Story: Courtesy of the Texas Military Forces Museum Staff
Posted: June 1, 2015
TEMPLE, Texas - The Texas Military Forces Museum’s Living History Detachment deployed 21 of its members to Temple to take part in the annual Central Texas Air Show, May 2-3, 2015.
Although the museum’s reenactors usually focus on the history of Texas Volunteer Regiments in the Civil War or the 36th Infantry Division in World War II, every year at the air show they turn their focus to the war in Vietnam.
For the Detachment, this was an opportunity to honor the men and women who served in Vietnam.
“We want to give ourselves and the public the chance to say thank you to all of those who answered their nation’s call and did their duty in Southeast Asia fifty years ago,” said Jeff Hunt, director of the Texas Military Forces Museum and commander of its living history detachment.
After setting up an authentic Vietnam-era military encampment, the museum’s volunteers helped the thousands of people, attending the air show, better understand the service American troops had in Southeast Asia during the 1960s.
Displays of weapons, equipment, period magazines, manuals, radios and even tape recorders are big attractions. Among the most popular items on exhibit are the M60 Machine Gun and M79 Grenade Launcher.
“Veterans love to see the weaponry they carried during that war,” said Hunt. “You can see the excitement on their faces and the thrill when we let them hold one of the firearms. Certainly, the sights, sounds and feel of these historic objects bring back a flood of memories.”
Some of these memories are good and some are painful.
“It isn’t uncommon to see a vet tear up as he interacts with us,” Hunt said. “A few become so emotional they can only shake their head and smile at us before they walk away. Many more take the time to tell stories of their time ‘in country’ or combat. As historians, we love hearing those stories. We take what the veterans tell us and incorporate it into what we tell the general public. Those stories make us better and more accurate interpreters of this important piece of our past.”
John Eli is the resident expert on the Vietnam War for the museum’s living history detachment. He served as an infantryman in the 25th Infantry Division in 1968 – at the height of the Tet Offensive. Wounded in action and awarded the Purple Heart, Eli saw a lot of combat and often acted as a “tunnel rat” for his unit.
A part of the museum’s living history team for more than 5 years, Mr. Eli shared his personnel history – including photos and mementoes he brought home from his service – with those who stop by the museum’s living history encampment. Very often he finds himself speaking to a fellow Vietnam veteran.
“You can certainly see the bond all the men who served in Vietnam have,” said Hunt. “It doesn’t matter if they weren’t in the same unit or even if they weren’t in the country at the same time, they are brothers.”
Having an authentic Vietnam veteran in their ranks is a special thing for the museum’s volunteers.
“John is a great guy and a great historian,” said Hunt. “We are so incredibly lucky and honored to have him as part of our unit. He has taught all of us more about the war than we could learn from reading 1,000 books.”
The most popular event of the detachment’s events at the air show was the Vietnam War-era air assault reenactment.
Wearing the correct uniforms and equipment from the era and carrying actual weapons modified to fire blanks, the volunteers boarded a Huey helicopter and flew into “battle.” The scenario is the rescue of a downed helicopter crew being pursued by a group of Viet Cong guerrillas.
With air show caliber pyrotechnics going off in the background, a Cobra gunship and an observation aircraft zooming overhead, the reenactors raced out of the helicopter as it touched the ground. A second “lift” brought in reinforcements as the rival forces exchanged fire. At the end of the scenario a “wounded” crewman is carried on a stretcher to the Huey as it lands to conduct a medical aerial evacuation.
The action only lasted for a handful of minutes. It is all very dramatic, but the reenactors know that it is a mere shadow of the real thing.
“There are no real bullets zipping through the air, little real danger,” said Hunt. “We know that we are all coming out of the scenario in one piece and that at the end of the weekend we are going home to the comforts of our daily lives and families. That is certainly something the real combat veterans could not say or even count on.”
That reality didn’t make the demonstration any less interesting or educational for the public. But reflecting on how truly dangerous what they just reenacted was in real life gives the museum’s living historians a deeper understanding and affinity for the men who did it on the actual battlegrounds of fifty years ago.
“It truly dives home the risks they faced,” said Hunt. “The courage, skill and professionalism they embodied - it makes it unquestionably certain that all of the men and women who fought in that war are real heroes.”
As the nation moves through the coming years of the fiftieth anniversary of the Vietnam War, the Texas Military Forces Museum plans on doing more programs focused on that time period.
“We want to help our fellow citizens learn the true history – not the mythology – of the Vietnam War,” Hunt said. “We want to help the veterans reflect and perhaps heal some of their lingering, painful, memories. We want them to understand that their war was just one battle in the much bigger Cold War and that what they did helped us win that bigger war. We want to let the veterans of Indo China know that they are our heroes every bit as much as the veterans of World War II or Korea of the War on Terror are our heroes.”
The Texas Military Forces Museum is the official museum of the Texas Army and Air National Guard. The museum’s Living History Detachment routinely puts on programs for visitors highlighting the role of The United States Armed Forces in American history from the War of 1812 through the Vietnam War.