Soldiers Memorial Military Museum, operated by the Missouri Historical Society in downtown St. Louis, is preparing to unveil its latest exhibit to open on Veteran’s Day, Nov. 11.
The 4,500-square ft. “Vietnam: At War & At Home” exhibit takes visitors through the tumultuous two decades of the war in Vietnam from the perspectives of both warfighters and citizens.
“Vietnam both united and divided our nation, a fracture still tangible five decades later,” Mikall Venso, Military & Firearms curator for the Missouri Historical Society, said. “As visitors walk through the exhibit, their convictions may be challenged or reinforced, but the lessons they learn from the gallery will illuminate the Vietnam era, and we hope, offer lessons from the past and connections to today.”
The new exhibit is split into two distinctly themed sections.
“The visitor gets to decide which story they want to experience first,” Venso said. “We intentionally divided these two stories that are happening in parallel into separate spaces. What this allows the visitor to do is sort of understand the geographical and psychological distance between those two experiences.”
The “At War” path leads visitors through the harrowing experiences of service members and civilian contractors in Southeast Asia from pre-war Vietnam to the fall of Saigon in 1975. The displays feature U.S. and Viet Cong uniforms, weapons, field equipment and intimate personal items, many of which are contributed by veterans in St. Louis, like a classically marker-adorned M1 helmet or a complete B-52 flight ensemble.
Some of the artifacts have held fascination for war historians and veterans alike. One notable item is the flight suit fragment that identified the long-missing First Lt. Michael Blassie, a St. Louis native, A-37 pilot and the original remains of the Unknown Soldier, exhumed and identified decades after being declared “Missing in Action.”
“That was one of the pieces of evidence [Blassie’s family] had in their possession to identify the remains,” Venso said. “We’re really honored to be able to share that with people.”
Diverting to the right is the “At Home” path, which examines life, war and culture in the United States during the same period. Visitors can enter their birthdate in an interactive draft lottery to see if they would be called up for service or be eligible for a deferment.
The “At Home” exhibit also explores St. Louis’ industrial contributions to the war. This includes McDonnell Douglas’ F-4 Phantom, a fighter jet built in St. Louis and flown by the Air Force, Navy, Marine Corps and numerous international air arms for nearly six decades, as well as retro beer cans provided to service members by Anheuser-Busch.
In addition to pro- and anti-war sentiment, civil rights issues like women’s rights and LGBTQ+ rights were also being raised in St. Louis as the war raged on. The “At Home” section brings these struggles to light through cultural touchstones, like an interactive jukebox and archived news coverage of the daily shifts happening in American society.
However, the exhibit will look much different in 18 months than it will this Veteran’s Day.
“Some of the nearly 200 artifacts going on display … are fragile and not in ideal condition,” Venso said. “The Soldiers Memorial Museum team will be rotating artifacts on and off display over the course of the exhibit.”
While rotating the artifacts also preserves the life of the items, it also allows for a new experience for returning visitors.
Soldiers Memorial Military Museum is offering free admission to the new exhibit from Nov. 11 to May 27, 2024, and will be open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday.