MINNEOTA, Minn. — All three Hettling brothers from Minneota served in the U.S. military in succession. The oldest, Charles, enlisted in the Marine Corps and was in Vietnam in 1966-1967. Brother Danny was drafted by the Army and stationed in Germany. The youngest, Royal, also spent a year (1970-1971) in Vietnam as part of his three-year enlistment in the Air Force. Charles and Royal have established a Vietnam Memorial and History Center in Minneota.
Over 58,000 members of the U.S. armed forces died or are missing in Vietnam. Both Charles and Royal returned home; but not necessarily to a hero’s welcome — or even a friendly welcome.
“I was called a warmonger, a murderer and a baby killer,” Royal said. He even dated a girl who gave him the cold shoulder when she heard he had been in Vietnam. “When I came back, I was stationed in Florida for another year of active duty. And the reaction I got — even from people of my own age — they’d pick you out as being related to the military and they would have nothing to do with you. You just felt you weren’t welcome.”
Charles was in the infantry and had a similar experience. “I never felt the camaraderie with another man like I did in Vietnam. I come back here and nobody liked you. That year over there was so emotional. Nobody (back home) wanted to talk about it, and I needed to talk about it.”
“Talking to people, I felt there was a need for closure, and there was something lacking myself,” Royal said.
About that time, the Traveling Vietnam Memorial Wall — known as “The Wall That Heals” — was moving around the country. It was decided to bring it to Minneota. A group of men raised the money and the exhibit came to town in 2006. A local program presented with it was a real success. There were some funds left over, so a 501(c3) nonprofit organization was started.
“We thought the best thing was to do something for the people who did not come home, so they wouldn’t be forgotten,” Royal said. “And we wanted to tell the story of what Vietnam was like. Everything grew from there.”
The heart and soul of the Vietnam Memorial and History Center is the area that honors the men from Minneota, or who had a connection with Minneota, who died in the war. In addition to information about their service, families have donated some personal effects, including for three of men their last letter home.
Sgt. Thomas Bradley died 50 years ago. He had written a letter on June 18, 1969 which arrived after the family was informed that he had been killed in action. They treasured that letter all these years. With his parents now gone, Bradley’s siblings chose to donate the letter to the Center. Bradley wrote in part:
“Had a rough time the 15th. Ran into a battalion of NVA [North Vietnamese Army]. It started at 9:00 and ended at 6:00. Killed 56. We had 1 G.I. killed and about 30 wounded. They put me in for an army commendation medal. A guy got shot three times and got left up front when we pulled back. Me and another guy ran up there and got him. If I had to do it again I don’t know if I would do it. Could have gotten shot pretty easily. I’m glad it’s all over now….I’ve got 94 days left in this hole. It won’t be long now….Sorry it’s been so long since I’ve written but there just isn’t anything to write about, and we’ve been pretty busy lately…P.S. Dad, I’m sorry I didn’t send anything for Father’s Day. I couldn’t get in to Cu Chi to get it.”
Thomas Bradley was killed the next day on June 19.
Another native, LCPL Richard Lozenski, had three weeks left when his tank was hit by a rocket and he was killed. The last letter he wrote was to an aunt and uncle. The letters are part of the memorial exhibit.
Another area of the museum has a general history of the war, including a timeline going back to the 1940s. Royal likes to ask folks when the United States first got involved in Vietnam. They are surprised to learn that in the 1940s, the U.S. was smuggling in aid for Ho Chi Minh to use in the Vietnamese resistance to the Japanese. After World War II we aided our ally, France, who wanted to re-establish their colonial power in Indochina. With the United States now supporting his enemy, Ho Chi Minh turned to China and Russia for aid. This was when the Cold War had begun, and when France gave up the fight, the divided North and South Vietnam became a place where the United States decided to block the advance of Communism.
“What a lot of people don’t understand,” Royal said, “is that the conflict between the north and south, the Vietnam War, was similar to the American Civil War. The Viet Cong (guerillas in the South who were supported by the North) were fighting for reunification of the country.”
