When Lt. Col. Shirrel Martin reported to Vietnam, he signed a statement that he wouldn't talk about what he did or saw during the war.
"Our missions were so classified that we were not allowed to carry any identification at all when we were flying over there," he said.
Much of that classified information has been released now, but the retired Air Force officer says he still hasn't talked much about it. So he was surprised to find that a new exhibit at Hill Aerospace Museum has a display focused on him.
The exhibit, "The U.S. Air Force in Vietnam," officially opened on Saturday, Sept. 22. Offering an overview of the Vietnam War, with emphasis on the role of the Air Force, several panels of text and photos explore the efforts of Hill Air Force Base during the conflict.
Some displays focus on individuals with Utah ties -- including Martin, of Kaysville, and Farmington's Jay Hess. Uniforms worn by Hess are combined with information about how he and his crew rescued a downed fighter pilot. Hess was held as a prisoner of war, and his cell at the infamous "Hanoi Hilton" has been re-created in the museum.
The conflict in Vietnam was, and still is, controversial.
"But it's a conflict that was very important to our nation's history," said Nathan Myers, curator for the Hill Aerospace Museum. It's also an important part of Utah's history, with Utahns and Hill Air Force Base playing significant roles in the war.
"We have a lot of aircraft that relate to that time period, said Myers. "It's only fitting we try to include more of that story, both from the Air Force side of things, and from Hill's role and the impact it had on Utah."
Enough time has passed since the war that many young people don't know much about it.
"The generation that lived through it is sort of reaching that age where they're wanting to share those stories more, and some have the family to share it with, but others don't necessarily have that outlet," Myers said. "This exhibit, as it is now, has brought out some of those individuals who are sharing their story."
Martin was stationed in Thailand. The mission he was on in 1968, mentioned in the Vietnam exhibit, was hauling road watch teams into North Vietnam.
"The Ho Chi Minh Trail ... was a network of trails and roads and rivers that the North Vietnamese used to haul supplies in to their troops in southern Vietnam, and Cambodia and Laos," said Martin. "The U.S. forces had a lot of what they called spotter planes that flew over that area constantly looking for things like that, but because of the canopy and the jungle they couldn't see much, so the North Vietnamese took advantage of that and they moved during the nighttime hours. During the daylight, they would hole up under a dense jungle area."
Trained observers were put on the ground, to identify where the North Vietnamese were hiding and radio in coordinates for bombing.
"Whenever we flew those types of missions, we had two A-1E aircraft that would escort us," said Martin, who flew an H-3 helicopter. "It was during the monsoon season over there ... and this particular day it was raining hard. The clouds were down almost right on the deck, and in order to get in where we had to drop that team off, we were down right at treetop level, and those A-1Es stayed with us."
After dropping the team, they started heading back to their base.
"One of my crew chiefs was standing by the open cargo door, and one of the A-1Es came around and he saw (it get) hit by an anti-aircraft gun," Martin said. "He saw the wing of the A-1E blow off, and the pilot ejected out of there -- he didn't even have time to make a radio call. If he (the crew chief) hadn't seen it, we would have never known that it had happened."
They followed the pilot's descent, but faced the same anti-aircraft battery that shot him down.
"I got down behind those trees so that they didn't have me as a target," he remembered. "About every sixth or seventh shell is a tracer-type for aiming purposes, and they were like glowing golf balls going over the top of us."
The H-3 Martin was flying was for cargo, and didn't have a rescue hoist. The crew used pulleys and cable from the winch to jury-rig a hoist for the pilot.
"We started bringing him up, and the cable jammed on one of the pulleys, and he was dangling," Martin said. "I knew I had to get out of there. In fact, while we were sitting there trying to get him in, some of the anti-aircraft crew members came through the trees and were shooting at us."
With one crew member shooting back with an M-16 rifle, Martin pulled out.
"I had to stay low enough so that an anti-aircraft gun couldn't get at me, and I had this guy dangling behind," he said. "The crew chief in the meantime kept working on it and working on it, and finally he said, 'We've got him in -- we've got him in.' "
That night, Martin had nightmares about all of the things that could have happened.
"But at the moment, you've got to do it," he said. "It's something you're trained for, and that's what you're supposed to do."
Living a nightmare
More than 600 members of the U.S. military were prisoners of war during the Vietnam conflict. One of them was Jay Criddle Hess, an Air Force captain who was born in Ogden. His plane was shot down on Aug. 24, 1967, and he was taken to the prison he and his fellow inmates sarcastically called the "Hanoi Hilton."
Now a retired lieutenant colonel living in Farmington, Hess gave the museum a description of his cell. Myers said he could tell the museum's re-creation was fairly accurate when Hess saw it.
"It's definitely an experience I haven't had before, seeing somebody step back in their own mind to a period that may not be the most favorable one," Myers said. "You can tell the impact the experience had on them."
Hess shared the cell with rats, mosquitoes and fleas.
"After I was joined by three other prisoners, there was barely room to move in the tiny cell," Hess is quoted in the exhibit. "One of my most vivid memories of that hellish place are of the walls next to each bunk, blackened by the sweat of dozens of prisoners over the years."
He also remembered shackles attached to the wooden bunks.
"The shackles were always a sobering threat. Many were confined in them for weeks, sometimes with face down, sometimes with legs crossed," he said in his description.
Hess was a POW for five and a half years.
Museum visitors have been able to see the exhibit as it was being installed. Many of them are veterans who served in Vietnam.
"You could tell they were reliving their experiences through what they were seeing and reading," Myers said.
Even those who didn't fight in Vietnam have been moved by the display.
Bob Felong, from New Hampshire, was too young to be involved in the Korean War, and too old for Vietnam.
"I thought it was great," Felong, said of the exhibit. "But being disgusted with the Vietnam conflict, it was hard to take."
A lot of memories came back while he explored the exhibit -- the news reports he read and the politics of the time.
"You just didn't like to see the ending, and seeing it there on the wall, it's a big reminder of how mad you got then," he said.