An American doctor said Monday he had returned the carefully-preserved arm bone of a Viet Cong soldier to its owner more than forty years after he amputated it during the Vietnam War.

The arm -- from which US medics removed the flesh and which was wired together after the 1966 operation -- was handed back to ex-soldier Nguyen Quang Hung at his house in the town of An Khe in Vietnam's Central Highlands province of Gia Lai.

"I was the custodian of this arm," US doctor Sam Axelrad told AFP by phone, adding he was "unbelievably happy" to have been able to return the somewhat macabre wartime memento to its rightful owner -- who now plans to use it to claim a war veteran's pension.

Viet Cong soldier Hung arrived at Axelrad's base in 1966, close to death after having been shot and contracting gangrene.

"When I amputated his arm, our medics took the arm, took the flesh off it, put it back together perfectly with wires, and then they gave it to me," said Axelrad, 74, from Houston.

"When I left the country six months later, I didn't want to throw it away, I put it in my trunk and brought it home, and all these years it has been in my house," he added.

Decades later, Axelrad returned to Vietnam and a local journalist wrote a story about the fact he still had the arm, leading to the discovery that Hung was still alive and prompting Axelrad to arrange to return the bones.

Logistical obstacles had to be overcome. Axelrad worked "for months" with the Vietnamese consulate in America and US transportation authorities.

"After some research, it turns out that you can take bones in your suitcase," he said, adding that he packed the arm into his luggage -- not his carry-on -- "and it went all the way through with no problems."

"You can't send a body without authorisation, but bones, yes," he added.

According to Ron Ward, of the US Joint Prisoners of War, Missing in Action Accounting Command (JPAC), which handles the search for American MIAs, the return of the arm bone to a living Vietnamese veteran was a "one of a kind event".

"It is completely unique in the history of Vietnamese wartime remains exchanges," he said.

Hung, a 74-year-old father of seven whose wife recently died, told AFP he was thrilled to have his arm bones returned to him.

When he first heard his arm would be coming home he "really could not believe it," he said, adding that he was amazed to be reunited with the appendage he lost at the age of 27.

"I am so happy. I think this event is very rare in Vietnam, even rare in the world," he said.

Hung said he hoped to use both the arm bone and Axelrad as a witness to prove that he was injured during the war and claim a state pension.

"All my army files were lost so I have not been considered a war invalid. I hope that this arm bone (will help) me benefit from official support for war veterans," he said.

"My arm bone is evidence of my contribution to the war. I will keep it in my house -- I will put it in the glass display cabinet. I will tell everyone who visits my home now that 'Look, I was in the war,'" he said, adding he also planned to be buried with the arm bone.

Some three million Vietnamese civilians and soldiers died during the war, which also claimed the lives of almost 60,000 American soldiers before ending in 1975 with Vietnam's reunification.

[Image via Agence France-Presse]