Vietnam vet from South Dakota donates meticulous collection to state archives

By KATHERINE GRANDSTRAND | American News | Published: January 22, 2018

ABERDEEN, S.D. (Tribune News Service) — A South  veteran recently delivered a gold mine to the South Dakota State Archives.

James C. Walton Jr., a former airman, was stationed in Vietnam from June 1969 to June 1970, when he was 21. During that time, he wrote letters home to his parents, James and Helen Walton, in Webster, kept a journal and took some photographs.

The collection was meticulously organized before Walton handed his collection over to the state historical society in Pierre.

"It was kind of an archivists dream," said Matthew Reitzel, manuscript and photo archivist. "He was big into his family history, and he had all of his letters in individual file folders. A lot of times, we just get boxes of stuff, and it's just a mess. This was in immaculate condition and it was awesome to work through and look at."

The collection included about 150 letters, a journal kept in a notebook and three albums of photographs, Reitzel said.

Walton declined an invitation to be interviewed by the American News, but Reitzel said the historical society is thankful for the donation.

"We've slowly been seeing more items coming into our collections that are Vietnam related," Reitzel said.

Ken Burns' documentary "The Vietnam War" might have played a roll in Walton's and similar donations in recent months, Reitzel said. The 10-part documentary aired on South Dakota Public Broadcasting in September.

"Anything that gets people thinking of, 'OK, I have this stuff, what am I gonna do with it?'" Reitzel said.

There was also a local focus on Vietnam veterans by public broadcasting and even the Dacotah Prairie Museum in Aberdeen when the program ran.

Walton served in the U.S. Air Force from 1967 to 1971, according to a news release from the archives. During his time in the service, he was stationed at Lackland Air Force Base in Texas, Maxwell Air Force Base in Montgomery, Ala., Bien Hoa Air Base in Vietnam and Lowry Air Force Base in Denver.

Walton was a senior security policeman, law enforcement in the third security police squadron at Bien Hoa.

Many of Walton's letters home contained reassuring language for his family, Reitzel said.

"You'll see a lot of references to, 'I'm OK,' 'Everything's fine,'" he said. "It will say, 'We've been eating food, don't worry about the food, the food's fine.' 'There was a rocket attack or something, but I'm fine.' There's always that reassurance."

Other than being well-organized, Walton's donation was important because he's around to ask questions of, Reitzel said.

"A lot of times it's a spouse or children or niece or nephew or something who gets a collection of stuff that's like, 'This is my dad's' or 'This is my grandpa's, and we don't know anything about it,'" Reitzel said.

These types of donations, from the last 70 years or so, are especially important, Reitzel said.

The historical society and archives are always looking for interesting donations about South Dakota's history, he said. Not everything may be appropriate for the collections in Pierre, but that doesn't mean there's not a local museum or university that wouldn't take the items.

"One of the advantages we have as the state historical society is, as long as it's South Dakota history, it's something we'd be interested in," Reitzel said.

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