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In 1969, James “Sarge” Massat ended his duty in the Vietnam War. He left Vietnam via cargo plane to Japan and then boarded a TWA plane with bundles of arrows, knives and other keepsakes. His story serves as a pre-9/11 snapshot of easygoing travel restrictions, even as a war raged. “Today you’d never be able to do that,” Massat said. “I wrapped them all up with duct tape and then I carried them onto the plane.” A flight attendant asked him to let her safeguard the belongings during the flight. Massat thought he would never see them again, he said. “But when I got off the plane she gave them right back to me,” Massat said. That’s a good thing. The Peru’s man’s keepsakes from his Army service during the 1960s are displayed at the La Salle County Historical Society museum in Utica. <><><> Among his souvenirs are bamboo quivers filled with arrows and parts to a crossbow. The arrows appear like souvenir shop goods; but they are artifacts of war, left behind by enemy sharpshooters who used them as quiet but deadly sniper weapons, Massat said. Massat was drafted by the Army in 1964, a time when the war hardly registered mention in America. At age 22 he received basic training in Fort Knox, Ky. The teenage servicemen called him “old man,” he said. He trained as a radioman at Fort Gordon, Va. and then as a stevedore loading ships at Fort Eustis, Va. He served 18 months in Germany before he transferred to the war, assigned to a base in Soc Trang province, Mekong Delta, South Vietnam. He served as a radio supply manager, moving radios and radio parts as needed. “I was kind of like Radar in M.A.S.H,” Massat said. <><><> Massat’s materials fill a case displayed just inside the front entrance. He loaned enough to fill it three times, said Monica Blue, museum complex manager. There are compelling stories behind each item, she said “I think the shirt here tells the story,” she said. A black silk shirt is embroidered on the back. It shows Germany and Vietnam. It bears two novelty patches, which soldiers made using existing military emblems. One shows the Seventh Army’s “Seven Steps” with the added slogan “Seven Steps to Hell.” Massat’s 1st Aviation Brigade patch carries the added, “Sorry About That.” This had several meanings. For Massat it was an apology to the soldier. Some wore it as a sarcastic apology to the enemy. Two sticks looked like sawed-off canes. Vietnamese craftsmen carved and sold them in shops. GIs labeled them “short-timer sticks” and carried them to show they only had 30 more days to serve. The demand created a cottage industry, Massat said. In the rear of the museum room is a TV to play slideshows of hundreds of photos Massat took during his service. He and his daughter assembled the photos chronologically and called it “The Other Side of Vietnam.” The photos show him on leave with friends and family at Pelka’s tavern in La Salle, Buddhist temples, relaxing in German guesthouses, war games on a Virginia beach, a Vietnamese wedding, pets on the base including otters, dogs, monkeys and snakes, Massat’s failed attempt to ski in Innsbruck, Austria, a well-kept Vietnamese village, a village in ruins. You see Massat with war buddies. The photos flash by with dozens of songs he handpicked from the era including “Understand Your Man,” by Johnny Cash, “No Tears for Johnny” by Chad and Jeremy and “Wooly Bully” by Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs. Massat moved in and out of combat zones to deliver and take away radios, sometimes under fire. Some of his photos are aerials, with puffs of smoke visible below. <><><> Five years after he left the war, Massat joined the Army Reserves and served 19 years. He also worked at Maze Nails for 35 years. Massat’s wife, Theresa, served in the U.S. Army during the Korean War and was a cryptographer at Fort Meade, Md. She died in 2003. The museum will soon expand. Last year it bought nearby property including two large buildings. These are being remodeled, Blue said. This will allow more displays of military history, Blue said. “The story needs to be told,” Blue said. “There’s so much to be told on the human side of the story.” Massat volunteers at the museum, so his contribution came easily, Blue said. Massat gave his memory of the war, which included the prominent protests at home, he said. “There was too much politics in it,” he said. “That’s why (President Lyndon) Johnson jumped out when he did. It was just too much politics.”
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