New Bong Center permanent exhibit focuses on Korean, Vietnam wars
The ribbon-cutting took place Wednesday, March 10, at the historical center in Superior.
A permanent exhibit featuring the Korean and Vietnam Wars opened Wednesday, March 10, at the Richard I. Bong Veterans Historical Center in Superior. Vietnam veteran Frank Hickman, of Superior, whose story is part of the exhibit, cut the ribbon to mark the official opening.
Hickman’s wife, Mary, and daughters, Mary and Marjie, were among the first visitors. There were tears in their eyes as they listened to his recorded words. His service is something they’ve only heard fragments of.
“I don’t think I’ve ever heard that much of his story in one sitting,” his daughter, Mary Hickman, said. “I’ve always been proud of my dad. Everything he’s been through. It was a hard war.”
His story is even more impactful, she said, because he came from the segregated South.
The Vietnam veteran said it was hard to share his experiences.
“It’s the first time I’ve ever done anything like this. I have 50,000 reasons not to,” Frank Hickman said. “I came home. I went to war, I thought I was a hero and people were spitting on me and embarrassed. It’s taken a lot of years to get over that. I don’t know if I ever will, but I try.”
The South Carolina native served in the U.S. Air Force from 1970 to 1977, including a year-long tour in Vietnam and 18 months serving at the Duluth air base. His introduction to the Twin Ports was chilly.
“They told me I had the best duty in the Air Force. ‘Til I got off the plane, I believed them,” Hickman said. “I came from Vietnam. I had on a yellow net tank top and a pair of short pants and a pair of flip-flops and it was in September. The stewardess handed me a blanket. I said, ‘What’s that for?” She said ‘Wait 'til you get to the door.’ It was miserable that first year.”
He stayed in the area because of the people. The main attraction in Superior was his wife-to-be, who he met at the Cove Cabaret in 1972, but it was also the community.
“It’s ironic. Thirteen of us came here from Vietnam and 13 of us … everybody was going to leave and they all stayed except two,” Hickman said. “Superior was different; Duluth was different. People accepted you for what you are and we just stayed.”
The Hickmans married in 1975. The Vietnam veteran worked for the BNSF railroad for 37 years until his retirement. Now, he’s sharing his story of service with the community.
“At first it was hard. But I think I’ll be here for my kids and my grandkids and for the people who helped me get here, because without Duluth and Superior I wouldn’t be here. So it’s kind of nice to have it here. It’s just special,” Hickman said.
The permanent exhibit was the result of a year-long process of assembling stories and artifacts. The exhibit was driven, in part, by input from local veterans.
“I put together a veterans advisers committee when we were first starting the planning process so they could tell me what was important, what they wanted to see in the exhibit, what they thought was important to share with our visitors,” curator of collections Briana Fiandt said. “They were there and they had that expertise.”
New stories will be rotated in, particularly in the Vietnam section.
“For me, it was really important to tell the big picture of the war, but through the eyes of local people,” Fiandt said.
There’s an exhibit about Scanlon native Rodney Green, who served in the Korean War and earned the Navy Cross, the second-highest honor in the Navy. Another highlights Annette Marriucci, of Superior, who served as a nurse during the Vietnam War. Another exhibit focuses on Sgt. First Class Rufus Lloyd Ketchum, who died serving in the Korean War. His remains were returned to Superior in 2018.
There are hands-on activities available in a “communications hooch” that invites visitors to translate a Morse code transmission and plot bearings to pinpoint enemy locations. The area is right next to the audio recordings by Hickman and fellow Vietnam veterans Bob Hoyt, Paul Helbach, Eual Moore, Ryan Jost and Clint Mattson.
In addition to his wife and daughters, Hickman had three grandchildren attend the ribbon cutting Wednesday. All of them — Regan, 15, Frankie, 9, and Champ, 7 — agreed it was “cool.”
What message does the Vietnam veteran want people to take from the exhibit?
“I’d like people to think about the sacrifices that everybody in this exhibit made, and how we should appreciate it every minute of every day because all the freedoms we have are because of the sacrifices of these guys,” Hickman said. “Most people don’t know how hard it is to change the world for freedom and then come home and not be free. I think about that all the time. I tell my kids about that. Freedom ain’t free.”