Wineka column: Exhibit details time in Vietnam that was blessing and curse
SALISBURY — Nathaniel Givens motioned at the black-and-white photograph of himself outside Da Nang Hill in 1968.
He was 19, a Marine and “armed and ready” for action during his first and only Vietnam tour.
“When this guy got back home,” Givens said, nodding toward the portrait as though it were somebody else, “he wasn’t the same guy.”
Those 13 months as a combat engineer in Vietnam made him grow up fast. He spent considerable time in the bush, running patrol operations, blowing up stuff or disarming things meant to blow him up.
Givens, now 62, says Vietnam was a curse and a blessing — a curse when he was drafted and a blessing when he got home.
His photograph, taken by a buddy long ago, is one of many donated by Rowan County veterans for the new Waterworks Visual Arts Center exhibit: “Through a Soldier’s Eyes: Remembering Vietnam.”
The exhibit represents a collaboration between Waterworks and the Rowan Public Library and relies heavily on the contributions — through photographs, artifacts and oral histories — of 33 local Vietnam veterans.
The 13-week show has a formal public opening Friday night and runs through Nov. 19. It also features lithographs, paintings and woodblock prints by visual artists Thomas L. Floyd of Tecumseh, Neb., and Mona Wu of Winston-Salem.
Visitors will find the exhibit interactive. They can leave a note, add a picture or post some other kind of remembrance to Vietnam veterans on a “Message to a Hero” wall.
Or they can take a “Hero’s Rock,” write the name of a fallen soldier on it and place it within a heart-shaped memorial that will be moved after the exhibition to a permanent display at the South Rowan Library Garden.
In addition, veterans from all wars are being encouraged to tell their stories in a specially designed recording booth tucked into a private corner of the exhibit area.
Rowan Public Library Director Jeff Hall said “Through a Soldier’s Eyes,” is an oral history project combined with an art project. He first saw the idea in a state art exhibit featuring Vietnam photographs from veterans in the Triad area.
He found himself wishing that the exhibit could have included Rowan’s Vietnam veterans and realized it held enormous potential.
Vietnam really represented the first war in which GIs took cameras with them, closely documenting their whole experience. So besides seeking oral histories from Vietnam veterans, Rowan Public Library asked for their photographs.
More than once, Hall said, he felt cold chills when reviewing all the spoken memories and materials submitted.
“We’re all learning great things from it,” added Anne Scott Clement, executive director of Waterworks Visual Arts Center.
Showcased among the photographs and artwork are several Vietnam artifacts on loan from the local veterans. Ty Cobb submitted, for example, his well-worn U.S. Army boots and a North Vietnamese AK-47 rifle belt and pith helmet.
Richard Hannold Jr. has left numerous notes and snapshots of his Vietnam experience on the message board. One says, “My commander always asked me if I could accomplish the mission. I always answered, ‘BYSA, sir.’”
In parentheses, Hannold noted that the “BYSA” stood for “Bet Your Sweet Ass.”
The photographs — and the veterans associated with them — are truly the stars.
The late Louis Wise contributed a couple of photographs from Bob Hope’s USO tours in 1967-68.
Ronnie Smith, a pilot, furnished a photograph of a Vietnamese villager giving haircuts to U.S. soldiers for 25 cents apiece. Smith said the barber arrived in camp with all of his hair-trimming equipment in a bowling bag.
“This was a good buddy of mine,” Smith said, pointing to Lt. J.G. Goodwin getting his quarter haircut.
You look at the photographs realizing that so many stories — good and bad — cling to each one.
Givens, once the young soldier, said he still has flashbacks and nightmares connected to Vietnam. For years after the war, he was a confrontational man, Givens said, until he began receiving treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder at the Hefner VA Medical Center in Salisbury.
Givens said the Salisbury VA has the best PTSD program in the country, and he tries to steer other veterans to the hospital for treatment, if they need help.
Karl “Andy” Arthur contributed a couple of photographs to the exhibit, including one taken by a friend that shows an expansive Dakto Bridge in the central highlands of Vietnam.
Arthur’s combat engineering company built the bridge in four days and three nights during the monsoon season and under frequent fire from the enemy.
As a 24-year-old, Arthur was company commander in charge of 300 men, most of them 18 and 19 years old.
“And they did a hell of a job,” Arthur added.
In the Reserves
Both Givens and Arthur spent years after their Vietnam tours as part of the Reserves. Arthur, in fact, retired as a full colonel.
“Just about anybody who went over there had more than one close call,” Arthur said. Those who returned home without a scratch — put Arthur in that category — did so with a lot of luck and/or prayer behind them, he said.
Arthur, now 69, recalled thinking as a soldier coming home toward the end of 1968 that the United States had the war won, “if we don’t give it away.” And in hindsight, he said, that’s pretty much what happened, even when you read accounts from the North Vietnamese side today.
Sonny Bolmon, part of an Army helicopter flight group in Vietnam, survived twice being shot down. He remembers exactly how long his tour of duty was in Vietnam: 14 months, eight days.
Bolmon lost a lot of friends in Vietnam, and the whole experience left him unsettled. Even today it’s difficult to discuss.
“It’s there, but it doesn’t want to come out,” said Bolmon, a truck driver. “I don’t know how to tell it. … When I was leaving, it was like I was leaving something I hadn’t finished.”
Bolmon said another thing that pretty much sums up the Vietnam experience for many veterans.
Contact Mark Wineka at 704-797-4263, or mwineka@ salisburypost.com