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Oklahoma History Center to open Vietnam War exhibit in November

Heide Brandes / Red Dirt Report
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OKLAHOMA CITY- Of the thousands of Oklahomans who fought in the Vietnam War, 988 lost their lives on those distant foreign shores. Of the 988, 13 were women, and beyond the Americans who died for their country, countless Vietnamese citizens were also affected.

Unlike the soldiers who battled in World War I, World War II and Korea, the soldiers of the Vietnam War were not welcomed home with parades or open arms. Many were spit upon, cussed out or physically assaulted. Even 50 years later, many veterans and Vietnamese Americans still struggle with the psychological and physical scars of that war.

In November, the soldiers, civilians and immigrants who clashed, fought and died will be honored by the Oklahoma Historical Society in an upcoming exhibit, “Welcome Home: Oklahomans and the War in Vietnam,” at the Oklahoma History Center. A four-part exhibition, “Welcome Home” will follow both American families and Vietnamese families from their lives before the war through the struggle to rebuild lives after the fall of Saigon.

“This new exhibit will probably be our most popular and most well-attended exhibit we’ve ever had,” said  Steve Hawkins, director of marketing. “We had thousands of Oklahoma men and women in the war in Vietnam.”

The exhibit opens to the public on Nov. 6 and will remain in place for two years. On Nov. 8 to 12, the Vietnam Traveling Memorial Wall will appear at the History Center and a special Veteran’s Day will be honored on Nov. 11.

“This will not be your typical Vietnam War exhibit,” Hawkins said. “We aren’t just showing scenes of soldiers. This one tells the whole story from 1960 on. We start it by showing American family life of raising kids, building a strong sense of community and family. We talk about all the early days of the families of Native Americans and immigrants too.”

Conversely, the exhibit also shows Vietnam prior to the conflict and how the families there also interacted. Videotaped interviews with both sides will be included in the exhibit. The third section of “Welcome Home” shows the Americans in Vietnam when the war started. Stories from both Americans and Vietnamese bring to light how all lives were changed because of the war, Hawkins said.

“The final section shows the Oklahoma-born servicemen and women back in Oklahoma and how they had to rebuild their lives,” he said. “The Vietnamese who were brought to Oklahoma City also had to rebuild, and some did very successfully. One example is Jimmy Ban, who started the Jimmy’s Egg franchise.”

ICONIC IMAGES AND SERENDIPITY

The “Welcome Home” exhibit has been in the world for two years, and a plan was developed a year ago for the display. As part of the “Welcome Home” exhibit, the Oklahoma History Center transported a newly acquired Huey helicopter to Oklahoma City. This addition to the exhibit will honor those who stepped up and served in the Vietnam War and is donated by native Oklahoman Bob Ford, who said, “Any Army pilot or crew member who had the privilege to fly the Huey in combat loves it; it never let us down.”

The aircraft began its journey from Weatherford, Texas, on Sunday, Sept. 24, and arrived at the History Center mid-afternoon. The Huey was installed the following day, suspended from the History Center atrium in the same manner as the iconic replica of the Winnie Mae airplane hanging in the Devon Great Hall.

The procession crossed the Oklahoma/Texas state line and was escorted from there by the Patriot Guard Riders (PGR) directly to the grounds of the Oklahoma History Center. The PGR is a nationwide organization known for its impressive motorcycle convoys, whose stated mission is to “ensure dignity and respect at memorial services honoring Fallen Military Heroes, First Responders and honorably discharged Veterans.”

The PGR also will be involved in escorting The Wall That Heals, a scaled version of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., to the Oklahoma History Center on November 8, 2017.

The UH-1 Iroquois was originally designated as the HU-1A. The helicopter quickly developed a nickname derived from its designation of HU-1A, which came to be pronounced "Huey." The rotary-winged aircraft, which was first flown by the U.S. Army in 1956, also was used by the U.S. Air Force’s 20th Special Operations Squadron in South Vietnam, where it was converted into a UH-1P gunship and equipped with two rocket pads and two mini-guns. Today, the Air Force uses the light-lift utility helicopter to support Global Strike Command missile wings, survival school training, test and evaluation and search and rescue operations.

As part of the exhibit, the planning committee also wanted to print the dog tags of all 988 Oklahomans killed in the war to put on display, but the cost to make those dog tags was discouraging, Hawkins said.

“We came out of the meeting, and our curator of military history asked how it went,” Hawkins said. “We told him what we wanted to do with the dog tags, but that it would be too expensive. He said, ‘You won’t believe this.’ A guy had called that morning saying he wanted to donate a tag-making machine to the History Center.”

The exhibit also includes a reconstruction of a Buddhist temple face, the entrance to the Asian District of Oklahoma and more.

“Our Vietnam War soldiers were not applauded as heroes when they returned,” said Hawkins. “This is our way to welcome our soldiers home 50 years later. They were spat on and cursed.  We have many volunteers who are veterans, and this has allowed them to open up and talk about it.”

Honoring the Vietnamese who immigrated to Oklahoma and who were also affected by the war was an important aspect to Bob Blackburn, director of the Oklahoma Historical Society.

“He thought it was important to tell the immigrant side of this story too. Oklahoma City has such a large Asian population, and we want this exhibit to recognize them and their struggle as well.”

The Oklahoma History Center is a division of the Oklahoma Historical Society and is an affiliate of the Smithsonian Institution, National Archives and is an accredited member of the American Association of Museums. The mission of the Oklahoma Historical Society is to collect, preserve and share the history and culture of the state of Oklahoma. Founded in 1893 by members of the Territorial Press Association, the OHS maintains museums, historic sites and affiliates across the state.

Through its research archives, exhibits, educational programs and publications the OHS chronicles the rich history of Oklahoma. For more information about the OHS, please visit www.okhistory.org.

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Heide Brandes

Heide Brandes is an award-winning journalist and editor with more than 18 years of experience....

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