Eight years ago, Foxboro resident and Vietnam veteran Ralph Bennett bought a Vietnam-era mechanic service truck from the city of Taunton during an auction.
Since then, Bennett has accumulated a massive collection of Vietnam War memorabilia, from weapons to combat gear to photographs taken by military photographers. He shows it off routinely, about 15 times a year, at veteran-related events across the country.
This weekend, Bennett was able to showcase his treasures in his hometown at Patriot Place, alongside the Moving Wall, a replica of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C.
For Bennett, sharing his collection with the public is as rewarding as it is necessary.
“They’re not telling anyone about Vietnam anymore in the schools,” he said. “I think its important. Even though it wasn’t a popular thing, it’s still part of our history and I think the history needs to be kept alive.”
Bennett likes to think of his shows as his “welcome home.” When troops first returned home from the war they weren’t treated well, he said. They were even told to remove their uniforms so that they wouldn’t get spat on walking through the airport.
“Kids will say, ‘Well, we don’t like the war,’” he said. “If you don’t like the war, change your politicians because they’re the ones who put us in the war. Don’t blame the soldier for what we had to do.”
But now, kids are more interested in the history of the Vietnam War.
“It’s my welcome home, if you will,” he said. “Kids ask me questions, and they’re serious questions. They show interest in it. That’s the biggest welcome home a guy could ask for.”
His collection also includes a World War II era survival knife, which his uncle, a member of the Navy, gifted to Bennett when he was 14. Bennett carried it with him through his time in Vietnam.
He has many knives and bayonets from World War II as well, so he can show visitors the difference in weapons and how they have advanced.
His truck is covered in signatures from Vietnam veterans across the country, who sign it during shows.
One signature in particular is special to Bennett. He spoke with a veteran for over a half hour at one of his shows, and convinced him to sign his truck. As he did, his wife started crying.
“That was the first time he admitted he was in Vietnam in 50 years,” the wife told Bennett.
“Maybe a door has opened up for that gentleman,” Bennett said.
Bennett also has an extensive collection of war photographs, taken by military photographers.
The photographs were originally supposed to be turned into a book, according to Bennett. However, the book bindery they were sent to went out of business, and the photographs ended up sitting in a storage unit for years.
Somebody, he said, stopped paying the bill on the storage unit and suddenly the photographs were landfill bound. The manager of the trash company in charge of cleaning out the unit was a friend of Bennett’s, who notified him that the unit contained a bunch of military photos.
“We saved a hundred and something thousand photos from going to the landfill and sent some to museums and stuff like that,” he said. “But I kept all the ones from Vietnam.”
So far, Bennett has had three veterans identify themselves in the photos. He even found one of himself, recovering an aircraft unit that went down.
Bennett was a helicopter crew chief and door gunner, in charge of aircraft recovering.
“If something went down into the jungle, we went in and got it out and brought it back to repair it, rebuild it or salvage it,” he said.
Vietnam was a scary place to be, he said, but he made a lot of friends. Two of them have their names etched on the memorial, one of whom was a fellow door gunner who killed standing right beside him.
Seeing their names on the wall, Bennett said, “reminds you of what you did.”
“It’s not something we talk about, to be honest,” he said. “We did our job that the country asked of us and that’s kind of where we leave it.”