What makes the Center different from a museum is that it was not assembled by curators, but grew out of the personal experience and interests of the brothers.
Charles Hettling has made 32 trips back to Vietnam, drawn by memories of the camaraderie he felt there and his empathy for the civilians whose suffering he saw first-hand.
“The people were so poor, they had absolutely nothing and here we were blowing up the place and moving them out,” he said, recalling how villagers were forced from their homes.
Through his trips he has come to know those he fought against.
“Some of the former Viet Cong are my best friends now,” he said. “I started picking up artifacts (with their help).”
He has brought back numerous artifacts, including rare original Viet Cong propaganda posters. A figure wearing the reproduction of a Viet Cong uniform has an authentic rifle, ammo belt and field radio.
Charles also met an artist, Dong Quang, who has produced etched marble panels for display. One set tells the story of the interpreter Charles has on his visits, her war experiences while growing from age 8 to adulthood. A number of photos and artifacts relate the hardships and horror of the civilians caught in the war, as well as the dangers the American soldiers faced.
The Center does not shy away from the dark realities of the war. A second series of etchings relates the story of the massacre at My Lai village that was ordered by Lt. William Calley, and of the intervention by Warrant Officer Hugh Thompson, an Army helicopter pilot, who stopped the killing.
An exhibit which grew out of the experience of Royal tells the little-known story of the K-9 teams. A soldier kneels with a dog on a leash beneath pictures and explanations. Royal Hettling’s name is on the uniform, and the shoulder patches he wore in Vietnam are on the sleeve. Royal explained that there were three types of teams: Scout Teams that would look for booby traps and the like, Tracker Teams that tracked the “bad guys,” and Sentry Teams. Royal and his dog, Thunder, were a Sentry Team. These were the most aggressive dogs.
Guerillas continually tried to infiltrate military installations, ammunition and bomb depots to sabotage them. Sentry Teams were the first line of defense. Royal was stationed at Cam Ranh Bay and the exhibit’s pose is realistic. Royal said he often knelt behind his dog, following the dog’s gaze. (He is looking for a life-sized German Shepherd to replace the smaller version in the exhibit.)
“We were put out from dusk to dawn to guard the perimeters,” Royal said. He told of the night they were patrolling a bomb depot and he sensed something in the darkness behind them. So did Thunder, who was ready to attack and literally dragged his tall, lanky 19-year-old handler back into the trees. The would-be saboteur was scared off.
“Because of their effectiveness, the Viet Cong placed a bounty on the dogs and their handlers,” he said.
An information poster tells that there were 4,000 dogs used in these K-9 teams. About 850 were killed in action or died of disease. What is distressing to Royal is that when the United States withdrew from Vietnam, only 240 of the dogs were returned home. In the hurry to get out, the rest were declared surplus equipment and were either destroyed or left to the South Vietnamese, who relished dog meat.
The Vietnam Memorial and History Center is a way to bring closure to veterans, and also bring understanding to the public which is often misinformed — perhaps uninformed — about what happened in a war that doesn’t always receive much time in history classes, and of which many of us know only what we recall from news broadcasts. Many veterans have chosen not to talk about it, while others have found that some people don’t want to hear about it.
While Charles and Royal Hettling aren’t able to tell the whole story of the Vietnam War, their Center provides a perspective on the conflict from two who have been there, and a place to remember those who did not return.
“We want to honor the sacrifice and service of those who answered their country’s call,” Royal said.
The Vietnam Memorial and History Center does not have regular hours. It is open during community events or by appointment. Call Royal at (507) 872-6326 or Charles at (507) 872-6574 after 7:00 p.m. to arrange a visit. It is located at 114 East 1st Street in Minneota (on State Highway 68 next to the post office and across from Veteran’s Park).
Royal Hettling authored “Ten: Five Five: Chronicles of the 483rd Security Police Squadron K-9 Unit in Cam Ranh Bay, Vietnam, 1970-71”, in which he and some comrades tell personal stories. It is available through Amazon or your local library.