Reaching out to the community to update Bulloch County’s military history exhibit with more stories and artifacts from the Vietnam War, Georgia Southern graduate student in public history Breana James and her helpers heard from veterans who experienced the war in unique ways.
Inside the Bulloch County North Main Annex entrance from the parking lot on the north end, the existing military history exhibit fills four walls of a room and two display cases in the middle. Currently there are panels on the walls representing major conflicts from the American Revolution to the Global War on Terror, with just one panel on the Vietnam War.
The 50th anniversaries of some of the war’s major battles, in particular those that followed the Tet Offensive launched by the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong in January 1968, are now passing.
“We’re basically updating the panels and updating information since the last time it’s been done, but outside of that we’re also conducting oral history interviews so that we can have more information on, specifically, the Vietnam War, and also we’re going to put artifacts in the space as well,” James said.
Nothing new has been added at the annex yet. But for four hours on Nov.27 James, some student friends and three professors met with Vietnam veterans and veterans’ family who members who brought in artifacts and memories. Some oral histories will be recorded, and a website will complement the exhibit, James said. She and her fellow curators hope to have the new display completed by April.
As if anticipating the intent of the public historians, Wilber “W.T.” Edwards, now 82, a career Navy man who served four tours of duty along the coast of Vietnam, had taken steps to preserve his personal history. Earlier, he had realized that all he knew about one of his grandfathers was his name and that he had fought in the Civil War.
“To me that was kind of sad, because I would like for my children and my grandchildren to know a little bit more about me than just ‘old W.T.,’ and ‘He served in the Navy’,” Edwards said.
So he and his daughter, Cyndi Edwards, decided to do something about that a couple of years ago. He wrote about things that happened at each one of his duty stations. Cyndi then typed these little stories for a scrapbook and also posted them on Facebook for her father’s 80th birthday. They brought the book, with also some documents and photos from the period, to the open house, held at the Statesboro Convention and Visitors Bureau, for the planned exhibit.
The Georgia Southern curators gladly photocopied the scrapbook when the veteran offered to share it for their research.
USS Paul Revere
Anyone who thinks the Navy was distant from the action is not aware of service like that Edwards performed. For his four years of Vietnam deployment, 1965-69, he served aboard the USS Paul Revere, an attack transport ship which deposited Marines and other troops on the coast in actions such as Operation Blue Marlin, Operation Game Warden and others he mentioned.
Edwards, at the time with the enlisted rank of E-6, or petty officer first class, was in charge of the boats that carried the troops from ship to shore.
“Man, I hauled a lot of Marines up and down that place from one end to the other,” he said. “We’d take like 1,800 to 2,000 and we’d drop them off.”
For its Vietnam service, the USS Paul Revere was awarded the Navy Meritorious Unit Commendation, represented by the top bar of color bands on the cap emblazoned “Vietnam Veteran” that Edwards was wearing. Only while reviewing his personal history for the scrapbook did he realize his central role in earning that commendation, he said. The commendation letter stated, as reason for the award, that all of the Paul Revere’s boats were operational.
Edwards, promoted to chief petty officer after the war, served in the U.S. Navy 20 years, three months and 12 days, he recalled. He grew up Effingham County but has been a Bulloch resident since he retired from the Navy in 1975.
Survivor assistance officer
Another unique perspective was shared by Richard Keith, now 72, who never actually went to Vietnam but did grim and sensitive duty stateside. A draft card in his name was one of the items he shared. Originally from Massachusetts where his draft board informed him how close he was to getting drafted, he instead signed up for the Army’s Officer Candidate School at Fort Benning, Georgia.
After entering the service in May 1968, he was commissioned as a second lieutenant in April 1969, and left the Army after three years in 1971. Besides sharing his own story, he heard some of the others.
“I love to listen to these guys, because I’ve got a lot of friends that did go over there, but then I ended up thinking I was in a job in Charlotte and not much going on,” Keith said, adding that when some of those who did go lost buddies in action, it was his job to arrange for their funerals.
While others in his OCS graduating class became infantry officers, he was given the choice of the Adjutant General Corps, an administrative branch of the Army, and took it. Keith was assigned to the induction station in Charlotte, North Carolina, where his primary duty was administering psychological tests. But as an additional duty he became the local survivor assistance officer, and would get calls mainly out of Fort Jackson, South Carolina.
It was not Keith’s responsibility to make the first visit to inform the parents or young widow of the fallen soldier. That duty instead fell to various officers from regular units, who would usually call on the family after supper. Then that officer would call Keith, often late at night.
“‘Lieutenant, we’ve just notified Mr. and Mrs. Smith that their son has died in Vietnam. His body will be coming in tomorrow at the Charlotte airport, his funeral likely will be on Saturday,’” Keith said, recalling what one of those calls would have been like. “And then I’d have to pull it all together and meet with the family.”
Among artifacts he shared was a shoulder patch with a Liberty Bell logo. He credits that patch, representing the U.S. Army Recruiting Command of which his unit was a part, with his not having to make the notification visit.
“The Army made maybe the one great decision that – not that I necessarily recruited him, but – that somebody that recruited my son shouldn’t bring him home to me too,” Keith said. “I’m thankful for that.”
He also shared a letter he received in 1970 from a ministerial group opposed to the war on pacifist grounds.
Keith, who later worked in insurance, moved to Bulloch County in retirement two years ago with his wife, who is originally from Twin City.
The new Vietnam exhibit is the James’ non-thesis project for completion of her Master of Arts in history with a certificate in public history. From Marietta and now 23, she also earned her bachelor’s degree in history at Georgia Southern.
GS history department faculty members assisting that day were Associate Professor Michael Van Wagenen, Ph.D., who coordinates the public history program, Professor Bill Allison, Ph.D., who teaches military history and makes the Vietnam War a specialty, and Georgia Southern Museum Director Brent Tharp, Ph.D.
Among the students helping was Anna McIntyre, also pursuing her master’s with a public history certificate. She explained what, in addition to providing a public exhibit, makes James’ project public history.
“I would also say because she’s doing her best to involve the community in the entire process, of bringing in the artifacts, telling their stories, and she’s going to do her best to convey that to the entire community,” McIntyre said.
Within the first two hours, the curators also received visits from at least one Air Force and one Marine Corps veteran, so the four major services that saw action were represented.
Besides receiving a few artifacts and hearing preliminary stories, the curators scheduled veterans for later interviews, which will be recorded. James’ email for offers of Vietnam memories or artifacts is firstname.lastname@example.org.