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Volunteers need your help putting faces to names of Vietnam dead

A small American flag flies above part of the Vietnam Memorial Wall in Washington, D.C., on Veterans Day, Nov. 11, 2015.

MEREDITH TIBBETTS/STARS AND STRIPES

By ELIOT KLEINBERG | The Palm Beach Post | Published: November 21, 2017

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. (Tribune News Service) — Claude Roberts was just 20 when he stepped on a land mine in April 11, 1968, in Binh Dinh province along Vietnam’s central coast.

Just a year earlier, almost to the day, his father had accidentally drowned in a Belle Glade canal.

“Tell your lawyer that your husband is dead and you need me home to help you out,” Claude had written his mother. But before Daisy Roberts could take action, a dark car carrying two men in uniform rolled down the street of her Delray Beach neighborhood and stopped at her door.

“All I had to see was the front end of it (the car),” she told The Palm Beach Post in 1970. “I just went limp.”

Roberts’ name is on the iconic Vietnam Memorial wall in Washington, D.C., but a group wanted to know what he looked like. It’s hoping people who knew him, and hundreds of others in Florida, including 15 in Palm Beach County, will donate photos to the “Wall of Faces.”

The project is associated with the Vietnam Memorial Wall Fund, the nonprofit created to build the wall. Its goal is to have a face for each of the 58,000 names inscribed. Organizers hope to build an education center near the wall, where people can access information, photos and stories.

Recently, a Florida organizer, Gary J. McDaniel, contacted The Palm Beach Post, hoping the newspaper would post a list of the area residents for whom the group needed photos, and readers would come forward.

For Claude Roberts, it didn’t even take long. A reporter made a routine check of The Post’s photo library and found a grainy photo of him, crouching in combat fatigues, his helmet in front of him.

The public will have to deliver the rest.

Nationwide, the list of names without photos is down to about 4,600. In 24 states, faces have been found for each soldier.

Just in the last 20 months, photos of more than 640 Florida soldiers have been obtained and posted on the website. About 130 others still need photos. Of those, about 70 are black, and the project is working with the Florida African American Preservation Network.

Of Florida’s 67 counties, six have at least 12 outstanding names (Miami-Dade, 34; Broward, 19; Hillsborough 17; Palm Beach 15; Duval 14; and Escambia 12).

People with photos can go right to the “Faces” webpage — and can upload photos directly.

McDaniel, a 68-year-old Acreage resident who’s been a private investigator for 43 years, was in the military from January 1969 to December 1970. “I was an unsuccessful draft dodger,” he joked. He said injuries from a drunk driver kept him stateside as a trainer. Many of those he trained did go to Vietnam, and some didn’t come back.

A while back, he said, he saw an article about the “Faces” project and volunteered to help.

Each soldier usually involves six to 15 hours of research, McDaniel said.

“We regionalize the searches based on the soldier’s city of enlistment, and then search for grave markers and obituaries, before using public sources,” he said.

MacDaniel said the advent of genealogy databases such Ancestry.com has complemented the databases to which he already has access as a private investigator.

“I would say 15 years ago, it would have taken us four times as long,” McDaniel said.

When he’s able to find a face to go with a name, “It’s very personal,” he said. “It reminds me how young we were.”

And, he said, “I’m finding out that most of those we contact who have pictures are very emotional about the opportunity to represent the picture to us. They are thankful that 50 years later, we have not forgotten.”

©2017 The Palm Beach Post (West Palm Beach, Fla.)
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