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Naval Academy puts stories to names with virtual memorial

In this Jan. 9, 2014, file photo, a staircase leads to Memorial Hall on the U.S. Naval Academy campus in Annapolis, Md.

PATRICK SEMANSKY/AP

By SELENE SAN FELICE | The Capital Gazette | Published: May 30, 2020

ANNAPOLIS, Md. — To someone visiting the Naval Academy Memorial Hall, Lt. John Franklin might just be a name carved in the stone. But to his family and fellow sailors, he was Butch. He had a story and a life before he was killed.

Pat McConnell wanted to learn stories like Franklin's and share them so others could remember the academy's fallen. So he gathered more than 2,700 of them, creating detailed web pages for every man and woman in the academy's memorial hall in the USNA Virtual Memorial Hall.

McConnell, a 2002 graduate and Vice President of the charity Run to Honor, has been working on usnamemorialhall.org since 2016. The website uses a Wikipedia-style format to share information and memories about the alumni.

For Franklin's sister, Rhonda Harrison, contributing to the page for her brother was essential to keeping his memory alive. And it was something she could do from her home in Alabama.

"It's just important that somebody knows about these people, that somebody cares and somebody's looking at them — that it wasn't just a waste of life," Harrison said. "It's always through stories and documentation that people exist through history."

Without family members like Harrison reaching out, the task of telling each sailor's story wasn't easy for McConnell.

The hall has plaques for each class year, along with a list of alumni from that year who were killed in action, missing in action or who died while they were deployed, preparing for deployment or in training.

McConnell went from plaque to plaque taking photos to get the fallen sailors' names, then got to work researching. With Lucky Bag yearbooks, he was able to get enough information to catalog sailors by class and start Googling.

He started with the class of 2010 and worked backward. The Naval Academy was founded in 1845.

"It's feast or famine sometimes when you come across somebody," McConnell said. "They may have had a long career and I find three words about them."

Some entries took more than a year to complete, with McConnell contacting sources like Peruvian cemeteries to find information.

Others aren't even etched in the stone. McConnell said he's written entries for several dozen men and women he believes should be in the memorial hall.

"Some are very obvious. They perished in the exact same crash as somebody who is already in the memorial hall," McConnell said. "Some are just overlooked. Some didn't graduate because they left for whatever reason."

Since the project was completed fall 2019, the academy has worked with Run to Honor to make sure the next generation of midshipmen remembers those who came before them. As a new part of their Link in the Chain program this fall, midshipmen in the Class of 2023 were each assigned a name from the hall and have been tasked with finding as much as they can about that person.

The program usually connects senior midshipmen to surviving members of the class 50 years before them. Now, they'll also be connected with an alum through the memorial hall as soon as they enter the academy.

"We said well, we need to start them sooner than that and not just bond them to the class but to our heroes," Run to Honor president and 1977 graduate David Paddock said.

Harrison is excited for midshipmen to learn about her brother.

"It makes it a little more real to them," she said. "When you're young coming out of there you don't think anything's going to happen to you. We didn't think anything was going to happen to Butch."

While the site is up and running, the work is never over.

"If you go through that list and you know somebody, let us know," Paddock said. "We still have people who have never been recognized for their loss."

Staff writer Rachael Pacella contributed to this report.

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