1968 was a year not to miss

History Center exhibit a walk back in time for Marine Chris Sauro, who spent all of 1968 in Vietnam

Cliff Buchan
News Editor

For anyone who can remember the 1960s, the year 1968 most certainly ranks as one of the most remarkable years in that decade.

It was packed with news events that helped shape the United States for years to come.

Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis in April. Robert F. Kennedy was killed in Los Angeles in June. The Democrat National Convention was marked by riots and protests and Republican Richard Nixon went on to be elected president, defeating Minnesota’s Hubert Humphrey by some 500,000 votes in the popular vote count.

It was also a year that marked the beginning of the end of the rock group sensation, The Beatles, who topped the chart with the No. 1 record of the year, “Hey Jude.” Political satire filled the television screen on “Laugh-In,” the top TV show on the year.

People buying a home could expect to pay just under $27,000 for new digs and a new Ford Fairlane 500 could be driven home for $3156. The median household income in 1968 was $7743, the cost of a first-class postage stamp was six cents and a gallon of gasoline sold for 34 cents.

In sports, the New York Jets, led by flamboyant quarterback Joe Namath, won Super Bowl III, defeating the Baltimore Colts, 16-7. In baseball, the Detroit Tigers defeated the St. Louis Cardinals in seven games to become world champions.

Much of the news during 1968 seldom arrived in the world of Chris Sauro. Just one year out of high school, Sauro had enlisted in the U.S. Marines in June of 1967 and by December had arrived in Vietnam. For the next 13 moths — through all of 1968 — Sauro served his country on foreign land not taking part in the major events that were taking place at home.

The Vietnam War also ranks as one of the top news stories of the year and Sauro became one of the 500,000 Americans serving in Southeast Asia during a year when 1200 Americans troops were killed on average each month.

“There wasn’t a lot of news reaching us in Vietnam,” Sauro said this week. “We didn’t have radio [service] for the first four months that I was there.”

A Flash Back

It was a step back in time for Sauro last week as he toured the 1968 Exhibit at the Minnesota History Center in St. Paul. From the moment he walked through the third-floor exhibit doors, Sauro was rushed back in time to a period that he missed, only to learn about as a young adult trying to blend back into civilian life at service end.

His Vietnam experience was the focal point of a book, “The Twins Platoon,” that told the story of the Minnesota Marines who took their military oath on the field at a Minnesota Twins game at old Metropolitan Stadium in June of 1967 before being loaded onto buses and sent to the airport for delivery to basic training in California.

The history center display which provides a detailed accounting to the political, social and cultural events of the year was a reminder to Sauro as to what he missed. But there was a definite change when he returned to the U.S. in January of 1969 after spending two Christmas celebrations in Vietnam at base just six miles from Hue where one of the most savage battles of the war took place.

“The world I knew was gone when I got home,” he said. “It has never been the same. It was a cultural shock when you came home — so much had changed.”

Sauro had little time to worry about the events at home in 1968. He had been in Vietnam for just under two months when the Tet Offensive began in February of 1968 as the Viet Cong and supporting forces from North Vietnam staged attacks in all corners of Vietnam.

Tet wound up being a military failure for the Viet Cong as the attacks were beaten back with staggering casualties. But the campaign was a public relations nightmare at home as the public soured on the war effort leading to protests and the eventual plan to end the war which would not come for several more years.

As he walked through the history center display last week, saw videos of the war and read accounts of the homeland event, Sauro said he was reminded of the high cost of the war to families and to those who fell in the rice paddies and jungles of Vietnam.

“I think of all the soldiers whose lives ended on the battlefield,” he said, looking at a Huey helicopter display. “It was a pretty big sacrifice.”

While Sauro was far removed from the changes and events that took place in 1968, he was reminded again by the display of the treatment military men and women experienced coming home from Vietnam. As the war grew unpopular by the day, the public disdain was often aimed at returning soldiers and marines who took the brunt of the public anger.

There was no thank you for going off to a war and serving one’s country, he said.

Sauro also drew a parallel between his military return to the U.S. and the reminder that the Civil Rights Act also passed Congress and was signed into law by President Johnson in 1968.

In some respect, he said, the treatment of troops coming home could be compared to  the treatment of blacks in the United States where segregation continued to drive a wedge between the races.

“This is what black people must have felt,” Sauro said, comparing the treatment of blacks to military personnel coming back from Vietnam. Many soldiers like him came home with the impression that “there was something wrong with us and we didn’t belong.”

1968 had left a dramatic impact on Sauro even though he wasn’t in the United States for one day to see it first hand.

If You Go

The 1968 Exhibit at the Minnesota History Center is now in its final days. The exhibit will remain open through Monday, Feb. 20. The center is located at 345 Kellogg Blvd. W. in St. Paul.

The 1968 Exhibit is a traveling exhibit organized by the Minnesota History Center in partnership with the Atlanta History Center, the Chicago History Museum and the Oakland Museum of California. The exhibit is supported by major grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Institute of Museum and Library Services.

The walk-through exhibit provides a month-by-month timeline to help guide your educational refresher.

The cost is $11 for adults, $9 for students with a valid college ID and $9 for seniors 65 and older. For more information, call 651-259-3000 or email: [email protected]

More details are also available online at www.the1968exhibit.org.