An Archival Memorial: Documenting the War in Vietnam

An Archival Memorial: Documenting the War in Vietnam

By Mary Saffell, C.A., Associate Director and Archivist

For over twenty years the Vietnam Center and Archive at Texas Tech University (VNCA) has worked to collect, preserve, and make accessible the documentary history of the Vietnam War with the mission to support and encourage research and education regarding all aspects of the American Vietnam experience and promote a greater understanding of this experience and the peoples and cultures of Southeast Asia.  

The Vietnam Center and Archive was founded in 1989 by Dr. James Reckner, a Texas Tech history professor and two-tour Navy veteran of the Vietnam War.  Reckner collaborated with a group of local Vietnam Veterans to create the archive as a living memorial to all those who served.  According to Reckner, “Monuments are important for those who served and sacrificed, but it is the archives that will provide meaningful answers today and for future generations.”  The first collection donated to the archive, a stack of letters written by a Navy corpsman to his mother in Slaton, Texas, illustrates the personal nature of the collection.  While the National Archives houses the “official” records of the war, the VNCA holds the personal records: letters, journals, photographs, 8mm film, audiotape, artifacts, posters, maps, etc.

The archive currently receives approximately 250 small collection donations a year from military veterans, veterans’ organizations, government officials and diplomats, nurses, family members and other civilians on the home-front, anti-war protestors and social activists, Vietnamese-Americans, and contemporary scholars and researchers.  The archive currently holds over 2300 individual archival collections comprising 5000 linear feet of material.  The library owns over 13,000 titles related to the Vietnam War and history of Southeast Asia.  Since initiating an oral history project in 1999, the archive has collected over 800 interviews with veterans and others involved in the war. Vietnam Center and Archives at Texas Tech University

Located in the Southwest Collections/Special Collections Library on the Texas Tech University campus in Lubbock, Texas, the VNCA has 13 staff and faculty positions and employs a number of students for special projects.  The reading room is open to researchers six days a week during the academic semesters, 9-5 Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, 9-7 on Tuesday and Thursday, and 9-1 on Saturday.  The reading room hosts approximately 25 on-site researchers a year, but answers hundreds of reference requests through phone and email, and has thousands of users of our digital resources each day.

Our extensive digital resources are available through the Virtual Vietnam Archive.  This project, launched ten years ago, is an effort to digitize and make available the physical resources of the Vietnam Archive through the Internet. The Virtual Archive currently contains over 500,000 digital items totaling 3.3 million pages, all indexed and full-text searchable.  The Virtual Archive has been searched over 10 million times in the past ten years and has had over 3 million items downloaded.  Initial funding for this project was received from the Institute of Museum and Library Services.

Unique Items and collections

While the majority of collections are small, personal collections, such as letters or Super 8 film, all of which tell important pieces of the story of the war, the Center and Archive’s collections contain a number of unique holdings:

Vietnam Center and Archives at Texas Tech UniversityThe diaries of Dr. Dang Thuy Tram document the experiences of a young female doctor with the North Vietnamese Army.  After their publication in Vietnam in 2005, the diaries became a runaway bestseller and a cultural phenomenon.  The following year an edition of the diaries translated into English titled Last Night I Dreamed of Peace was published by Random House.  The original handmade diaries remain part of the Vietnam Center and Archive’s collections.

The Department of the Army Special Photographic Office (DASPO) had unrestricted access to military leaders, units, and events of the Vietnam War.  DASPO veterans have donated their remarkable photographs and film footage to the VNCA.  These images provide a close-up view of the war that was rarely seen by journalists or the American public.

Gerald Hickey was an anthropologist who studied the indigenous Montagnard tribes of Vietnam.  Upon his death he donated cultural items and crafts made by the Montagnards during the war.  As an ally to US troops, the Montagnards played an important role in military strategy in the highlands of Vietnam.

The Social Movements Collection was established at the University of Virginia and later transferred to Kent State before making its way to the Vietnam Center and Archive.  It comprises thousands of pieces of literature and promotional material distributed by various activist and anti-war groups of the 1960s.

Shirley Johnson is the wife of Sam Johnson, an Air Force pilot shot down over North Vietnam and held in the infamous Hoa Lo prison, better known as the “Hanoi Hilton.”  Mrs. Johnson became an ardent activist for families of American POWs as they demanded information about their loved ones from the Department of Defense.  Her collection of letters and scrapbooks chronicles the challenges she faced and her role in the founding of the National League of Families, a POW/MIA advocacy group.

The records of the Families of Vietnamese Political Prisoners Association (FVPPA) document the work of that organization in assisting applicants of the Orderly Departure Program, developed to facilitate safe and legal emigration from Vietnam.  The FVPPA assisted over 13,000 people seeking to leave the country after the war and maintained files on their application processes.  This collection is one of the few archival resources available for studying the experience of Vietnamese Americans and their immigration to the United States.

The personal papers of Admiral Elmo R. Zumwalt, Jr. document the life and experiences of the Commander of Naval Forces during much of the war.  Adm. Zumwalt authorized the use of Agent Orange as a defoliant not knowing the consequences for thousands of US soldiers and sailors, including his own son, who died of Agent Orange related cancer.  His collection includes a large series on Agent Orange issues and the Admiral’s work to secure VA benefits for Agent Orange-related illnesses.  Among his many military decorations, Adm. Zumwalt was awarded the President Medal of Freedom for his civilian work as a veterans’ advocate.  This medal is now part of the Zumwalt collection at the Vietnam Archive.

Although the Vietnam Center and Archive does not have a museum, our holdings include over 3000 artifacts ranging from textiles and uniforms to restored Vietnam War era helicopters.  We are currently fundraising for a new building that we hope will someday become the National Museum of the Vietnam War.

Exhibits and events

The VNCA website includes numerous online exhibits highlighting the archive’s unique collections.  Many of the exhibits focus on specific topics such as the Fall of Saigon, “Dustoff” medical evacuation, women and nursing, the Tet Offensive, and the birthdays of the five military branches.  Our most recent continuing exhibit focuses on graduates of Texas Tech University who served in Vietnam, “Techsans in the Vietnam War.”

The Vietnam Center and Archive regularly hosts conferences and symposia to bring together scholars, students, and veterans to discuss research and issues related to the war.  The triennial symposia are large and open to any topic and presenter, while the annual conferences are smaller and usually focus on a specific theme.  

The Guest Lecture Series brings distinguished individuals to campus for presentations on specific aspects of the Vietnam War, its lasting impact on American politics, society and culture, and on contemporary issues in Southeast Asia.  This series has hosted Armed Forces Radio DJ Adrian Cronauer, “the girl in the photo” Kim Phuc, Operation Babylift nurse and noted author LeAnn Thieman, author and professor Dr. Kara Dixon Vuic.  Our Veterans’ Day speaker for 2011 is former POW Dave Carey.  The series continues in 2012 with five more speakers, including author Lewis “Bob” Sorely, Brigadier General Tom Draude, PTSD expert Dr. Ray Scurfield, and world famous aviator and Vietnam War pilot Dick Rutan.  The 2012 Veterans’ Day speaker will be Rocky Bleier, who recovered from serious war injuries to become a star football player for the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Connecting with the Archive

The VNCA promotes our projects and events through a wide variety of resources.  A quarterly newsletter titled Friends of the Vietnam Center contains in depth articles about happenings at the Center and Archive.  People who are interested in frequent updates can sign up for our email list serve, subscribe to our news and updates RSS feed, follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

Donors, researchers, and anyone interested in our project can also contact us by phone at (806) 742-9010 or email at