WASHINGTON — He was the first American soldier killed in Vietnam; the first name of 58,282 listed on the granite wall of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.
And with the reading of his name, Capt. Harry Griffith Cramer Jr. became the first to be honored Wednesday in what will be a 65-hour marathon session by 2,000 people reading all the names on the wall from now until Veterans Day.
“It’s not just reading names, because each of those names … is a human being,” said former Sen. Chuck Hagel, who is also a Vietnam War veteran. “There’s a story, there’s a family. That’s not just part of a memorial.”
For Cramer’s grandson and son, who were the first two to read names, that meant researching the lives of the men whose names they would be speaking.
There was an Air Force sergeant who was killed by a fellow American; a Special Forces captain killed in Laos; a young radio intercept operator who was tracking the Viet Cong through radio signals.
And Capt. Harry Griffith Cramer, who was commanding an Army Special Forces team training South Vietnamese soldiers. Cramer, 31, was killed Oct. 21, 1957 in an explosion while leading a patrol.
“I didn’t feel it was fair to them to read for me to just get up and read names as if I were reading a phone book,” said Hank Cramer, Harry Cramer’s son. “Every one of these names, there’s a family just like ours. And maybe their families are gone, or maybe their families can’t be here, but I owe it to them. I want to know who these people are.”
And even though Harry Cramer’s grandson, Hank Cramer, Jr., wasn’t even alive during the war, he still felt the need to fly to Washington D.C. from Colorado to participate in the reading.
“I respect their stories, I respect what they do for our country,” said Hank Cramer, Jr. “I feel that it’s a small way to pay them back and say, ‘Thank you.’”
The tribute comes on the 30th anniversary of the wall, and is the fifth time that the reading has been done since it was completed in 1982. This year also marks the 50th anniversary commemoration of the Vietnam War.
“For many people who lost a friend or family member, it’s a spiritual place,” said Jan Scruggs, founder and president of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund. “Reading the name brings a sense of relief to their to their spirit.
“This is really part of a healing process for the country to remember, it’s a healing process for the veterans, and it’s a way to show people how much pain people still feel in their hearts,” Scruggs said. “There’s a real connection between the living and the dead here, and these are people who gave their lives for their country.”
The pain was still fresh for Vietnam veteran Gary Janulewicz, who was reading the name of a 25-year-old Army lieutenant he had met just an hour before the infantry position they were holding on a hill was overrun during the war.
The lieutenant, Brian Kay Skinner, died in Janulewicz’s arms.
“I need to do it,” said Janulewicz, lips trembling. “I can’t explain it better than that. It’s something that doesn’t go away. I don’t have closure yet on that.”