NORTHWOOD — Declassified photos and military gear housed in a special traveling museum brought back memories of warfare in the Mekong Delta Sunday for Vietnam veterans and their families in Northwood.
The veterans, participating in the 11th annual Vietnam Veterans Recognition Day picnic at Swensrud Park, toured the U.S. Navy Mobile Riverine Force and U.S. Army 9th Infantry Division Traveling Memorial and Museum from Decorah.
The exhibit is dedicated to the joint Army-Navy effort to provide and supply troops in the Mekong Delta region from 1966 to 1970, said Charlie Ardinger, 69, of Decorah, a Navy boatsman who transported Army troops on a 36-man Tonga troop carrier.
“You hated to take them out because you knew you weren’t going to get them all back,” he said. “They really did their duty.”
Most of the troops were 17 or 18 years old, said Ardinger, who enlisted in the Navy in 1960 and re-enlisted when his first tour of duty was over.
Ardinger was part of the Navy’s Mobile Riverine Task Forces, which worked with the Army’s 9th Infantry Division, the “Old Reliables,” in the first joint effort of the two military branches since the Civil War.
Although he wasn’t personally involved in hand-to-hand combat, “You knew you were in a war,” said Ardinger, who still has shrapnel in an eye from when his boat was hit by a B-40 rocket.
“If you heard a bang, you knew you’d better shoot back.”
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The river itself posed a hazard, with its strong current, Ardinger said. “If you fell over the side, you drowned. I lost a good buddy that way.”
His friend was wearing a heavy flak jacket at the time, which the men were required to wear 24 hours a day.
A model of the Tonga is in the museum, together with other Navy boats used in the Mekong Delta: the Alpha Boat; patrol boat, Riverine (PBR); officers’ command communication boat; and the Zippo, or flame-thrower, which hurled napalm at the enemy.
“They quit shooting at us as much” after the napalm, Ardinger said.
The large military photos lining the walls of the museum show boats hit by river mines, South Vietnamese villagers tearfully talking to U.S. troops about a raid by the Viet Cong, troops waist deep in muddy water, Huey helicopters, troops taking prisoners, troops boarding a carrier, helmets on rifles set into the ground in memory of fallen soldiers.
The names of 3,000 troops killed in action in the Mekong River Delta are borne on the exterior wall of the trailer.
“I know seven guys personally that died there,” Ardinger said. The hospitals “had guys they had to push aside — they knew they couldn’t be saved.”
“They were dying so fast. 1968 and 1969 were the worst years.”