Vietnam Veterans Memorial volunteers on a mission to put a face on the fallen
The Vietnam Veterans Memorial, pictured October 23, 2012, is a national memorial in Washington, D.C. honoring U.S. service members of the U.S. armed forces who fought in the Vietnam War, service members who died in service in Vietnam/South East Asia, and those service members who were unaccounted for (Missing In Action) during the War.
ALAMEDA — Their names are among the 58,286 carved into the black stone of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., but they remain just that: only names.
Now volunteers with the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund, the nonprofit group Congress formed in 1980 to build and maintain the monument, are working to put a face with each name by collecting a photograph of all those listed on the wall and posting them online.
The task is daunting: in Alameda County alone, they are searching for photos of 140 men. Photos are needed for an additional 75 men from Contra Costa County.
Among those whose image is lost to time is Thomas Duggan, of Berkeley. He was 18 and a U.S. Marine Corps rifleman when gunfire cut him down in Quang Nam province on Jan 28, 1969.
There is also Kenneth Stoker, a Marine from Alameda, killed in action on July 19, 1967. He was a 20-year-old private. Others include Oakland native Stephen Cuthbert, a U.S. Air Force pilot who died when his aircraft crashed during a mission over North Vietnam on July 3, 1972. He was 35.
"We are trying to honor each and every one of them," said Janna Hoehn, a volunteer with the memorial fund who has been spearheading the drive to secure photos of those from California. "They made the ultimate sacrifice. This will help keep their memory alive."
Along with appearing on the "Wall of Faces" website, the photos will eventually become part of a future education center planned near the national memorial. So far, the organization has collected more than 32,000 photos.
"Putting a face with a name changes the whole dynamic of the wall," said Hoehn, a 58-year-old florist who grew up in San Jacinto in Southern California and now lives in Maui, Hawaii.
What can make locating photos difficult, Hoehn said, is that the snapshots are often stored away in closets or attics, or kept by someone who may not live in the fallen soldier's hometown. Many soldiers were also young and served before computers made capturing and preserving photos easy.
Hoehn began collecting photos five years ago, when she visited the memorial and etched "Gregory John Crossman," a name she chose at random from among the thousands listed.
She then decided to try to track down Crossman's family to send them the etching in the event that they had never visited the wall. She also hoped to find out what Crossman looked like.
"The war was ending when I was growing up," Hoehn said. "I always felt so bad about the way these guys came home and how they were treated. I just felt bad for them."
It took six months and help from her family's historian before Hoehn located a college photo of the 26-year-old Crossman.
A U.S. Air Force major from Michigan, his fighter plane was shot down northwest of Quang Binh province on April 25, 1968. His remains were never found.
After Hoehn sent Crossman's photo to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund, Jan Scruggs, the fund's president, asked Hoehn to help locate photos of 42 soldiers from Maui who were killed during the war.
"I jumped off my chair," she said. "It was just an honor to be asked."
It took Hoehn six months to find a photo of each man. More than 1,000 people have helped search for or submitted photos to the website. Some have contributed just one or two snapshots. Others have tracked down photos for dozens of service members.
Volunteers trawl through high school yearbooks and obituaries in old newspapers, searching for images. They also pore over phone listings in the soldiers' hometowns, hoping to match a last name with someone who was killed.
Even when photos exist for a fallen soldier, it can be difficult to remember just what they looked like, said Arnold Dos Santos, an Alameda resident who served just over 12 months in Vietnam as a Marine Corps rifleman.
"The farther you get away from it and the more that time goes by, the harder it can be to remember the faces," said Dos Santos, who works with Oakland's Chapter 400 of the Vietnam Veterans of America. "That's why collecting these photos is so important."
Among those who Dos Santos remembers and who fell in action was Robert DeCelle, an Army helicopter pilot who died after he was shot down near the Cambodian border on Feb. 15, 1971. Dos Santos attended Alameda's Encinal High School with DeCelle, who was 25 when he was killed.
"His sister and I grew up together," said Dos Santos, now 66. "He was a star athlete. I always looked up to him."
Hoehn hopes people will recognize a soldier's name and provide a photo. She also urges anyone with information on where a photo could be found to get in touch.
"It's real detective work," she said. "Sometimes a person will have a little bit of information. But that can become a steppingstone that leads to a photo. And when that happens we have a name with a face."