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January/February 2024 -   -  


Vietnam War Veterans' Stories Exhibit at the Heritage Hall Museum in Slater, Iowa

While Veterans Day events in big cities receive the bulk of media coverage, most Americans mark the occasion at much smaller community gatherings. These grassroots commemorations remain central to the recognition and support of veterans, while often displaying industry and imagination that belie modest settings.

The small town of Slater, Iowa, north of Des Moines chose Veterans Day weekend for the opening of its “Stories of Our Vietnam Veterans” exhibit at the local Heritage Hall Museum. Created and hosted by the Slater Area Historical Association, the exbibit focuses on the wartime memories of more than 30 local Vietnam War veterans, supplemented with artifacts, memorabilia, and images. The exhibit opened on November 12 and is scheduled to run through Memorial Day 2024.

With a population of just 1,500, Slater is a close-knit town of long memories and long marriages, of well-kept homes and well-mannered folks. It’s a place where every driver waves, whether they recognize you or not. Situated in the center of Iowa, it’s a Norman Rockwell community with three churches and good schools, where a baseball diamond sits in the shadow of the town’s water tower, framed by grain elevators and vast cornfields.

A crowd gathering prior to the flag-raising ceremony at the Heritage Hall Museum in Slater, Iowa, on November 12 last year. The Slater Area Historical Association hosted the opening of the museum's "Stories of Our Vietnam Veterans" exhibit during Veterans Day weekend. (Courtesy Paul Rogers/VVA Veteran)

Funded by donations and staffed entirely by volunteers, the Slater Area Historical Association (SAHA) owns and operates the Heritage Hall Museum in a small building in the heart of town. Late last year its board of directors hatched the idea of an exhibit to honor area Vietnam War veterans. In just 10 months, they created an exhibit that included transcribed interviews with every living local (and formerly local) Vietnam veteran and an accompanying book containing all of the stories, along with artifacts and memorabilia including uniforms, letters, newspaper clippings, photos, maps, and medals.

“The main problem was getting the vets to talk to us,” said SAHA secretary and curator Louise O’Donnell. “Many of them had been quiet for many years.”

The ice breaker was inviting Vietnam veterans to participate in Slater’s annual Fourth of July parade. Even one of them who’d refused to be interviewed for the exhibit had a change of heart after the enthusiastic response they received while riding on a float at the front of the parade.

One of the many displays included in the exhibit. (Courtesy Paul Rogers/VVA Veteran)

Vietnam War veteran Steve Ransom next to a wartime map of Vietnam. (Courtesy Paul Rogers/VVA Veteran)

“Everybody stood up and cheered the entire route of the parade,” said SAHA president Barb Mallon. “These guys got off the float and they’re crying. They just couldn’t believe the warmth that they felt – the first time they’ve ever been recognized.”

The Interviews  

Tracking down area Vietnam War veterans required little formal research because SAHA’s board of directors is made up of retirees with strong local roots. Mallon started making calls to get the ball rolling and soon word of mouth added to the momentum. Most of the interviews were conducted in person in veterans’ homes or at Heritage Hall.

“The first reaction from the veterans was, you know, I don’t have anything to say, I didn’t do anything special,” said Mallon, who conducted many of the interviews. “But it’s all in the back of their heads, they just hadn’t really thought about it. When they came home [from Vietnam], people just shied away from them. They weren’t asked a lot, and they didn’t share.”

Excerpts from each veteran’s oral history are displayed at Heritage Hall, and their complete stories appear in the accompanying 72-page book, Stories of Vietnam: Interviews with our Vietnam Era Veterans. Visitors to the exhibit can also scan a QR code for each veteran and be taken to their complete story online.

“It was such a catharsis for them to start telling their stories. Pretty soon they were bringing in their mementos and photos,” O’Donnell said. “We wanted it to be emotional for the viewer; to play up some of the stories that were highly dramatic or emotionally heart wrenching.”

Those interviewed served in the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marine Corps. Most served in-country; others were stationed elsewhere around the globe during the war. Their military experiences vary widely.

“Nobody talked about [the war], not only myself, but all of my buddies,” said Paul Scharfenkamp. “We went on, got married, got a job, raised a family, my work people never even knew I was in the Army; my son probably didn’t until late in grade school.”

