‘Vietnam Remembered’: Souvenirs, wartime memorabilia tell soldiers’ tales of drama, nostalgia, freedom

Collections technician Virginia Waters makes a final adjustment to the newest temporary exhibit, “Vietnam Remembered,” running now through November at the Pennsylvania Military Museum.
Collections technician Virginia Waters makes a final adjustment to the newest temporary exhibit, “Vietnam Remembered,” running now through November at the Pennsylvania Military Museum. Photo provided

Sometimes the smallest items tell the biggest stories.

Though it does not match the size and scope as some other exhibits, the “Vietnam Remembered” display at the Pennsylvania Military Museum offers a look at a period of American — and Pennsylvanian — history that deserves reflection, said Joe Horvath, a museum educator at the Boalsburg museum.

“This is a small exhibit of items collected throughout the years, since I have been here, in ’97, and before — things like combat boots dropped off anonymously,” he said. “From a gentleman from Blair County, we have his set of three documents related to the draft: a registration card, physical assessment and final disposition, where he was granted a family hardship deferment. Essentially these are individual items — like an anonymously donated wrist watch with a military band purchased in the PX (Post Exchange).”

Some pieces, such as Ho Chi Minh sandals the Vietnamese fashioned from tire tubs, are little flashes of what the experience was like in the jungles.

“The thing with the Vietnam War is, you rarely saw the enemy,” Horvath said. “Items like belt buckles and weapons were prized as a souvenir items.”

Others tell more dramatic stories.

A North Vietnamese machete that a Wilkes-Barre man donated is one of those items. The man was a U.S. Navy corpsman with the Marines, a position similar to a medic in the Army.

“He was with his Marine fire team on a sweep of an area,” Horvath said. “He knelt down before a casualty, a Marine, when he heard the blast of an M16 rifle from behind him. The Marine behind him had just shot a Vietnamese person with the machete who was about to attack the corpsman. The Marine handed the machete to him and said, ‘Here you go, Doc.’ ”

At the tip of the machete is the indentation of a bullet. One of the rounds of the M16 had deflected the machete as it was coming down — and before it struck the Pennsylvania native.

The exhibit, open through November, is comprised of two portions. The first is a rectangular box about 5 feet long and 3 feet wide. Visitors will see the draft documents first, and at the end is a boonie hat donated by someone from Pittsburgh who was part of the Americal Division. Below the hat is his Allegheny Airlines ticket home and boarding pass — signaling the last leg of his journey.

“That was one thing that really touched one of the veterans who visited,” Horvath said. “All the guys remember the freedom bird home.”

The second part of the exhibit displays Vietnamese items, such as the sandals, a North Vietnamese flag that was captured and AK-47 ammunition.

Of course, similar mementos and memorabilia from the Vietnam have been included in other exhibits in the museum, but Horvath said this is the first display dedicated solely to the war.

“Vietnam and other wars are included in other exhibits,” Horvath said. “Our setup is more thematic rather than chronological.”

The time was right to offer Vietnam Veterans their space in history. The exhibit is in memory of the 50th anniversary of the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, an incident between the U.S and North Vietnamese navies in the Gulf of Tonkin in August of 1964. At the time, President Lyndon Johnson was granted by Congress the authorization to use conventional military force to assist “any member or protocol state of the Southeast Asia Collective Defense Treaty.”

“It’s nice to be able to do temporary exhibits, and this is the time for us to start remembering Vietnam in an exhibit like this,” said Horvath, a veteran who entered the service six years after Vietnam. “These guys are now in their 60s and 70s and going the way of the World War II vets. We need to do it now so they can see. We gave the World War II veterans their honor. This is an exhibit for Vietnam while those veterans still can make it to the museum.”