Museum seeking Vietnam War artifacts

The Besser Museum for Northeast Michigan needs some assistance.

Facilities and Exhibits Manager Randy Shultz is in the process of putting together an exhibit that pays tribute to the men and women from Northeast Michigan who fought in the Vietnam War. The exhibit, planned in conjunction with this summer’s Wings Over Alpena Air Show, doesn’t open until May, but in the meantime, Shultz is hoping area residents will loan their Vietnam-related artifacts to the exhibit.

“We are looking for anything and everything from a cigarette case they carried with them to a uniform to old letters they may have hung onto. Anything really,” Shultz said. “The biggest thing we are trying to do is educate people about what went on and to pay tribute to the veterans who were there.”

Already, he has received a number of items on loan, including a helmet, a piece of ordinance, a map and some photographs. Shultz also has drawn on the personal family history of his wife’s uncle, Bob Purgiel of Posen, who was killed in action in September 1967. Through a series of letters Purgiel wrote to his sister back home, Shultz and the family saw how their loved one went from being an innocent young enlistee to a battle weary soldier ultimately killed in Binh Dinh, Vietnam.

“He’s a soldier who didn’t make it home,” Shultz said. “His is a treasure trove of letters, and they are from a gentleman on the frontline.”

Purgiel is listed on The Wall, the famous Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, D.C., and so the family has been there and done a paper rubbing of his name. There are also numerous photographs that depict some of his time in country and show him in uniform.

According to Shultz, Purgiel received the U.S. Military’s Air Medal Award for flying 25 missions in a helicopter as a machine gunner. He also received the Bronze Star for bravery at the time of his fatal wound, although he had been wounded previously and spent a couple of weeks recuperating before being sent back to the frontlines.

Even all these years later, the Vietnam War remains a sensitive subject for some who served their country during a time of social and political upheaval. Shultz hopes that the museum’s upcoming exhibit will put a personal touch on that time, but he also doesn’t want to offend any veterans.

“The last thing I want to do is offend a veteran by not understanding what happened there,” he said. “Any veteran can come in and see that we are doing this respectfully.”

Shultz previously curated similar exhibits on World War II and the Korean War that also were planned in conjunction with Wings Over Alpena. Both proved extremely popular with visitors to the museum.

The Vietnam War exhibit will be up May 6 through Sept. 6, which is longer than normal for a changing exhibit. The decision to extend it was intended to make it accessible to more people.

“The reason this exhibit will be up longer than normal is to accommodate school groups and to be up during the Wings Over Alpena Air Show,” Shultz said. “We’ve also been contacted by the Patriot Guard. Alpena will be one of their stops on their tour through Michigan. They want to see the Fallen Heroes Memorial and the Vietnam Exhibit at the museum.”

Shultz encourages anyone with items to loan to contact him soon at 356-2202. Even though the exhibit won’t open for several months, the extra time will allow him to properly prepare for it and do it justice.