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Thursday, October 23, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 41.0° F  Mostly Cloudy
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Looking back at a divisive war in the Wisconsin Veterans Museum
Madison museum moments
In the Belly of the Dragon: Life and Death in I Corps
In the Belly of the Dragon: Life and Death in I Corps
Credit:Kenneth Burns

It resembles any ordinary suburban front door, except that it is mounted on a museum kiosk. As people approach, a doorbell rings brightly, inviting them to pull the door open. Then they see a mournful display: vintage Western Union telegrams announcing the grim fate of two young Wisconsin men who served in the Vietnam War. One was killed in action in 1970, and the other was reported missing in flight in 1965.

The door greets visitors to "In the Belly of the Dragon: Life and Death in I Corps," an exhibit that opened in September at the Wisconsin Veterans Museum (30 W. Mifflin St.). I Corps was the northernmost military region of South Vietnam, and much of the heaviest fighting occurred there. The exhibit documents extraordinary events that took place in I Corps, as well as more prosaic moments, and it is dedicated to the 530 people from Wisconsin who died there.

The exhibit is modest in scale, just one smallish room. A handful of large displays dominate the collection, including one documenting the battlefield funeral service, photographed for Life magazine, of an American killed at Khe Sanh in January 1968. The service was conducted by chaplain Ray William Stubbe, of Milwaukee.

Across the room is a replica of the canvas domiciles that housed American soldiers in Vietnam. This one is decorated with pinups from Playboy, and there also is a copy of Catch-22, the satirical antiwar novel by Joseph Heller. Accompanying the display are ammunition crates holding the wartime possessions of Wisconsin men who served: a compass, a knife, many cigarette lighters.

Other arrangements collect snapshots of soldiers at their leisure. In one, especially poignant, a shirtless young man prepares a Chef Boyardee spaghetti dinner at an outdoor stove. "An American soldier enjoys the comforts of home," the caption wryly notes. Another display recalls the life of Walter Draeger, the Air Force pilot reported as missing in flight in that devastating telegram. His helmet is behind glass, and there is a photograph of him riding a bicycle and smiling.

What is most moving about the exhibit is a mailbox holding what appear to be actual letters home from the war. These visitors can handle and read. In one, dated Feb. 17, 1968, Sgt. Jerry Paul writes to La Crosse from Ai Tu. "Had a gunner 'freeze' on a gun," he reports. "Have to replace him, could get someone killed if he's to[o] shook to fire."

It is a grim and necessary reminder of a troubled time, this collection, and it is marred only slightly by ubiquitous images of that titular grinning dragon -- an awkward metaphor for Asia that is not aging well. But apart from the heartbreaking imagery, what haunts me most is the ringing of that cheerful doorbell. During my visit, it tolled again and again as visitors walked beneath a sensor mounted over the door. It was a sad sound, but it delighted a group of young children. "Who's there?" they asked again and again in response, and pulled the door open.

"In the Belly of the Dragon" will be on display until March 2008.

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