Woman's quest for serviceman photos nearly complete
By STEVEN MAYER | The Bakersfield Californian | Published: August 9, 2014
It's an unusual pastime, searching for rare photos of young servicemen who have been dead for nearly five decades.
But for Janna Hoehn it's a calling -- a sacred obligation -- to acknowledge and honor those Americans who made the ultimate sacrifice during one of the nation's most unpopular wars: Vietnam.
Now Hoehn's quest to find photographs of those she calls "my Kern County boys" is nearly complete.
"Only four more," the 58-year-old florist from Hawaii said last week.
"I never, ever, stop looking," she said. "It just takes a long time."
The Californian first wrote about Hoehn a year ago. She had learned during a visit to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial wall in Washington, D.C., that the curators of the wall were seeking the missing photographs of soldiers, sailors, Marines and airmen who lost their lives in the conflict.
The photos are displayed on the virtual Wall of Faces, the online version of the physical wall. They also will eventually be seen in an education center being constructed underground near the memorial.
Here's the crux: Of the 58,282 Americans whose names are on both the stone and the virtual wall, thousands still do not have photos attached to their online profiles.
Of the 116 servicemen killed in action whose "home of record" was Kern County, about 45 did not have photos when Hoehn began her search last year. But that quickly began to change.
The first story published last August sparked a flurry of interest as family members, classmates and childhood friends of the fallen began helping in the search.
A second story appeared the following month, after an amazing response from Kern residents who sent dozens more photos to Hoehn -- leaving just 16 outstanding. Over the past several months, local historians, school librarians and others have joined the effort, helping to cut the number to only four.
But the search for the final few has seemed more difficult than ever.
The latest photo found, of Army Master Sgt. Billy G. Fry, of Bakersfield, was obtained in late July through Hoehn's own determined legwork.
During a Web search, she found a "remembrance" written by Fry's niece on a site dedicated to those killed in action.
Hoehn sent an email to the niece, who responded with an address for Debbie Cason, Sgt. Fry's daughter, who lives in Ventura County.
Cason, now 54, made an immediate emotional connection with Hoehn.
"You could tell just through her emails that she had this compassion for what she was doing, and an understanding of our loss," Cason said in an email to The Californian.
"To this day it brings tears to my eyes when I talk about my father," Cason said.
Fry, a decade or more older than most of the men who lost their lives in Vietnam, was 34 when he was killed in action Feb. 1, 1966.
Cason was just 6 when her family learned of his death.
"I was very young when we lost him but to this day keep a picture up on the wall at home to keep him in my thoughts and for my children to see their grandfather ... how proud we are of him."
Phil Witmer, of Bakersfield, was 10 years older than his brother, Noel, when his kid brother enlisted in the Army.
"His draft number was coming up and he knew it," Phil Witmer recalled.
Noel Witmer wanted to work on helicopters and he thought he'd have a better chance of getting that assignment if he enlisted.
Witmer said he thinks, but he's not sure, that his brother was killed when a helicopter he was serving in was shot down.
The date was May 5, 1971. The location, Thua Thien province in what is now central Vietnam.
When Witmer saw the story in The Californian last September, he sent a photo of his brother to Hoehn via email. His late brother's handsome face now graces the virtual wall.
"I do appreciate her efforts a great deal," he said of Hoehn.
Meanwhile, Hoehn's search has expanded to nearly every county in California. It's a huge task, she acknowledged, but one that brings her great joy every time she replaces a blank frame with a photo.
"It does my heart good to go onto the Kern County portion of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund site and see that almost all the slots are filled, she said. "But I'm still hoping for the rest."
Now only four remain, she said.
"This is our chance to honor these men."