The Commerce Journal

April 10, 2012

Exploring the National Vietnam War Museum

By Tumbleweed Smith
The Commerce Journal

COMMERCE — Ever since he took helicopter pilot training at Fort Wolters near Mineral Wells, Jim Messinger thought there should be some kind of museum to honor helicopter pilots who fought in Vietnam.

“It was called the helicopter war,” says Jim, who is treasurer of the National Vietnam War Museum board of directors and overseas the facility, located just outside Mineral Wells. “We worked with museum professionals and they; said if you’re going to build a museum about anything, it needs to be built someplace where it relates to the story. Ninety percent or more of the helicopter pilots in Vietnam trained here.”

The museum got started in 1994 as a result of a bunch of those pilots getting together and wanting to do something meaningful besides party. So they raised money, bought a 12-acre tract of land and set about to build a great museum. It’ll be housed inside a 50,000 square foot building with 11 galleries showing different aspects of the war.

One display on the drawing board is a replica of the rooftop rescues of people in Saigon. Visitors will walk up a ramp and see and hear helicopters picking up people and getting airborne. Another exhibit will feature a street scene in a Vietnam village. The visitor’s center, open 18 months, had people last year from 36 states and three countries. Many of the 40,000 pilots who trained at Fort Wolters come back to see the fort. Now they have another place to visit. Presently, the museum has a Huey helicopter atop a tall pole, a series of memorial gardens, a transport vehicle, and a half-scale replica of the Vietnam Wall. A temporary building that houses the headquarters and visitors center was once on President Bush’s ranch in Crawford acquired through a federal surplus property program.

The museum probes the question, “Did we win the war?” Jim and the others realized there was no national venue dedicated to examining the Vietnam era. The museum hopes to put the experience in broad perspective and present historical facts and consequences of the war.

Jim flew helicopters in Vietnam and later taught pilots at Fort Wolters.

 Prior to the service, he was on academic probation at Northern Illinois University and joined the Army to avoid the draft. After the military he graduated cum laude with two bachelor’s degrees in math and education, then earned a master’s and doctorate in management science (the use of computers and math to solve business problems). He worked for a while in computer programming.

When he learned about the museum, he jumped on board to help raise some $25,000,000 to build the museum. The Friends of the Museum organization had its annual fund-raiser on March 31. I’m honored to have been the keynote speaker.

The museum sends out a newsletter three times a year. Its website is nationalvnwarmuseum.org. “We think it’s the first war that was blamed on the soldier,” says Jim. “Wars are won, lost and fought by politicians.”