Historic Army fort showcases the Vietnam War

Named in honor of Civil War general Charles Devens, a Boston native who later served as attorney general under President Rutherford B. Hayes, Fort Devens was established in September 1917 in north-central Massachusetts to help address the burgeoning manpower demands of World War I. As an active-duty installation for nearly 80 years until it closed in 1996, Fort Devens housed and trained combat units to fight in the nation’s wars, including the Vietnam War.

The Fort Devens Museum, a private nonprofit museum that displays artifacts representing periods throughout the fort’s history, held its inaugural “Vietnam Living History Day” in June. Visitors were treated to a panel of veterans who reflected on their time in Vietnam and a discussion with a former Huey helicopter pilot who had flown combat missions with the 158th Aviation Battalion, 101st Airborne Division, in 1970-71.

Meanwhile, on a grassy field just a short walk from the museum, about two dozen reenactors portrayed American, French and Vietnamese soldiers and civilians. They posed for pictures and answered questions. Military equipment, small arms and several Vietnam-era vehicles were also on display.

Tom Sommers, Fort Devens Museum reenactor coordinator, set up the Vietnam day because “as someone who grew up during the Vietnam era, I was seeking to make sense of the chaos,”he said. “I felt overall it’s time for our society to deal better with the events of 50 years ago. I also felt living historians could help the veterans reconnect positively. Also, Vietnam was the last war where Fort Devens was fully operational as an Army base.”

Sommers said he and Museum Executive Director Kara Fossey intend to hold a similar event next year.

  • A 25th Infantry Division soldier, Pfc. Milton L. Cook, returns sniper fire with his M60 near Cu Chi, north of Saigon, in April 1967. (Bettmann/Getty Images)
  • An M60 7.62 mm squad machine gun nicknamed “the Pig” because of its hefty weight.
  • An M29 81 mm mortar with three specialized rounds was the closest source of supporting firepower for infantry units.
  • A reenactor models the equipment of a typical Marine combat photographer, who supplemented his cameras with a .45-caliber pistol and sometimes an M2 carbine, as shown here.
  • A crew from the 3rd Battalion, 4th Marine Regiment, fires an M29 81 mm mortar at enemy positions south of the Demilitarized Zone on Oct. 2, 1966. (AP Photo)
  • A display of North Vietnamese equipment includes the ubiquitous AK-47 assault rifle and its almost-as-numerous complement, the Simonov SKS carbine.
  • South Vietnamese rangers examine a variety of weaponry—and some of the Viet Cong owners—captured during a raid in the Cholon area of Saigon in February 1968. (Bettman/Getty)
  • A female soldier, in this staged propaganda photo, aims an RPG-2 grenade launcher as the Viet Cong attack a position in the Mekong Delta during the communists’ 1968 Tet Offensive. (AFP/Getty Images)
  • American infantry squads carried a variety of weapons, including shotguns, like the Winchester M12, and the simple M79 grenade launcher, capable of lobbing a number of specialized rounds.
  • Troops of the 1st Infantry Division, near right, are covered by an M79 as they advance through a Michelin rubber plantation in 1969. (Tim Page/Corbis/Getty Images)
  • Spc. George R. Sanchez of the 101st Airborne Division fires an M72 LAW, a light anti-tank weapon, at an enemy bunker. (Authenticated News/Getty Images)
  • Specialized weapons in the American arsenal included Claymore mines, remotely detonated using an electronic cord, and an M72 LAW, a 66 mm light anti-tank weapon.
  • A combat nurse, in this Fort Devens reenactment, treats a patient who has just arrived at her Army medical facility.
  • A U.S. Marine and South Vietnamese soldier take cover behind an M151 “Mutt” quarter-ton jeep as they come under fire from North Vietnamese snipers near the Demilitarized Zone on April 18, 1967.
  • A World War II-vintage jeep, like those used by French forces during their 1946-54 war in Indochina, props up an American M16 rifle and communist RPG-2. (AP Photo/Rick Merron)



This article appeared in Vietnam magazine’s December 2019 issue.