Vietnam memories: Hatfield veterans’ experiences collected in oral history project

  • Photo Courtesy of the Hatfield Historical Society

  • Bob Bartlett in the Vietnam War era. Photo Courtesy of the Hatfield Historical Society

  • A prayer book used by Tom Tataro during the Vietnam War. Photo Courtesy of the Hatfield Historical Society

  • Paul Dostal during an interview in 2019. Photo Courtesy of the Hatfield Historical Society

  • Pat Douglas worked as a nurse at Travis Air Force Base in California during the Vietnam War. Photos Courtesy of the Hatfield Historical Society

  • Paul Dostal in the Vietnam War era. He retired from the Marines as a lieutenant colonel in 1993. Photos Courtesy Hatfield Historical Society

  • Douglas during an interview last year.

  • Tom Tataro’s compass used in the Vietnam War. Photo Courtesy of the Hatfield Historical Society

  • Bryan Nicholas was an analyst at the Combined Intelligence Center in Saigon during the war.

Staff Writer
Saturday, May 30, 2020

HATFIELD — Soon after graduating from Northampton High School, Paul Dostal enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps, and by August 1968 he was beginning a yearlong tour in Vietnam.

Though Dostal’s experience in the war in Southeast Asia was an important time in his service to the Marines, which lasted until his retirement as a lieutenant colonel in 1993, he hasn’t often reflected openly about his time in combat.

“It’s been 52 years since I went to Vietnam and I never really talked about it,” Dostal said.

Now, Dostal is among 10 veterans from Hatfield who served in-country, along with one resident who was a nurse at Travis Air Force Base in California in the mid-1960s, whose stories are part of a Hatfield Historical Society online exhibit completed in time for Memorial Day.

“I thought it would be a good way to preserve my history for my children and grandchildren and for future generations so they could learn from past mistakes,” Dostal said of his participation. “Hopefully, they will not make the same mistakes.”

Kathie Gow, curator of the Hatfield Historical Museum, said the project, formally titled “Fifty Years Later: Hatfield Vietnam War Veterans Share Their Stories,” came about two years ago when the Hatfield Historical Society received a $3,700 veterans preservation grant from the Massachusetts State Historical Records Advisory Board, which had to be matched with local money or an equal amount of in-kind services.

It was then up to Gow to identify those who could discuss their experiences in Vietnam. She approached Tom Tataro, the commander of the Hatfield American Legion Post 344, to find volunteers.

Among them were Bob Bartlett, a Northampton native who now divides his time between Hatfield and Florida.

But Bartlett said even though he talked about his time in Vietnam — a yearlong tour as a combat infantryman beginning in July 1969 in both Thau Thien Province and Gia Dinh Province — what he had to say will never capture the experience.

“You just had to be there. It’s hard for anyone to understand,” Bartlett said.

One of the challenges in conveying the experience is the language of soldiers, which was often coarse, and the terminology they used, Gow said.

Those who went to Vietnam were barely out of high school when they went through basic training and then were shipped overseas, she said.

“All the interviews we’ve gotten, all guys were 18 to 21 when they went over there,” Gow said.

The only female representative of the era in the oral history project, Pat Douglas, was in the U.S. Nurse Corps beginning in 1963 and spent three years on the ortho/neuro-surgical ward at Travis Air Force Base, 40 miles southwest of Sacramento.

Three people assisted Gow with the interviews and all were trained through a web conference with Kelly Crager, head of the oral history project for the Vietnam Center and Sam Johnson Vietnam Archive at Texas Tech University. They then drew up questions to prompt the veterans and supplied those in advance.

The interviews were conducted in the basement of the Legion hall with recording equipment purchased with the grant, including a Tascam DR-40 field recorder and MXL 770 cardioid condenser mics.

Audrey Weston, who participated in the interviews, said it was an honor to conduct interviews, learn from the soldiers and how they continue to live with the memories.

“I was deeply moved by each veteran's story and by the circumstances and day-to-day realities that they lived through,” Weston said. 

In addition to audio excerpts from the interviews on the website, as well as a link to the full interviews on YouTube, photos in the online exhibit show the veterans during their Vietnam service and from when the interviews were done last year. Gow said a few webpages will also show letters they wrote home.

What she learned from the project, Gow said, is how different the experience was depending on the year the men went to Vietnam, where they were stationed and the job they were assigned.

As part of the project, Gow asked for photos and other materials that can be displayed at the museum, which is temporarily closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Dostal provided his jungle boots and Ho Chi Minh sandals, while Tataro lent a compass that was used when his helicopter was shot down and he had to make his way safely out of a jungle, and a brass-covered prayer book that his father had also carried during World War II.

Bartlett said he didn’t have any historic photos to provide, observing that his experience came at a time when few were carrying cameras and the era of the selfie was far away.

“I was out in the boonies, so don’t have any pictures. Everything that belonged to me I carried on my back,” Bartlett said.

In addition to going live on the Internet, the recordings will become part of a veterans history project at the Library of Congress. Gow said this means those from Hatfield will now be part of the nation’s documented history.

The Audio Transcription Center in Boston created transcripts of the interviews that will be held in the town museum’s Vietnam collection, along with additional copies of the audio files.

Though Memorial Day was supposed to be a kickoff with a public event, Gow said that a debut program, featuring a meet-and-greet with those interviewed, will be done in the future. To view the exhibit, which goes live Sunday, visit hatfieldvietnam.weebly.com.

Dostal said he hopes that sharing his stories will be a positive.

“It was OK. I moved on with my life, didn’t dwell on it and have had a successful career and a family,” Dostal said. “I did what thousands of others did and stepped up to the plate and did what had to be done.”

Scott Merzbach can be reached at smerzbach@gazettenet.com.