Not forgotten: Kern County, Calif. heeds call for photos of the fallen
BAKERSFIELD, Calif. — Her father could not be present on the day Sheila Geivet was born.
U.S. Army Cpl. Baldomero Nadal was serving a tour of duty in Vietnam the day his beautiful new baby girl was delivered. Less than five months later, on April 15, 1967, Nadal, a Delano native, was killed in action in Gia Dinh province. He was 21.
As a result, Geivet would never have the chance to know her dad, who was a member of the Tejon tribe of California Indians.
But in recent weeks, Geivet learned through a story in The Californian about an effort to locate the photographs of servicemen from Kern County who lost their lives in Vietnam.
While Nadal’s name and the names of many others have long been engraved on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial wall in Washington, D.C., the virtual Wall of Faces, an online representation of the physical wall, was missing dozens of photographs of servicemen from Kern County who gave what Abraham Lincoln famously called “the last full measure of devotion.”
“One of my aunts read the story and called to say my dad was on the list,” Geivet said. “I went to Bakersfield.com and read about what she was trying to do.”
“She” is Janna Hoehn, a florist from the Hawaiian island of Maui, who has dedicated herself to finding the photos of soldiers, sailors, Marines and airmen who lost their lives in Vietnam.
Of the 58,282 Americans whose names are on the stone memorial, close to 26,000 do not yet have photos attached to their online profiles. Until last month’s story highlighted Hoehn’s crusade, more than three dozen servicemen from Kern County had online profiles with no photo included.
In the past seven weeks, all that has changed.
“I’m so thrilled by the response to the story,” Hoehn said. “People in Kern County have been amazing.”
Within a day or two of the story’s publication, Hoehn had several photos in hand — and at least a dozen leads on finding more. Friends who went to high school with lost soldiers reached Hoehn asking how they could help.
Family members reached out, too, including Robert Chavira, whose older brother Steven was reported missing in action May 28, 1971. Although Steven Chavira’s photo was already up on the “Wall,” Robert called Hoehn anyway to talk about his family’s experience and to thank her for what she is doing.
“We spoke for over an hour, and we both cried a lot,” Hoehn said. “He was the very first person to contact me.”
But he was far from the last.
Two students at Wasco High volunteered to conduct research on lost servicemen with ties to that city. Librarians at area schools began searching their archives.
And Vietnam veterans got busy.
Clyde Griffin, 71, had been friends with John S. Pinney since the sixth grade. They grew up together on the Navy base at China Lake and were part of the Burroughs High School class of 1960. Each friend stood up at the other’s wedding.
Griffin remembered being deployed to Vietnam about six months ahead of his friend.
“I sent him a letter telling him, ‘Don’t volunteer for anything. Just do your job,’” Griffin recalled. “But that was like telling the rain not to fall.”
Pinney was hit by enemy fire on Feb. 16, 1969, while trying to carry a wounded comrade to safety. Pinney’s family asked Griffin to escort his friend’s remains home for burial.
And so he did.
Recalling those events, Griffin apologized as he broke down in tears. Of course no apology was called for. Every person interviewed for this story shed tears as decades-old memories crumbled down around them.
And yet, despite the pain of remembering, Griffin’s contacts with Pinney’s family led to the discovery of several photos of his friend — still young, still handsome, frozen in time.
And so another photo was added to the wall.
As of Friday, more than two dozen online profiles of Kern’s servicemen had had photographs added. And Hoehn was still receiving possible leads for others.
“Please help keep the memory of these guys alive,” said Mel Minney, 65, who flew helicopter gunships in ’Nam in 1967 and ’68.
When Minney got wind that the search was on for photos, he went to a military training cycle book he owned that included a photo of Army Spc. 5 Robert William Benson, of Bakersfield, who was just 22 when he was fatally wounded in Kien Hoa province five days before Christmas 1968.
“If you knew Robert Benson, he was kind of shy and timid, the last person you’d expect to be all gung-ho,” Minney said.
But Minney heard Benson became an Army medic, a job many soldiers hold in high esteem.
“He just wanted to save lives,” Minney said.
Not only did Minney’s book provide photos of two soldiers from Kern County, it contained a treasure trove of photographs that Hoehn believes may supply images of lost soldiers from other regions of the country.
For many Americans who lived through that time, and many who are too young to remember it, honoring those who were lost or killed in action is a moral imperative.
“It’s important that we see their faces,” said Vietnam War veteran Frank Portello, 65, who used several sources to follow an online trail to his goal: photos of two fellow Marines who attended Delano High: Lance Cpl. Henry F. Asuncion, a friend everyone called “Rick,” and Pvt. Phillip G. Cantrell.
“It’s like paying a great tribute to them, to put faces to their names,” Portello said. “I’d just like to see it get done.”
Thanks to Hoehn and those who have helped her, it’s getting there.