MINNEOTA – Along with many fun-filled activities this weekend in Minneota, people who attended the 2013 Boxelder Bug Days celebration also had the opportunity to visit the Vietnam Memorial and History Center.
Brothers Charlie and Royal Hettling were instrumental in bringing the museum to life two years ago, and it has grown ever since.
“It started with the wall and then it just expanded and got bigger and bigger,” Charlie Hettling said.
On Sunday, 85-year-old Lucille Vlaminick added to the rich history by donating a letter she and her husband Jerry received from Sp/4 Donald Culshaw, one of six Minneota soldiers who were killed in action during the Vietnam War.
“Her daughter Margaret and Don were sweethearts in high school,” Royal Hettling said. “They were a couple. And this is the last letter he wrote to them, two days before he died. It’s dated December 20, 1968 and he was killed on December 22, 1968.”
Vlaminck decided to donate the letter so that it didn’t get misplaced or thrown some day.
“I have a small family,” she said. “My only daughter is deceased. So when they come into the house and start looking at things, there’s a chance it could get dumped.”
The Hettling brothers plan to showcase Culshaw’s letter in the glass cabinet next to his engraved photo and story written by a fellow serviceman.
“It’s an emotional thing to add to the memorial,” Charlie Hettling said. “To get something a day or two before someone died is priceless. The friend who wrote a story about the day before Donald died helped assure that the whole story was preserved. He included a lot of other history, with what happened, too. When people read about it, they know Don wasn’t just a number or a name. Here, everybody is a real person.”
Royal Hettling pointed out an After Action Combat report that was included in Culshaw’s display and then talked about Culshaw’s final day, according to the friend’s story.
“The friend talks about what they did that day, building a bunker and Don putting a Christmas tree on top of it,” Royal Hettling said. “Then that night, Don went out on patrol. They’d heard there were some NVA (North Vietnam Army) nearby and they didn’t realize how many there were. Then ran into them out on patrol and could not get back in.”
With the patrolmen stuck, the base camp, which was known as Mole City, Hettling said, had to prepare itself for a large assault that night. Five other soldiers from Minneota – Sgt. Thomas Bradley, Pfc. Lyle Gordon Leppke, Lance Corporal Richard Lozinski, Lt. Stephen Gravrock and Delbert Ahlschlager – also have display areas that honor them, as does Dennis Anderson, who has strong ties to the Minneota community. In addition, the museum also provides historical relevance from both Vietnamese and American perspectives. It’s something that has taken many years to collect.
Hettling has been to Vietnam 20 times and has brought back valuable history, photos and other items to add to the memorial collection. The most difficult part, he said, was realizing that Americans fought just as dirty as Vietnam. In one interview with a Vietnamese girl, he learned that American soldiers threw people, including women and children, into ditches and shot them.
Her story depicting the My Lai massacre is carved in marble and displayed in chronological order at the museum.
“I love (the memorial center),” Dorothy Olson of Granite Falls said. “I’ve always liked history. The stories are so important and these guys are dying off, especially the World War II ones. We’re losing a thousand a day.”
Vietnam was something people were not supposed to talk about, Charlie Hettling said. But any soldier who was there still remembers, he said. Because of that, Hettling came up with a saying, which is posted near the fallen Minneota soldiers.
“The war is over except for the soldier who has been in combat,” he said. “The war is usually never over for them until they die.”
The museum also includes a “hero wall.” Four American soldiers are currently recognized, though four or five more are expected to be selected, Hettling said. Among the four honored is 15-year-old PFC Daniel Bullock, the youngest American soldier killed in action since WWII and Col. Robert Howard, who carried a wounded Viet Kong solider on his back for a week because he sincerely believed he was a human being.
“Daniel wanted to be a Marine so bad, so he forged his birth certificate,” Hettling said. “He got in and they didn’t realize he was only 15 until after he was killed. He should have been given an award for bravery, but they wouldn’t because of his fraudulent enlistment. He died trying to save his unit. They ran out of ammunition, so he ran back. They ran out again, so he went back a second time and was killed coming back.”
Staff Sgt. Joe Hooper and Capt. John Ripley, who singlehandely blew up the Dong Ha bridge, are also part of the hero wall.
“He made 15 trips, carrying 50 pounds of explosives each time,” Hettling said. “There were 400 tanks coming with 30,000 soldiers, so he and the 750 South Vietnam Marines couldn’t hold it. Since he disobeyed orders, he wasn’t given the Medal of Honor.”