Dr Sam Axelrad amputated Nguyen's arm above the elbow (wiki commons)

A US doctor who served in the Vietnam War is to return an arm he amputated to its owner, a Vietnamese soldier, 47 years after taking it.

Sam Axelrad, from Houston, arrived in Vietnam carrying the arm he removed from Nguyen Quang Hung in 1966, who had been shot by the US military and was facing death.

Axelrad's medical friends boiled removed flesh following the amputation and gave the bones to the doctor as a memento.

He said he took them home as a reminder that he saved the life of an enemy soldier during wartime instead of letting him die.

The bones remained in a cupboard in the doctors home for nearly half a century until Axelrad, now 74, dug them out and decided to give them back to their proper owner.

Nguyen, 73, said he was shot in the arm by American troops in October 1966 and escaped by floating downriver away from the danger zone. He sheltered in a rice warehouse for three days before he was discovered and taken to a US military hospital.

"When I was captured by the American forces, I was like a fish on a chopping-board. They could have either killed or spared me," he said.

Axelrad found Nguyen's arm was badly discoloured and to save his life, he had to amputate it above the elbow. The soldier spent eight months recovering and a further six assisting US doctors in the medical tent.

Vietnam War
58,000 Americans and three million Vietnamese died during the 19-year war (Wiki commons) Wiki Commons

Nguyen said he was surprised to hear from Axelrad after so many years: "I can't believe that an American doctor took my infected arm, got rid of the flesh, dried it, took it home and kept it for more than 40 years.

"I don't think it's the kind of keepsake that most people would want to own. But I look forward to seeing him again and getting my arm bones back."

Axelrad tracked down Nguyen through a Vietnamese journalist who wrote an article about his quest to find the owner of the arm.

The pair reunited at Nguyen's home in central Vietnam and met each other's families.

"I'm very glad to see him again and have that part of my body back after nearly half a century," Nguyen said. "I'm proud to have shed my blood for my country's reunification and I consider myself very lucky compared with many of my comrades who were killed or remain unaccounted for."

"It's just time for closure," Axelrad said of his gesture. "I'm so happy that he was able to make a life for himself."

During the war in Vietnam, an estimated 58,000 Americans and three million Vietnamese were killed. John Ernst, an expert on the Vietnam War, said many veterans travel to Vietnam to return personal items to enemy soldiers.

"It is a fascinating phenomenon," he said.