Tuesday, August 18, 2009

History buffs shed light on Vietnam

The dirt paths that lead to Alpha Company's field headquarters were lined with overgrown grass and weeds. A canvas tent was protected by machine guns, sandbags and Army-green storage boxes.

But these were not the jungles of southeast Asia, just the woods of small-town Pennsylvania, where more than 30 years after the fall of Saigon, military enthusiasts were re-enacting the Vietnam War.

For decades, re-enactors have played out key events in the Revolutionary or Civil wars.
This group was illustrating one of the nation's most controversial conflicts -- and paying tribute to veterans.

"We do it to honor these guys and to tell them, 'You weren't forgotten,'" said Tom Gray, 47, of Altoona, who portrayed a platoon leader last month at the encampment near the Pennsylvania Military Museum in Boalsburg, about 120 miles northeast of Pittsburgh.

"What they're doing here is absolutely great," said Wilbur Smith, a 61-year-old postal worker who visited the Boalsburg bivouac.

Smith, who lives in Mount Union, about 50 miles west of Harrisburg, spent a year in Vietnam as an Army sergeant in 1968-69.

"I think for a long time with Vietnam, we tried to push that out of our history, that it didn't happen, so I think this is a good thing," he said.

Museum educator Joe Horvath, a Navy veteran from the early 1980s, helped organize the first bivouac two years ago. Horvath said he was initially wary of the reaction the event might receive from veterans, but the response has been so positive that a second day was added to the schedule this year.

Last month, Horvath darted around the grounds to help set the scene.

Speakers needed hooking up to blare period recordings of Armed Forces musical and news broadcasts; the medical and operations tents needed organizing; and signs needed to be posted. One sign was posted on an overgrown path that would be used by a patrol led by Gray -- the highlight of the afternoon.

A business owner by day, Gray was dressed in fatigues, with smoke grenades hanging from his uniform, and was carrying a sidearm and bayonet strapped to his legs.

About 80 onlookers watched from the clearing as the patrol entered the woods. The crowd listened as dispatches from a civilian narrator and Gray were transmitted over speakers.

"Vietnam was a different war, a guerrilla war," Horvath told them. "Once you entered, everywhere around you was a killing zone."

Vietnam veteran Richard Dunkle, 62, made the short trip from his Boalsburg home.

"It was time for us to be proud of what were called on to do, even though it turned out to be a very unpopular thing," said Dunkle, who spent a year during 1968-69 in Vietnam as an aviation electronics specialist for the Army.

The re-enactors ranged in age from their mid-20s to early 60s, including one man who served in Vietnam.

Smith approved of the mock patrol -- even though the firefight was no comparison to the deadly battles of 1968. He said he plans to return next year and check out other commemorations in the region.

No comments: