Recalled Memory

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Two Americans set out to find Tron, the girl who became a tragic symbol of war after losing a leg in a 1968 U.S. attack

She was just a little girl, but she became a symbol of a crippling war. Life photographer Larry Burrows first saw Nguyen Thi Tron in 1968, when she was 12 years old. She was sitting in a swing with another child in the city then known as Saigon. They were not the same as any other two youngsters, for they only had one leg between them, he later recalled. It was Tron who propelled the swing.

Perhaps because Burrows' own daughter was about the same age, his heart reached out to the child. Tron, he learned, had gone into a forest to collect plants and firewood. It was a free-fire zone, where anyone who moved was considered Viet Cong, and a U.S. helicopter opened fire. The Americans landed to discover their mistake and airlifted her to a hospital. When she awoke without the lower part of her right leg, Tron worried she wouldn't be able to walk back to her village. Her mother finally found her and used part of the $35 the Americans gave her to pay for Tron's blood transfusions.

Three decades later his son Russell was invited to Hanoi for the opening of Requiem, an exhibition of works by photographers killed during the war. (The show moved to Ho Chi Minh City on May 5.) Russell's 16-year-old daughter Sarah met him in Ho Chi Minh City, and they set out to find Tron. The latest news they had of her was that she was working as a tailor and medic in a village called Phuoc Binh. It's a common name: phuoc means prosperity and binh peace. Russell and Sarah traveled from one hamlet to another, visiting tailor shops and showing Tron's photograph.

A day before they were scheduled to leave, they stopped at one last Phuoc Binh. Seeing the picture, villagers pointed down the road. Tron immediately knew who they were. My father looks so much like my grandfather, says Sarah. She started laughing as soon as she saw us. The family ran to the fields to collect food for their guests--papaya, coconuts, turnips. Tron brought out letters from Larry, as well as the sewing machine. Now 44, she is unmarried and lives with a niece. She has a wonderful smile, says Russell. And yet, there's a sadness.

As evening drew near, they had to say goodbye. We sat down on a bench, recalls Sarah. Tron can't speak a word of English, and I can't speak a word of Vietnamese, besides 'prosperity' and 'peace.' Tron held Sarah's hand and stroked her hair. The Americans couldn't promise to return, only to try. But in her heart Sarah vowed: I'll be back.