Vietnam era attracts strong interest from vets, curiosity from others
LVN Editor Emeritus
• For additional information on the Northern Nevada Vietnam Memorial Museum, contact Curtis McLachlan at 775-831-3012or curtismcLachlan@yahoo.com.
• The Harrah Military Museum in Sparks is open by appointment only. The museum can accommodate groups of no more than 200 people. For information, contact Gene Phebus at 775 359-2760 or go to https://harrahmilitarymuseum.com.
• For information on the Vietnam Helicopter Pilots Association – California Chapter North, go to http://www.vhpaccn.org/index.html.
Communities and military organizations honored Vietnam War veterans in Welcome Home ceremonies across the United States and in western Nevada with events in Reno and Carson City.
Tuesday, though, signals another milestone associated with the Vietnam War. With haunting images of people hanging onto a helicopter lifting off from the roof of the United States’ embassy in Saigon, the evacuation on April 30, 1975, marked the end of this country’s involvement in Vietnam with a war that spanned over three decades. Presented by the Sierra Nevada Chapter 989 of the Vietnam Veterans of America, the recently held Vietnam War Veterans Remembrance Event invited servicemen and women from that era to rekindle memories of the war — both good and bad — through static displays.
For more than 30 years, Incline Village’s Curtis McLachlan has gathered hundreds of items ranging from photographs to other memorabilia from the war. His Northern Nevada Vietnam Memorial Museum was a popular stop for hundreds of veterans and guests who attended the remembrance event. The idea to display memorabilia from the Vietnam War came from a visit to the traveling Vietnam Memorial Wall in the late 1980s which was on display in Reno. He helped set up the wall and reflected on the names inscribed on the panels including soldiers he knew. For McLachlan, who served two tours, the next step became a labor of love as he dug out his photos from Vietnam and began to construct a photo display.
“At that point, I kept putting more stuff together,” said McLachlan, who served in Vietnam with the U.S. Army’s 1st Aviation Brigade/155th Assault Helicopter Company. “It was just a passion, but then I put it away for 16 years.”
The Southern California native still found it difficult to face the horror of war and the loss of life. McLachlan said he dealt with his emotions from his time served in Vietnam. Yet, that desire to honor his fellow veterans wouldn’t disappear. McLachlan said he wanted to do something special for Memorial Day and one day he attended a meeting to see how he could help. Since that time, McLachlan has discovered both a generation that grew up with the war and another born after the fall of Saigon in 1975 who are fascinated with that era in U.S. history.
“I got back into it,” McLachlan explained. “I’ve done air shows, parades … it’s something I’ve been doing, and hopefully, because I don’t want people to forget about it.”
McLachlan’s traveling show takes time to set up, but eventually he would like to set up the museum in a building where people can see the artifacts.
“I’d rather the public can see it rather than me putting it back in storage,” he said. “I want the public to come see it some place.”
In front of the displays was an information board to generate interest for a permanent display.
Gene Phebus, who set up his display next to McLachlan’s, transported artifacts from the Harrah Military Museum in Sparks. The display consisted of uniforms and weapons from the Vietnam War in addition to other items the military used.
“More people are into this,” Phebus said of the war and its items. “The end of the last war has helped.”
During the year, Phebus, who never served in the military, said the museum offers about 20 yearly tours to veteran organizations and other groups that have an interest in the U.S.’s involvement in Southeast Asia. Not only do veterans enjoy looking at the various exhibits, Phebus said they also are willing to talk about their war experiences. He said the retelling of stories helps them.
“I had one guy who sat in one of the vehicles and picked up a radio,” he said of the veteran. “I hear of stories that you would never read in the books.”
Phebus said the older generations appreciate the memorabilia and displays, but the youth from today’s generation don’t seem as interested.
As with McLachlan’s endeavor, the museum has been a lifetime project. Phebus, who moved from Chicago to Northern Nevada 40 years ago, restored his first vehicle from the Vietnam era 30 years for a friend, and since that time, he has restored one jeep after another. He said Tony Harrah, the son of renown casino owner Bill Harrah, began the museum in 1990, starting with a few Jeeps to more than 40 vehicles. The museum also includes many photographs and paintings of military equipment.
Ken Fritz, president of the Vietnam Helicopter Pilots Association’s (VHPA) California North chapter, said people with a love for history love static displays, and many veterans and their friends or family enjoyed looking at a Huey helicopter technically known as the Bell UH-1 Iroquois, the workhorse from the Vietnam War. Although the active Army began slowly phasing out the Hueys in the 1980s with the last one being retired in 2016, Fritz said many National Guard units still flew the helicopters until they were replaced.
“They’re still flying all over the world,” Fritz said. “Foreign governments still have them, and Cal Fire flies them.”
At the Vietnam War Veterans Remembrance Event, Fritz said the interest with the helicopters lies with those who either depended or rode on them. He said many soldiers enjoy looking at the helicopter display and asking questions.
“They still thank us for hauling them,” said Fritz, who spent 39 years in the military including flying helicopters in Vietnam.
Prior to transporting the helicopter to Reno in early April, Fritz said the VPHA showed the helicopter to events within a 150-mile radius of Sacramento. He noted the challenge of transporting the Huey to Reno on the day before the veterans’ event, but Fritz kept his fingers crossed the weather would provide an opening to haul the helicopter across the Sierra Nevada and not encounter chain controls over Donner Pass. After arriving at the Chevron service station at Boomtown west of Reno, Fritz said a volunteer crew washed the Huey, and the Patriot Guard Riders and the Reno Police Department, among others, provided a motorcycle escort to the Reno Events Center.
For the veterans and others who attended the Reno event, they were the lucky ones to see the Huey. For the past two years, Fritz said the helicopter had been stored outside and was showing the effects of age. He added Army Aviation Heritage Foundation in Phoenix will provide further restoration and storage for the Huey in their museum.