A scrapbook from the Vietnam War brings back memories for a young veteran
When I started my internship in the museum's Division of Armed Forces History, I expected to see reminders of what it was like to be a U.S. Marine: uniforms, equipment, and weapons—the accoutrements of American warriors who served well before I did, but with whom I share a bond.
I was not disappointed.
I explored the impressive collection of firearms in the "Gun Room" and saw Union soldiers' coats and hats, the helmet of General "Stormin'" Norman Schwarzkopf, and even a military robot equipped with a machine gun. Of all of the things I saw, however, what made the most impact was a series of scrapbooks made by Albert E. Short, a veteran of the Vietnam War.
Short created the scrapbooks in the 1980s as a way to help him process his memories and experiences of the war. According to museum staff members who accepted the donation, Short often had to work long hours, deep into the night, on a single part, processing individual events incrementally. While I have never made a scrapbook, I can relate to the struggle to forcefully remember and accept painful events of the past. I once started writing down my recollections, but stalled as the going got tough. Looking through these scrapbooks, I feel empowered to step back into my own process.
What struck me, looking through this scrapbook, was the shared experience I felt with this veteran I had never met. The first scrapbook included his experiences prior to the Tet Offensive, and while this airman's time in the country up to that point was nothing like Iraq, it resounded with other experiences I had as a Marine. Prior to and after my tours in Iraq, I had the opportunities to serve in Honduras as a base guard, and Chile (nominally as a sort of advisor, but mainly to join them in celebrating their own Marine Corps' birthday). During these peaceful deployments, I was able to interact with the local people much the way the Vietnam vet had in Saigon.
This veteran's pedal cab tour reminded me of my own experiences meeting new people from a different part of the world and learning about their home. I distinctly remember a Chilean Marine giving us a tour of Viña Del Mar and taking delight in introducing us to the national beverage, the Pisco Sour (which I highly recommend if you can find one and you are, of course, 21 or older), and a dish of sausage, ground beef, and egg over a huge pile of french fries.
Throughout the scrapbook there are reports, headlines, and images of mortar attacks on U.S. air bases, and this too was familiar to me. The news reported a great deal on the use of improvised explosive devices. IEDs presented a danger we both knew despite the 50-year gap between our experiences. While IEDs were a major threat, the thing that always stood out to me were the mortar and rocket attacks. The IEDs prompted a sense of paranoia whenever traveling by road, but the mortars made the threat of loss a constant; no place ever truly felt safe.
I was assigned to Second Marine Division, Headquarters Battalion, Small Craft Company during my tours in Iraq, and we performed riverine operations on the Euphrates River. (Riverine operations include the use of military forces to control river areas within a region. They often combine land, naval, and air operations.) If you remember the boat from the movie Apocalypse Now (but take out almost all of the rest of the movie) then you might have a very basic idea of what we did. Our boats were newer, and we didn't go down river looking for crazed colonels, but our doctrine was written during the Vietnam War and so it was our primary point of historical reference during our war. Flipping through these scrapbooks, I happened to be reunited in a way with my duties. For example at one point Short hitched a ride with a navy unit running supplies along a river to Da Nang Air Base.
It seems that for all the differences between my war and Short's, some things never really change. Americans serving abroad in peace and war will almost always experience similar things, bringing our uniquely American perspective. It's not often that I get to connect with veterans of other wars; separated by time and distance, it is hard to make a personal bond. Yet here, in this scrapbook, I have been able to get an idea of what another veteran not only did but felt. I think that I get a sense of how he absorbed his experience and how it helped shape him, and how I can use that to reflect on my own experiences and guide them in how they will shape me.
Jacob Petrie is an intern in the Division of Armed Forces History.