The Vietnam Era Museum in Holmdel has unveiled a new exhibition, “There & Back: The Journey to Vietnam and Home,” taking visitors on a journey there and back through the eyes of soldiers and flight attendants traveling to and from the war, by sea and air.
The Vietnam War witnessed the transition of service personnel traveling in and out of the war zone via the Maritime Sea Transportation Service troopships to chartered airliners, including Pan American World Airways, Trans World Airlines and United Airlines, according to a press release.
Featuring more than 40 objects drawn from the museum’s holdings and private collections, the exhibition will be on display at the Vietnam Era Museum until March 15, 2023, and draws deeply from personal accounts and memorabilia.
Highlights from the exhibition will include a recreated troopship compartment featuring an authentic Vietnam era bunk unit salvaged from the U.S. Naval ship Gen. Nelson M. Walker, five vintage canvas bunk mats covered with names of loved ones, hometowns, art and graffiti messages left by troops, and a collection of lost and discarded personal items left aboard during the ship’s voyages back and forth to Vietnam between 1966-68, according to the press release.
Historic images capture the claustrophobic life aboard the troopships and a model that will compare the size of Gen. Nelson M. Walker to the Vietnam Era Museum.
In 1965, chartered commercial airlines began transporting troops into Vietnam, and by 1970, airlines had carried more than five million soldiers and nearly 575,000 tons of cargo.
Historical images and rare in-flight photos provide visitors a glimpse of the airline industry’s role in the war, primarily forgotten outside of military and aviation circles, according to the press release.
A recreated three-seat section from the fuselage of an airliner helps guests experience
the 24- to 48-hour journey from Vietnam back to the United States. A window panel display highlights the view veterans would see as they left Vietnam, a critical moment when they realized they were finally on their way home.
Central to the exhibition is the experience of women flight attendants. When few professional opportunities existed for women, airline service offered an international calling to educated young women, but many never expected to fly into a war.
The exhibition showcases a rare, never before shown, TWA flight attendant smock decorated with patches and medals given to her by a homeward-bound soldier, in addition to a collection of Pan American Airlines items related to the airline’s expansive Vietnam War service, according to the press release.
” ‘There & Back’ explores the experience aboard troopships and jetliners as an unexpected waiting room of the Vietnam experience,” said Mike Thornton, Curator of Collections and Interpretation. “A place where young men were caught in limbo between one place and another, while young women strove to offer valued support and assurance no matter how short-lived to our troops.”
The exhibition marks the first time the graffiti-covered helmet of Hawthorne native, U.S. Marine William “Billy” Dutches, who was killed in action in 1966, will be displayed, according to the press release.
Soldiers frequently adorned fabric-covered helmets with the names of their girlfriends, hometowns and schools.
After his death, Dutches’ helmet was recycled and remained in Vietnam. Decades later, a collector found the piece and, curious about the helmet’s graffiti, tracked down his family in New Jersey.
After 50 years, Dutches’ helmet was returned to his family and is now on an enduring loan to the Vietnam Era Museum courtesy of the Dutches family.
In addition to the permanent collection of the New Jersey Vietnam Era Museum, objects and images on display are courtesy of the Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books, and Manuscripts from the University of Miami, the SFO Louis A. Turpen Aviation Museum and Library, MCR Investors and the TWA Hotel, according to the press release.