Fall of Saigon, Recreated
Right off I-80, in Lexington, Nebraska, on the north side, there it is. A military helicopter, up on a building, poised for takeoff. A ladder is propped on the building, people climbing up in frantic poses. The person on the highest rung reaches out to a hand from inside the copter. Saigon has fallen again.
That should be all it takes for you to get off at the next exit, and drive on back to the Heartland Museum of Military Vehicles, located in a big corrugated metal building just off the interstate. Out in front, various tanks and copters are parked. Inside, some sixty machines are displayed, many collected from local farmers. There are M-60s and Hueys, and another helicopter that's been shot down twice. The curator says that half-tracks are very collectible.
Vehicles go back to 1941, and a recently restored Bradley Fighting Vehicle links the collection to the present. Some small arms, ordinance, and military decorations fill the space on the walls. Of particular note are miniature US-Afghan War battle dioramas. Enduring Iraqi Freedom dioramas are promised soon.
But the display that sets this museum apart from others in the genre is the Fall of Saigon. Not only because of the subject matter (most museums still tread lightly on Vietnam, and not at all on images of defeat), but also because of where it is displayed. When you get up close, the figures turn out to be black plate steel silhouettes, but that doesn't diminish the surprise from the highway. They even light it at night.
Four Vietnam vets started Heartland back in 1989, as a bet after drinks. Originally a mobile museum, the tanks and jeeps would stay in barns until July 4th, when they would come out for parades. Some of the vehicles appeared in the TV miniseries "Amerika," filmed in the region.
The museum's staff is all-volunteer, just like our post-Vietnam army. And, according to their literature, "The Museum offers veterans a place to remember, where they can touch and smell and sit in the very vehicles, which, in some cases, may have saved their lives."