To each American, this time period in our history conjures many images: from sacrifice and loyalty to drafts, protests, and unrest; from helicopters in the jungle to nightly body counts on the evening news. The war in Vietnam, like any war, was complex, with many conflicts, battles, and opinions.
With this exhibit, we seek to tell the story of the Vietnam War, not battle by battle in history-book fashion, but rather through the stories of the people who lived through the time. Each person’s perspective on the war is framed by his personal experiences, the people he knew, and the places he lived. In Our Words used the stories of veterans, wives, friends, family members, military, and civilians to look at the broader context of the Vietnam War. From those who were stationed overseas to those who were at home, each person’s experience was varied and relevant to the story.
Providing relief to soldiers in Vietnam, women gave their efforts by making the horrors of war more bearable to those who fought. Employed by the American Red Cross, the donut dollies spent time with soldiers and brought a little bit of home to those stationed in overseas. Wearing a light blue uniform, Donut Dollies often gave soldiers donuts to offset the mundane MRE’s (meals ready to eat). Come learn more about Donut Dollies and their important role in Vietnam through oral interviews in the exhibit.
Some bases had games, sports and other activities to entertain troops. Another form of entertainment would be to watch movies or films from home. Troops were creative in finding places to watch; some would even stretch a sheet between two poles to make a screen. In the exhibit are film clips from soldiers who were stationed in Vietnam which include training, local cities, and recreation activities.
The average weight of equipment and loads of ammunition carried by one soldier was between 50 to 60 pounds. However, the amount of equipment an infantry soldier carried depended on the location and duration of each mission. On some combat missions, soldiers were required to carry up to 500 rounds of M-16 ammunition, 200 machine gun rounds, six grenades, rations for three days, and three canteens of water. Soldiers also altered equipment to make it more comfortable and personable. Come see a raincoat where individuals signed their names and location to be remembered.
Private First Class Louis J. Cunningham, Jr. was awarded the Bronze Star Medal with a bronze “V” device posthumously for his heroic actions on November 6, 1965. Pfc. Cunningham crawled over 40 yards of open terrain under intense fire to obtain weapons for him and a crew chief. He returned to his position beside a wounded soldier and returned enemy fire for over an hour until they were airlifted from their position. Unfortunately, Cunningham was wounded and died on December 19, 1965 at the age of 18. He was awarded the Purple Heart Medal, which was presented to his parents in 1966.
As homesickness set in with soldiers, their main means of communication was to write letters. Letters provided loved ones with information as they were separated by endless miles of land and sea. During the war, Vietnam was considered a Free Mail Zone. Mail sent to and from any military personal in Vietnam was sent free of charge. The Sender only had to write “Free” on the envelope. Come to the museum and read some letters that were sent home by South Dakota Soldiers!
While serving in Vietnam, many soldiers acquired mementos to remember their experiences. Mementos could be anything from money, patches, or pieces of uniform or equipment. One South Dakota soldier even obtained a Viet Cong flag, as he was serving overseas. The flag and many other items brought back can be seen on exhibit!