Long-forgotten souvenirs of war

Military service seems to create a penchant for collecting wartime souvenirs. When conventional armies fought each other, there was an ample supply of enemy equipment and memorabilia to bring back from the battlefront. But the Vietnam War played out differently. The United States didn’t face a highly standardized and universally equipped enemy. The availability of “war trophies,” or “battlefield pickups,” just wasn’t there.

To meet the demand, an entire cottage industry developed around making souvenirs for the GIs. Among the most popular were “Tour Jackets.” They were cheap and easy for the locals to make and they could be personalized to one’s unit, location, and dates of service. They were immensely popular to mail home or bring back as gifts.

However, as the war dragged on and became less and less popular, so did Vietnamese Tour Jackets. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, they became especially unpopular back in the United States, where wearing them often attracted unwanted attention. They faded from consciousness, often winding up in the backs of closets or simply thrown out. Included are examples from my personal collection that transport us back to a different place and time.

The jacket in the upper left belonged to a member of the 173rd Airborne Brigade who served in-country from 1966 to 1967. The inscription, “When I die I’ll go to heaven because I’ve spent my time in hell,” says it all. The jacket in the upper left was created for a soldier who served during the same timeframe at the U.S. air base and military installation at Bien Hoa.

By the time the inset jacket was created, during a 1969-1970 tour of duty, support for the war was eroding in America, hence the inscription, “The willing fighting the unjust for the ungrateful.” The jacket is made from a U.S. government-issue poncho liner no doubt pilfered for the purposes. This jacket is unique for the First Cav and First Aviation Brigade patches hand-sewn by a Vietnamese seamstress, who also made due note of An Khe and Pleiku, two major U.S. bases where each unit was based.

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Steve Corbo

A founding member and corporate secretary of the Italian American Veterans Museum, Steve Corbo is the museum’s curator and a military consultant for Fra Noi. He has served for 25 years as president of S.A. Corbo & Associates Inc., providing professional liability insurance to health care providers. The son and nephew of World War II veterans and a passionate military historian for over 50 years, he has written and published articles on a variety of topics, including military history, and serves as the military consultant for Fra Noi, the Chicago-area Italian-American magazine.

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