But Scharfenkamp, who was wounded in the Iron Triangle in 1966, was happy to participate in the project. “I’m afraid that we’re losing our patriotism,” he said. “So, I love what these guys are doing; they’re working their tails off.”

Paul Scharfenkamp, who was wounded in Vietnam in 1966, took part in the Stories of Our Vietnam Veterans project. (Courtesy Paul Rogers/VVA Veteran)

The exhibit and book include the stories of Phil “Dutch” Jones and Mike Antill, both of whom lost their lives in Vietnam, based on interviews with family members. The memories of Bennie Nguyen, a Vietnamese American whose ARVN father was imprisoned in Vietnam for many years before the family fled to Iowa, are also featured, as are local men who served in the Reserves during the Vietnam War.

The exhibit “has absolutely been therapeutic,” said Doug Jones, whose brother Phil, a Marine Corps second lieutenant, was mortally wounded in Qu?ng Nam Province in 1969, “because you know you’re not in it alone. People understand better through this what every family like ours experienced, so they’re more willing to be there if you need some kind of support.”

vietnam airforce
Vietnam War Air Force artifacts displayed outside the museum on November 12. (Courtesy Paul Rogers/VVA Veteran)

Pat Pickett grew up in Canada, moved to Iowa in the sixties, and has lived in Slater for 47 years. He served with an air mobile artillery battery in the Central Highlands after the Tet Offensive. Pickett expressed mostly neutral emotions about his Vietnam War experiences, describing his tour of duty simply as “something I had to do.”

“I don’t have any horrendously negative feelings about [the war]. I hated it when I was there, but looking back it was a worthwhile experience,” he said. “What the museum does is amazing for a little bitty town like Slater.”

Nine-year Slater resident Steve Ransom served two tours in 1968 and 1969, operating searchlights at Tan Son Nhut Air Base. While he said he gives little thought to his Vietnam War memories, he welcomes the educational aspect of the exhibit.

“I think it’s important from a historical point of view,” Ransom said, “that people who have served in Vietnam have an opportunity to say what the war was really about.”

The Opening  

The exhibit opened with a luncheon to honor participating veterans and their families, 40 people in all, prepared on site by volunteers. Afterward, each veteran received a swag bag containing the exhibit book, a war veteran lapel pin, letters from local eighth graders, and a presidential proclamation recognizing the 50th anniversary of the Vietnam War, plus VVA literature and a VVA 40th anniversary commemorative coin.

Visitors were immersed in the exhibit’s subject matter even before entering the museum on an unseasonably mild late fall afternoon. Yard signs bearing large QR codes were placed around the building, allowing online access to veterans’ stories. In an inspired touch, the Heritage Hall’s three vertical side windows were filled with nearly life-sized period photographs of participating veterans in uniform. Outside the front door, a curator from Iowa Gold Star Military Museum at nearby Camp Dodge, attired in a Vietnam War U.S. Air Force flight suit, hosted a table containing artifacts used by aircrew during the war.

Inside, the first exhibit is a display of MIA bracelets worn by loved ones of service members missing in action at the end of the war, along with the story of the missing pilot.

The exhibit’s highlights include a complete set of Vietnam War C rations, a large map of South Vietnam with pins indicating where each veteran served, and photos of every local veteran in Heritage Hall’s Military Room, which also honors veterans of other conflicts.

The bulk of the exhibit is made up of display boards of excerpts from the veterans’ stories augmented with related photos. The exhibit was designed to be easily digestible and accessible even to younger people who may have little awareness of the Vietnam War.

vietnam photos
Pictures of Vietnam War veterans from Slater, Iowa, on display as part of the Slater Heritage Hall Museum's "Stories of our Vietnam Veterans" exhibit. (Courtesy Paul Rogers/VVA Veteran)

“This is a great example to not have the kids have to sit through something heavy,” said O’Donnell. “They can come in, and they can pick and choose what they want to look at.”

The opening culminated with a well-attended flag raising in front of the museum. It made for a moving display of small-town Middle American patriotism and respect for veterans.

“It helps veterans know that people are still thinking about them,” said Roger Elliot, president of Des Moines Chapter 490. “And a lot of times when you have something like that going on, you find veterans who actually don’t know about Vietnam Veterans of America.”




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