For generations of Americans, the Vietnam War is now what World War II was to their parents – a battle told through stories by grandfathers and late-night documentaries on television.
But for thousands of military veterans, the war remains real, as if it happened yesterday, never mind its 50th anniversary is rapidly approaching.
“Who would have thought that when I was 23 and over there, I’d be thinking what it was like 50 years later,” said Vietnam veteran Mike Dwyer. “I have a pretty good memory of most things, and there are some things that really stick out.”
At the Rocky Mountain Museum of Military History last week, Dwyer stepped to a painting in the Vietnam gallery and noted the depiction of the USS Boyd refueling at sea – the same destroyer he served on during the war.
The museum is gearing up for the war’s 50th anniversary, which officially commences in 2015. It received a big boost this month when the Department of Defense named the Missoula museum Montana’s first Vietnam War 50th Commemorative Partner.
Tate Jones, the museum’s executive director, said partner status will enable the museum to bring in films, displays and national-caliber speakers.
The list of hopefuls includes Vietnam veteran Lt. Gen. Claude Kicklighter, and Col. Hal Moore, who commanded the 1st Battalion, 7th Cavalry Regiment at the Battle of la Drang in 1965, and later authored the book, “We Were Soldiers Once … And Young.”
“We’ll be unveiling more as the years go by with additional exhibits,” Jones said. “We’re always interested in hearing from vets who were active in Vietnam. We have a call for volunteers that way.”
In the Vietnam gallery, newspaper clippings remember the Cambodian Campaign, the Kent State shootings, the Easter Offensive and operations Linebacker and Lam Son. On April 30, 1975, the headline of the Missoulian declared “South Viets Surrender.”
Jones has already assembled a panel of newspaper clippings taken from the Montana Kaimin – the University of Montana newspaper. The clippings highlight the ups and downs of Missoula’s Vietnam-era counter culture, and the day’s mandatory service for men in the school’s ROTC program.
“It was a condition of land grant status – if you were getting land revenue from the federal government, you had to offer military training,” Jones said. “There was a controversy keeping ROTC on campus, and I do recall somebody setting a brochure rack on fire. But that was about as violent as it got.”
One of the largest local marches took place on April 16, 1970, when 500 people marched in protest of the Cambodian incursion. One photo on display depicts a park full of crosses and a sign noting that 234 Montanans had died in Southeast Asia up to that point.
“We were somewhat minor league compared to the big demonstrations – the tragedies at Kent State and Baton Rouge,” Jones said. “There were demonstrations and marches, but (UM) President (Robert) Pantzer, who’d seen combat in the South Pacific during World War II, approached it all with a level head.”
In 2008, the National Defense Authorization Act gave the Secretary of Defense the green light to conduct a program commemorating the Vietnam War’s 50th anniversary.
Jones said the events will honor veterans and their families, recognize the contributions and sacrifices made on the home front, and provide a clear history of the Vietnam War’s lengthy timeline.
“It’s just getting off the ground,” Jones said. “It’ll give us more resources, and allow us to bring in national-caliber speakers for our programs and events here. It all allows for some national coordination for the commemorative events, and it makes everyone aware what’s going on.”