Vietnam comes home: History Center exhibit highlights Atlanta veterans

In 1969, arriving at Bien Hoa Air Base, South Vietnam, 1st Lt. James King of Griffin got a rude wake-up call.

“Going across the tarmac there, I looked over and there was a C-141 Starlifter and they were loading coffins and body bags on board,” King told an interviewer. “And that is when reality hit, right there.”

Atlanta’s Vietnam veterans tell of a tumultuous conflict in a country that was beautiful and terrifying in “More Than Self: Living the Vietnam War,” a new exhibit opening Saturday at the Atlanta History Center.

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Among the artifacts on display at McElreath Hall in the Kenan Research Center are an AR-15 rifle, a Viet Cong hand grenade, and a Montagnard crossbow crafted by native Vietnam inhabitants. The weapons span technologies from the Stone Age to the modern age, showing the range of cultures engaged.

Among the highlights of the display are interviews collected by the History Center as part of its ongoing Veterans Project, an effort to capture the words of soldiers from every conflict going back to World War II.

So far, more than 650 veterans, including 250 Vietnam veterans, have been interviewed, offering hours and hours of firsthand stories. The Atlanta Vietnam Veterans Business Association collaborated on the exhibit, and helped locate many of the veterans for interviews.

King’s account of his arrival in-country is part of the exhibit.

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Another testimony comes from Atlantan Col. Robert G. Certain, a navigator on a B-52, whom we see in still images as a skinny, shirtless youngster, his chest pale, his head crowned with a shock of red hair.

Certain was shot down Dec. 18, 1972, and was a POW for three months in the “Hanoi Hilton.” In one of the center’s interviews, a modern-day Certain, now heftier, but with less hair, describes the moments after his capture to the camera: “It’s about 30 degrees, it’s winter, it’s freezing cold, I’m in my skivvies, and I’m standing blindfolded in this interrogation room.”

Here Certain, unaccountably, smiles at the memory: “They told us back in Fairchild (Air Force Base, near Spokane, Wash.) in POW training that you should have a simple story with very few details, as a cover story in case you ever get captured.”

But Certain hadn’t done his homework: He didn’t have a story ready. “I didn’t have that done. I was on my way home. I was only 25 years old. I flew B-52s and we never went where you could get shot down. So I had to develop that on the run.”

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Seventeen of the 43 photos in the exhibit are from Tucker resident 1st Lt. James H. Holcombe Jr., including intimate moments of soldiers shaving and a dramatic big-screen view of Huey helicopters landing in a grassy field. Holcombe had been on the yearbook staff at North Carolina State University, and brought his Nikon camera with him after he enlisted.

He arrived in-country after the Tet Offensive (a major military campaign by North Vietnam in 1968), and realized the mud and dust of Southeast Asia would not be kind to his prized Nikon. He sent it home, and asked for his less-expensive Pentax.

Holcombe sent his undeveloped Ektachrome off in bright orange mailers, and never saw his photographs until he came back to the States. Now retired from AT&T and King and Spalding, Holcombe, 70, has a broad perspective on the war. His father also fought there in the 1950s, when it was called French Indochina. And his father thought the war was unwinnable.

“In hindsight,” said Holcombe, “we went in there for the wrong reasons, but all the guys that I worked with, and fought with, didn’t concern themselves with that. They went because they were needed.”

Curator Sue Verhoef said recording the interviews and collecting the artifacts for the project have brought forward certain themes.

One of those themes was how utterly new and strange the landscape was to the soldiers. One spoke of a moment when his platoon stopped for a meal and they were assaulted by monkeys, who pelted them with rocks. Apparently they had trespassed into monkey territory.

Another spoke of seeing a tiger trigger a Claymore mine. A third was sleeping on an inflatable mattress when he was floated out of his camp by monsoon rains, and awoke outside the perimeter wire.

A second theme ran contrary to the conventional narrative that the war bred hopelessness. These men and women, she heard over and over again, felt honored to be part of the effort. “One thing we heard from our people is how proud they were to serve,” said Verhoef. “Proud of the time they spent in-country, with the people in their unit. They had integrity, and they were merciful when they needed to be merciful.”

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