our time in the mountains simply talking to people--mostly soldiers.  We were the first American  women  they  had  ever  met  so  they  asked  us  many  questions.  First came the usual ones for a Vietnamese:  "How old are you?"  "Are you married?"  "Do you have a sweetheart?"  "Are your parents living?"  "Do you have brothers and sisters?"

Then,  always,  came  the  question:  "What  do  you  think  about  the  war?"

Finally they would  ask  if  we  were  homesick  and  if  we  wanted  to  go  home.  To the latter I always answered "not yet" which surprised them.  My answer afforded an opportunity to explain  why  I had  come  to Vietnam  and  that  I was  willing  to stay and  work.  I repeatedly  offered  to work  either  in Hanoi  or in  a  liberated  area  village  in  the  South if  I  could  be  of  service  but  their  answer  always  was  either  "The  life  is  too hard for you  here,"  or  "We  have  enough  Vietnamese  doctors  and  nurses.  We don't need your help,  thank you."


Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

After  a  few  days  at the  first  camp,  Mr.  Nam  told  us  that  we  Americans  would be  moving  soon  to  a  camp  about  ten  days  walk  away  where  the  facilities  would  be better.  Before  we  left  he  secured  boots  or  some  type  of  foot  gear  for  all  of  us who  needed  it.  He  also  gave  Sandy  and  me  a  plastic  square  which  we  used  as  a ground  cloth.  Setting  off  around  the  20th  of  February  with  Mr.  Nam  and  five  guards, the  group  of  about  25  prisoners  traveled  and  camped  in  the  mountains  for  six  days.

As  it was  rugged  terrain,  most  of  us  acquired a  few  blisters  and  were  tired  at the end  of  each  day.  Thus,  much  of  the  work  of  setting  up  camp,  starting  a  fire and cooking  fell  to  the  guards.  However,  we  were  never  too  tired  to  talk or  sing  after supper,  so  I  could  at  least  look  forward  each  day  to  the  evening  in  camp.

During  my  two  months  in  the  mountains  I met  many  NLF  soldiers.  I was impressed with their dedication,  cheerfulness,  and  enthusiasm.  They are a proud people--determined to be self-reliant and  self-sufficient.  I was  continually surprised  and  delighted  with  the  friendliness and thoughtfulness  shown  to  us. On the evening of the sixth day Mr. Nam and one of the guards came to where Sandy  and  I were  sitting  and  announced  they  were  going  to  eat  with  us.  This was very  unusual  for we  had  never  eaten  with  the  guards  before,  and  we  enjoyed  it very much.  After supper,  Mr.  Nam  sat  with  us  for  a  while  and  finally he  said,  "Tomorrow I won't  be  going  with  you.  We will be separating."  I was quite disturbed at this announcement for I both liked and trusted this man.  I felt confident that as long as  we  Americans  were  entrusted  to  him  he  would  do  his  best  to  see  that  we  were  well cared for.  He  then  took  a  small  bit  of  cotton  from  his  wallet  and  unwrapped  it revealing  a  small  gold  and  enamel  medallion  which  he  gave  me  as  a  keepsake  from him.  In addition he  asked  that  I write  to his sister  in North  Vietnam  and  give  her news  of  me  after my  eventual  return  to  the  U.S.  I was deeply touched by these gestures  which  confirmed  my  feeling  that  significant  communication  had  occurred  in spite  of  cultural,  ideological  and  language  barriers. 

We  were  told  about  the  middle  of  March  that  we  were  going  to  be  released  as soon  as  arrangements  could  be  made. 


We  were  also  told  that  the soldiers  were  making  us  souvenirs --combs  made  of  aluminum taken  from  napalm  cannisters --to  take  with us. 


We  received  a  lecture  on  the  desirability  of  using  aluminum  to make  combs  instead  of  napalm  cannisters,  to  which  we  heartily  agreed.  Shortly after that, at the  order  of  the  camp  commander, Sandra  and  I were  given  a  farewell party  by  the soldiers.  As  we  gathered  around  a  small  lamp  in  the  bomb  shelter,  two  soldiers brought  in a  basinful  of  fresh  peanut  brittle  and  canteens  of  hot  tea.  We ate this while the soldiers  asked  us  questions  about  life  in America.  In addition to the usual questions I mentioned above, they wanted to know how we came to Vietnam, as  well  as facts  about  farming,  agriculture  and  wages  in  the  U.S.

June, 1968, Marjorie Nelson, Quaker Service Vietnam Report # 17. For a more detailed account of her experiences during her captivity, see:  <http://afsc.org/story/taken-prisoners-viet-cong>


Reflections on Vietnam, 2008 (Friends General Conference)


Pastor Tran Xuan Hi (left), looks at his church which was destroyed during the Tet Offensive, April, 1968, Thu Duc, Vietnam. MCC Photo by Lance Woodruff

I remember a conversation some years ago with a minister of Calvinist persuasion who asked me to explain Quaker views. I replied that Friends believe that alongside a person's immense capacity for evil, there is an equal potential for good often referred to as "that of God" in every person. Rather than resort to violence Quakers appeal to people by word and deed, to heed inner promptings of the Spirit of God and do good rather than evil. The minister looked at me rather quizzically and said, "Don't you think you are in danger of underestimating the power and influence of evil with that approach?" "No," I replied, somewhat startled, "I don't think so." The crucifixion of Christ testifies to what may happen when one is steadfastly loyal to God's calling. There is no guarantee of safety or success in the conventional sense in this approach toward violence and a person's capacity for evil. However, the resurrection of Christ stands as God's testimony and promise that ultimately the way of sacrificial love will prevail over the powers of evil and darkness.

As I reflected further on that minister's question my mind turned to many scenes I witnessed and stories I was told during my two years of service with an AFSC medical team in Quang Ngai, Vietnam in the late 1960s.

Our project was located six miles from My Lai. We treated at least one survivor from that massacre. Vietnamese friends told me not only of that event but of five similar incidents perpetrated by American or Korean troops in our province alone. I saw children injured by NLF rockets which exploded near their orphanage. I treated patients in our rehabilitation center who had extremities blown off by land mines planted by both sides in that conflict. Do I underestimate the power and influence of evil? I think not.

And yet I also saw American GIs caring for wounded Vietnamese in the hospitals. On their days off they would spend their time making equipment for our patients to use in the rehabilitation center. I saw a young Vietnamese officer adopt a little orphan amputee patient of ours although he was no relative. And in 1968, taken prisoner by the NLF in the Tet Offensive, I experienced good treatment and tender concern by "the enemy." When I fell ill with dysentery, a North Vietnamese doctor walked for several hours through the mountains to my camp to treat me. The soldiers collected from their meager belongings such things as powdered eggs, a little sugar, and a can of sweetened condensed milk which they gave me "to help you regain your strength." The cook of the camp started rising at 4:00 a. m. to catch small fish in the stream to supplement my rice and vegetable diet. No one else in the camp had meat. Never in my life have I been more uplifted and sustained by a sense of the power and loving presence of God than in those two months in the mountains of Central Vietnam. Yes, throughout the years, Friends have found repeatedly that reaching out to "that of God" in others can be very creative in situations of conflict and violence.

See also: Taken Prisoner by the Viet Cong (AFSC)
              Education and Service Projects in Vietnam, Feb 1, 2011, Friends Journal