Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s The Vietnam War premieres in ten parts beginning Sunday, September 17 at 7:00 pm on WTTW11 and online. Hear more veterans’ stories, explore photographs and video from our archive, and more on our Vietnam War website.
Phil Seymour was about halfway through a tour of duty when he promised a young Vietnamese boy a watch. It was June of 1967, and Seymour was stationed on a landmass known simply as The Island, near the central Vietnamese city of Hội An, about twenty miles south of Da Nang. A sergeant in C Company, First Battalion, First Marine Regiment, First Marine Division, Seymour had come to Vietnam in December of 1966 and was wounded in January, 1967.
The Marines frequently left The Island, with its bunkers and concertina wire, to visit Hội An and the mainland. On these excursions, Seymour often carried a puppy strapped to his haversack– the Marines had found the infant animal alone and hungry while on patrol in the jungle and adopted it, calling it Boot.
“Every time we would row from the Island to the mainland side, the village children would come running up. ‘Got gum? Got cigarettes? Candy?’ they would ask. And we would give them whatever we could spare from our C-rations.
“There was one little boy named Cam who was always in blue pajamas and bare feet. He would hang back a bit – I think he was a little bit shy. But he was the wiser of the children, because he would often bring us things: a coconut he had found on the ground, a banana, a lime. Of course, he became one of our favorites, and we would save some of our things for him.”
One day in June, the nine-year-old Cam offered a banana to Seymour. The sergeant was about to leave The Island for a week of R&R in Thailand, and he asked Cam if the boy wanted any sort of gift. “I’m sure he had no idea what Thailand was: he didn’t speak English well, just a little bit of pidgin. But he thought a little bit and then pointed at my watch, and I said okay.”
While in Thailand, Seymour forgot to buy a watch. Shopping was the last thing on his mind. But when he eventually returned to The Island and saw Cam again, his promise immediately came back. “Here’s little Cam running up and his face was all aglow, and I didn’t have a watch for him.” Soon after, Seymour’s company left The Island for the DMZ, and in January of 1968 he rotated out of Vietnam.
“I don’t have many regrets; I’ve had a good life. But over the years, the fact that I had not followed through on my promise with this little boy really became one of my life’s biggest regrets. I thought I’d take it to my grave.”
Seymour, a native of Brookline, Massachusetts, remained in the Marines for another 27 years, receiving a law and master’s degree. He eventually became an international law attorney at the Pentagon and later a chief prosecutor before retiring in 1995. “I always said that I would never go back to Vietnam. But around 2007, my wife Lynne noticed that a group that we did a lot of overseas traveling with had a tour through Southeast Asia that stopped in Hội An. She asked if I would consider going, because we might be able to find Cam and give him his watch. I decided it might be worthwhile.”
Hội An, a city of about 80,000 people, has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage site because its architecture and layout remain mostly unchanged from the time that it was a prominent trading post for China, Japan, and eventually Europe from the 15th through 19th centuries. “I thought the chances of finding Cam were pretty nil. I didn’t know if he had survived the war, as the area around Hội An was fairly contested at the time. But we brought a watch just in case.
“Our guide, who was from Hanoi in the north, said he knew a lot of people in Hội An, so he would find Cam. When we got there, we checked into a modern hotel that had just been constructed and dropped our stuff off upstairs. We put some of our clothes in a laundry bag and went to get them cleaned, but when we came out of the hotel, our guide called to us from across the street. We crossed the street, dodging the motorbikes, and walked into a restaurant that was open to the street.
“We had brought some photos of Cam and his family with us, and our guide had shown them around to people. He directed us to a man in a blue hat, who told us through our guide’s interpreting that a photo showed himself, his father, his sister, and his brother Cam. Our guide explained that we wanted to get in touch with Cam, and the brother said he would call him and see if he could come over.
“We had a few minutes to run up to our room in the hotel, grab our cameras and the watch, and run back down. Just as we were crossing the street, Cam pulled up on his motorbike. He was now 49 and a carpenter. Our guide explained why we were there. Cam was like a deer caught in the headlights. He couldn’t comprehend that somebody would come all the way from the U.S. just to see him and give him a watch.
“Our guide asked if Cam remembered me. He responded, ‘Yes, I do. He used to carry a dog on his back.’ The guide then asked if he remembered my promise of a watch 40 years ago. Cam replied, ‘Yes, I do, but I was nine years old and I didn’t speak English well, so I thought I must have misunderstood.’ We explained that he hadn’t misunderstood; I had just failed to follow through. Then we gave him the watch and took some photographs. He had tears in his eyes, we had tears in ours.”
Cam invited the Seymours to dinner the next night at his home, where his wife No and his daughter Vy prepared the meal. While the Seymours and their guide ate – Vietnamese custom is to feed the guests and only eat after they leave – Vy, who was 28 and newly married, said that she wanted to go to college like her four brothers, but Vietnamese women rarely went to college.
On the way back to the hotel, Seymour’s wife Lynne suggested that they try to put Vy through school. The guide agreed to help after Cam and his wife consented, and Vy went to college in Saigon, where her brothers were also studying. (Seymour says the south Vietnamese still call the city Saigon, while the north Vietnamese call it Ho Chi Minh City. He uses the southern name.) Vy received an associate’s degree in 2010 and a bachelor’s degree in 2012. Lynne paid for her education with a little help from a Rotary Club to which Seymour belonged.
The Seymours returned to Vietnam – probably for the last time – in 2012 to see Vy graduate. They bought plane tickets for Cam and his wife to fly down as well, and Cam carried loads of food with him on his first-ever flight, to prepare a feast at Vy’s apartment. Lynne and Phil gifted a microwave to No, and she carried it on her lap the entire flight home. Vy now works as an entrepreneur in a market in Saigon, and still calls the Seymours periodically.
Why did the failure to keep a relatively minor, four-decade-old promise haunt Phil Seymour so much that he returned to a country full of distressing memories, sought out a young boy now grown into a man, forged a bond across the world with his family, and involved himself and his wife in that family’s lives through generosity?
“Had I promised an adult something and not followed through, I don’t think it would have bothered me anywhere near as much. But this was a nice, innocent kid. He didn’t swear, he didn’t smoke, he didn’t beg. He always had a smile on his face.
“War is not a sane business. It takes a toll. You have to suspend a lot of the attitudes that you have to stay sane. Cam, and the other children that would always come up asking for gum and candy, no matter where you were, brought a little bit of sanity to an otherwise insane situation.”