The new Vietnam War exhibit at the Confederate Relic Room opened on Veteran’s Day. (Photos by Addison Hinkle)
The Confederate Relic Room has a new exhibit that allows visitors to see what the Vietnam War was like for soldiers.
Visitors experience the terrain of Vietnam and see memorabilia from the war. The exhibit pays tribute to the soldiers who fought and the more than 58,000 documented U.S. deaths during the war.
Rudine Hopkins, a frequent Midlands museum-goer, said recently the new exhibit adds a lot to the Relic Room’s offerings.
“This is the best,” Hopkins said. “Very nice. Very well put together. A lot of information.”
Sewell Gelberd of Columbia got a draft notice in 1969 to go to Vietnam and served in the war for three years. He was also one of the first visitors to the exhibit on opening day.
“The weapons and all the stuff they had there was authentic and interesting to see,” Gelberd said. “I went with a friend of mine who wasn’t in Vietnam, so it was kind of fun. I could sort of narrate what the stuff was about and tell my friend what it was like.”
Fritz Hamer, the museum’s curator of history, initially put together the idea for the exhibit, which will be up for two years. Hamer interviewed more than 60 veterans to hear their stories and brought those elements into the exhibit.
“It’s a story that needs to be told because many of us who weren’t there and don’t understand, have misconceptions about Vietnam and the service of these people,” Hamer said.
The exhibit also covers American’s opposition to the war. The United States intervened in the civil war between North and South Vietnam for 11 years after being brought into the conflict to stop the spread of communism from the North.
”I’ve interviewed some of these veterans that opposed the war as young men, but when the time came, you know, they felt it was their duty,” Hamer said. “Also, in their families, they had fathers and grandfathers who served in previous wars and felt, you know, they couldn’t let their lineage down.”
The Tet Offensive, the name for a coordinated series of North Vietnamese attacks on U.S. troops in January 1968, is another key part of the exhibit. The Tet holiday is the celebration of the lunar new year in Vietnam, and the attacks were aimed at breaking a stalemate in Vietnam, according to history.com. Before Tet, the U.S. Johnson administration claimed the end of the war was near. But the heavy death toll and increasing conflicts between North and South Vietnam proved them wrong.
“I was opposed to the war even when I was there,” said Gelberd, who was 24 when he was drafted. “I was conscripted, and I didn’t want to go to jail. So I was glad when it was finally over. It should’ve been over before it started.”
The exhibit also follows the story of a Columbia native, Steve Flaherty, who was killed during the war. Allen Robinson, the Relic Room’s executive director, wanted to make sure elements of the museum had a local connection.
”What we want to do is tell the stories from the soldier’s point of view,” Robinson said. “We do some of it through the timeline, … other photographs and … short shows on the politics around Vietnam. And it also shows what was happening in South Carolina as well as part of the civil rights movement.”
The Vietnam exhibit is part of the Relic Room’s rotating shows offered since its expansion in 2007. In recent years, the museum has pulled back from temporary exhibitions in part because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Robinson said the exhibit was fully funded with the money saved since the museum’s last temporary exhibit in 2018.
”We won’t be able to do this again (with our own money) because we’re not gonna get through a period where we’re not doing as much where we can squirrel away our money,” Robinson said. “That was a one-time thing. That was just kind of the good side of some bad luck. But you know, we need to look to the future.”
Robinson is planning guest lectures with authors and veterans to further visitors’ understanding of Vietnam.
The Confederate Relic Room is the third-oldest museum in the state, founded in 1896. The Vietnam exhibit expands on a smaller display case that has been in the museum since 2012.
For those seeking more information on the Vietnam War’s effect on Columbia, there is a monument in Memorial Park honoring local Vietnam veterans. The names of S.C. soldiers fallen or missing in action are inscribed on the monument’s walls. Another monument, in Five Points, pays tribute to the experience of the late Columbian businessman Jack Van Loan, who was held as a prisoner of war at a camp infamously referred to as the “Hanoi Hilton.”
The Confederate Relic Room is the third-oldest museum in the state, founded in 1896.
Fritz Hamer, the curator of the exhibit, interviewed 60 veterans to include their oral stories in the exhibit.
The original Vietnam War exhibit was a single display case set up in 2012.
Letters written by Steve Flaherty are included in the exhibit. Flaherty is a Columbia native who was killed in the Vietnam War.