Finding the faces of Vietnam

Newspapers help locate missing photos of veterans killed in Vietnam

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With each Memorial Day that passes, putting faces to the names of veterans killed in Vietnam becomes more urgent. And community newspapers are uniquely positioned to help the cause, says Andrew Johnson, president of the National Newspaper Association.

In 1973, a fire at a government storage facility in St. Louis destroyed more than six million military records, among them thousands upon thousands of photographs of Vietnam veterans killed in action. Of the 58,300 veterans who died, 24,000 photos were still missing in 2013 when a concerted effort began to locate and collect them for the Vietnam Veterans Faces Project.

As of Friday, all but 1,064 photographs had been provided by family members or located by members of the news media and veterans groups across the country. Eleven states, Puerto Rico and Guam still have veterans with missing photos.

Johnson continues to publicize the project by urging newspapers to write about it. As time passes, older family members of the veterans are dying and knowledge of the whereabouts of photos and other records may be lost, he said.

"I think newspapers are in a better position than any other vehicle to complete this job. They know their communities; they know the people in their communities," Johnson said.

Johnson is publisher of the weekly Dodge County Pionier and two other papers in rural Wisconsin and is a past president of the Wisconsin Newspaper Association. His son, U.S. Army 1st Lt. David Johnson, was killed in Afghanistan in 2012 just weeks after being deployed.

When he received a news release from Wisconsin Public Television about the project in early 2014, Johnson immediately thought that the state's newspapers, especially the smaller ones, could publish the names of those whose photos were missing and catch the attention of family members or other people who knew the deceased veterans.

Not only would newspapers be performing a patriotic public service, the veterans' photos would make for some great stories that deserved to be told, he said. He has since gotten the NNA involved and urged state press associations to do the same.

In 2014 Wisconsin had 450 names on the list. Today, photos of all of them have been found. As the list shrank, an instructor in investigative journalism at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee assigned two class projects that located more than 60 of the photos.

Andrews said the last missing photo in Wisconsin was found in a high school yearbook and sent to the veteran's son, who had never seen a picture of his father.

When the state of Iowa got down to one last name, the governor held a news conference about the project on a Monday. The photo was found that Thursday.

States that still have missing photos are Alabama, California, Georgia, Illinois, Massachusetts, Michigan, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, South Carolina and Virginia. New York has 487 names; Ohio has just one.

To see names, hometowns, and other biographical information, go to http://www.vvmf.org/state-photos. The Vietnam Veterans Memorial Foundation maintains the online Wall of Faces and its website also has information about how to submit photos.

"It's a great Memorial Day story, and the public really likes it," Andrews said.

For more information, reach Andrew Johnson at Johnson@dodgecountypionier or  (920) 387-2211. He is happy to provide additional contacts for stories.

Jane Nicholes

Jane Nicholes is a regular contributor to the Southern Newspaper Publishers Association's eBulletin and is a freelance writer and editor based in coastal Alabama. She is an award-winning veteran of more than 30 years in the newspaper business. Reach her at jbnicholes@att.net.

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