SARATOGA SPRINGS — It’s been a half-century since the height of the Vietnam War, enough time to begin to put that conflict into historical context.
But for those who were there — who remember the wounds, the friends lost, the inside info that never became public, the post-traumatic stress disorder, the memories — it still feels as fresh as the smell of mud after a steamy jungle rain.
The New York State Military Museum on Lake Avenue will offer both perspectives as it opens a new permanent exhibit Saturday: “Hot Spots in the Cold War: Korea and Vietnam.” The extensive exhibit will be the subject of an opening reception from 6 to 8 p.m. Saturday at the museum, located in a former National Guard armory.
Visitors will be able to see stories of the war, which lasted from roughly 1960 to 1975, though American involvement ended in 1973. Fatigue uniforms, artifacts like a Zippo lighter, C-Rations, sunglasses and combat boots and helmets will be on display, along with battle narratives, photographs and oral histories.
More than 2.7 million Americans served in Vietnam, with more than 58,000 killed and an estimated 304,000 wounded.
“For many people living today, Korea and Vietnam was a current event, but as time goes on it becomes history, and you try to put it into perspective,” said museum Chief Curator Mark Koziol, who has spent much of the last two years organizing the exhibit.
“The museum has been here since ’93, and we always wanted to do a Cold War exhibit,” Koziol said.
The Cold War was the common name for the decades of superpower tension between the Soviet Union and the United States, from the end of World War II until the collapse of the Soviet Union (Russia and its satellites) in 1989. Twice — in Korea 1950-1953 and in Vietnam — small regional conflicts grew into superpower proxy wars, pitting advocates of capitalism and democracy against believers in communism.
The exhibit also talks about the Cold War at home, with aspects like the pervasive fear of a nuclear war and the existence of underground nuclear missile silos across the northern United States, some of them in northern New York.
“There’s a lot to tell, and it’s not just about those in uniform,” said Col. Richard Goldenberg, a spokesman for the New York National Guard, which oversees the museum.
On Friday, which was National Vietnam War Veterans Day, a group of Vietnam veterans who made contributions to the exhibit gathered to recall the events in Southeast Asia a half-century ago that would shape their lives.
— Barry Hartman of Clifton Park served 31 years in the U.S. Army, including two tours in Vietnam in 1967-68 and 1972-73, when he was a captain in the First Cavalry Regiment, conducting patrols and ambushes and “keeping roads open” so supplies could get through in the Central Highlands at the time of the Tet Offensive that started on Jan. 30, 1968.
The North Vietnamese army and Viet Cong — Communist guerrillas in South Vietnam — broke a ceasefire when they launched the offensive with attacks across the country. “Tet was not a surprise to us,” recalled Hartman, who is 79. “We knew they were moving. But Americans were honorable, there was a ceasefire, and we were told we couldn’t fire until we were fired on.”
He was never wounded, despite being in combat. “I was lucky,” he said. “They had their opportunities, but the Lord was good to me.”
On his second tour, Hartman was an operations officer in 1972-73, and was on the last airplane out of the DaNang air base when American troops withdrew from the war. Friday was the 46th anniversary of that flight.
— Roy McDonald, 71, of Saratoga, who would go on to a political career that included service in the state Assembly and Senate, was in the Army infantry serving on the Vietnam-Cambodia border in 1970-71.
McDonald admires Tim O’Brien’s famed short story, “The Things They Carried,” and he remembers the things he carried. In addition to the standard combat gear, he carried four pictures in the pocket of his jungle fatigues.
One was of SUNY-Oneonta in the fall, the college he wished it could return to; one was a Ford Mustang that he wanted to buy with his accumulated pay; one was his fiancee, Angie; and one was a Playboy centerfold. “They all deteriorated because of the weather there,” he recalled.
In the end, he got the Mustang, he married Angie, and he got the Oneonta degree. Miss February, though, eluded him.
— David Wallingford, 75, of Malta, was a Marine. “I am a Marine,” he corrects a questioner.
On March 25, 1969 — fifty years ago this week — Wallingford was fighting in the far north of South Vietnam, near the Demilitarized Zone, when a bullet ripped through his left upper arm, tearing the muscle from the back of the arm. He was waiting for evacuation later in the day when a shell landed nearby and sent shrapnel into his legs.
He ended up spending two months in a military hospital in Japan. He could have gone home, but instead opted to finish his 12 month tour in-country. “I chose to go back,” he recalled. “I felt it was my obligation, and I felt psychologically and physically I could do it.”
In Japan, he met a Navy nurse at a dance. He asked her to dance, and five days later he asked her to marry him. They’ll soon celebrate their 49th wedding anniversary.
Wallingford said Vietnam veterans are treated well today, as the government and public seem to be trying to make up for the negative reception many veterans received when they first came back from Vietnam. But he, like others, said the kind of exhibit should have been organized long ago for those who served in Korea, which some veterans have long called “The Forgotten War.”
“The people who served in Korea, no one cared about them,” McDonald said.
Korea veterans who are still alive are in their late 80s or older now, and many of them have died in recent years.