Deena C. Bouknight – Contributing Writer
The Macon County Historical Museum on Main Street in Franklin, housed in a former turn-of-the-20th century general store, includes exhibits from every American time period as well as installations focusing on major wars. Missing, however, has been a display on the Korean War, which many people refer to as the “forgotten war.”
On Feb. 8, four local Vietnam veterans lent their support for the “opening” of a Korean War display that Johnny Curtis, one of their veteran “brothers,” organized and donated. The behind-glass exhibit is the product of much research into the service of Curtis’s uncle, Floyd Moffitt, and his own father, Charles Curtis Jr. Both men fought in the Korean War and Moffitt was killed while serving. “In fact,” said Curtis, “he was one of the first men from Macon County to be killed in the Korean War.”
Curtis’s father survived the war but never spoke about it. Curtis, who served for 10 years in the Air Force, including during the Vietnam War, had to delve into the two men’s involvement in the war by piecing together information, mostly found in photographs, found in his family’s possession. In fact, family photographs, along with copies of public archived photographs, are part of the display at the Historical Museum. Through his research, Curtis also learned about the uniforms, equipment, and sundry other related military items that soldiers like his uncle and father wore and carried, and Curtis was able to acquire several items for the museum’s display. What impacted him most were the photographs showing the extreme cold that the soldiers endured. The average temperature in Korea during the winter months is at or below freezing. “And some of the photos show them marching through the snow,” he said.
An etched glass plaque that reads “Dedicated to Korean War Veterans; Donated by the family of Charles Curtis Jr.,” is displayed amid a background collage of photographs and alongside such 70-year-old items as a “Personal Conduct for a Soldier” booklet, a mess kit, a helmet, and more.
Curtis is a member of the local Post 108 of the American Legion in Franklin. Because the Korean War exhibit honors the soldiers who served, a few of Curtis’s fellow Vietnam veterans and friends participated in the museum installation as a show of support. Also in attendance was veteran Sherry Newton representing the American Legion as the historian of Post 108.
“March 29 is a day set aside to honor our Vietnam veterans,” said Newton. “There are not many Korean War veterans still living, so it is important that our local Vietnam veterans help call attention to those who served in the Korean War, which also calls attention to those who served in the Vietnam War.”
After the Korean War installation, the five veterans – four of whom are Franklin natives –gathered on the third floor of the museum. There, Curtis as well as Rick Norton, Rick Stough, Ron Norton, and Gary Shields shared why the preservation and promotion of historical events is so important.
Shields, who served two tours of duty in Vietnam, is a Macon County commissioner and a retired educator. He was the principal of Franklin High School for 21 years and pointed out that veterans would often speak to students and share the historical significance of the war. “I was told by a higher up when I completed my service in Vietnam: ‘You’ve served your country; now go home and serve your community. And the best way to do that is through education.’”
“People just don’t know much about the Korean War [which lasted from June 1950 to July 1953] because it was much shorter than the Vietnam War [November 1955 to April 1975] and so many fewer soldiers died,” said Rick Norton, who served one tour in Vietnam. “But it happened, and some of our fathers and relatives fought in it and we need to not let it be the ‘forgotten war.’ No history needs to be forgotten. This Korean War exhibit helps educate. Unfortunately, students are getting less and less education in schools about this history and most any history.”
Sharing stories keep history alive
Shields explained that ten percent of Macon County’s population is made up of Vietnam veterans. Ron Norton, who served one tour in Vietnam, quipped that the “senior trip” for the Franklin High School class of 1967 men was a trip to Vietnam. Two from the class were killed in the war, and six total from Macon County. Their photographs and names are on a wall at Vietnam Veterans of America, Chapter 994, located at 249 Sloan Road in Franklin.
Norton added, “We had no idea what we were getting into. Some of us had heard stories from fathers or relatives who fought in the Korean War or in World War II, but many never spoke about their experiences there. When I got off the plane in Da Nang [the largest city in central Vietnam], I had to run for the bunker because the airport was being bombed.”
Ron Norton participated in fierce fighting during the Vietnam War and brought home a Chinese bayonet, which he kept for 30 years before eventually donating it to the Vietnam War exhibit at the Macon County Historical Museum.
All the veterans present on Feb. 8 spoke of experiencing or witnessing protests and animosity when returning from the war – in towns and cities outside of Franklin.
“Franklin and the community was so supportive of us vets,” said Norton.
The others in attendance agreed that people in Macon County showed appreciation for soldiers’ service.
But in pockets throughout America at the time, mostly in larger cities, protesters manifested their objections by spitting on soldiers, insulting them and calling them “baby killers” due to reports of civilian casualties in Vietnam, and burning the American flag.
Rick Norton shared, “People back home just had no idea what we experienced. And when you’re young, you’re impressionable and naïve. Just like Ron said, we had no idea what we were getting ourselves into.”
While a soldier in Vietnam, Shields learned quickly that a logistics board showing who had died and which positions and areas were in need – depending on skills, etc. – often determined strategically where soldiers were placed in Vietnam. “It’s sobering … as is having to go to ‘jungle school’ for two weeks. And I left the war when my tours were over, but the war didn’t leave me.”
“I was involved in constant fighting,” said Ron, “but whenever we could, we gave civilians food and others supplies, but that wasn’t getting reported to Americans. Just the bad stuff. War is terrible. Nobody hates war more than someone who has seen it.”
Rick Norton and the others lost friends and fellow soldiers. They have all dealt differently with the trauma of the war. Norton decided to visit Vietnam in 2018 and again in 2019. What he experienced was a modernized and thriving country with people that welcomed him wherever he went.
“I made new friends and I realized it wasn’t for nothing. I needed to go there for me and lose some hard feelings I had built up in my mind about that time in the war. I buried a bunch of demons by going there.”
Stough, who served two tours in Vietnam, agreed.
“I had a buddy who went back to Vietnam a year ago and he said it’s all built up, with hotels and golf courses. But the small outpost that I helped defend, called Monkey Mountain, is still there and preserved.”
Stough spoke of having to lie still in the jungle surrounding the outpost.
“It was pitch black and we had no night vision goggles at that time.”
Focusing on the Positives
Rick Norton said that making friends with Vietnamese people when he visited the country a few years ago, connecting with other veterans, and supporting one another are all positive outcomes of a terrible war. He noted that what started locally as a $500 veterans’ scholarship fund in 2012 to benefit the future generations of veterans in Macon County, Swain, and Jackson counties has climbed to $150,000 in scholarship monies.
Said Ron Norton, “This scholarship fund and the exhibits at the museum are ways to let the community know that veterans are still here – and they have a camaraderie and are very involved in the community in different ways. Two of my grandchildren have received some of the scholarship money, and it helps them to know that there have been wars and that their grandfather actually fought in one of them.”