Last week I received a phone call from a woman on a mission.
Janna Hoehn is a native Californian now living in Hawaii. The Vietnam War raged while she was in high school, so on a trip to Washington, D.C., in 2008, she visited the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall on the National Mall.
If you’ve ever seen the memorial, it is absolutely moving and stirring. At the behest of a group of Vietnam veterans from the Valley, in 1998 I covered a ceremony commemorating the 30-year anniversary of the Tet Offensive, a battle that ultimately became responsible for more than 1,500 names on the wall.
It was an unforgettable night that began with a service at the National City Church, where Lyndon B. Johnson once prayed before sending young men off to war. It ended at the wall, in the dark, in a light snowfall. Men hardened by their experiences and by the cold reception many received upon returning home broke down and bawled as one veteran played “Amazing Grace” on the bagpipes and another, an American Indian who had served during the Tet Offensive, provided a wailing flute. I visited the memorial on at least two other occasions during my two-month stint in D.C. that year and can understand why Hoehn became so mesmerized by it.
“Even though I never knew anyone killed in Vietnam, I wanted an etching,” she said. “I approached the wall and chose a name.”
She took a paper and pencil, picked a name randomly and traced it: Gregory John Crossman, an Air Force major from Michigan who still is listed as missing in action. After returning home, she tried to research Crossman. She wanted to find his family and send them the etching, hoping for a photo in return. She was unable to find any of his kin, but a cousin located a photo from when he attended Western Michigan University.
A couple of years later, Hoehn saw a news story about the call for photos by the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund, which wants to put a face to each of the 58,286 names on the wall. The organization also plans to display the photos in a new education center in a park across the street from both the Vietnam and Lincoln memorials. The project is in the fundraising stage, and the hope is to break ground in 2016. Allyson Shaw, the organization’s director of communications, said it has more than 32,000 photos, with more than 26,000 still needed.
Hoehn sent her photo of Crossman to Jan Scruggs, the wall’s founder and president. It now appears with his information on the Wall of Faces that is part of the memorial fund’s website.
Scruggs responded by asking Hoehn to find photos of the 42 soldiers from Maui who died in Vietnam. Within six months, she collected and sent them. Then she did the same by finding faces of the six soldiers killed from her hometown of Hemet and nearby San Jacinto in Southern California. When that was done, she decided to tackle a much bigger assignment – collecting the missing photos of the soldiers from California.
It’s a daunting task, but a doable obsession, she believes. That is why Hoehn called me and why you’re reading about it. She wants your help – our help – to ensure that a photograph accompanies every one of the 5,579 names of Californians, including all 56 from Stanislaus County.
Their names also appear on a stone memorial standing outside of Stanislaus County Courthouse. When Hoehn called on Wednesday, photos of 25 had been located and posted to the website. She is asking family members or friends to supply the missing photos (see the list accompanying this column). Obviously, she’d rather have military portraits than yearbook photos.
“But any photo will do,” she said.
With the help of Janet Lancaster at the McHenry Museum and other local historians, and by calling librarians at area high schools, I was able to chip away at the list of names Hoehn provided. Hughson High’s Corene Naron located a photo of Jack Le Tourneau, class of 1952, who was killed in 1962. Naron also put me in touch with Le Tourneau’s brother, Tom, who lives in New Mexico. He told me about how Jack died at 29 in February 1962, when Americans in Vietnam were still called “advisers” before Vietnam was considered a war.
“He was a navigator on a C-47,” Tom Le Tourneau said. “They were on a propaganda mission, dropping pamphlets over North Vietnam. They were heading back south when they were shot down on what was supposed to be his last trip.”
The Oakdale Museum provided a 1966 Oakdale High yearbook photo of William A. Fish, for whom a park in town is named. Next to his photo, Fish proclaimed his goal: to join the Marine Corps. He was killed in 1967.
Hoehn also will receive a photo of Steven Amescua of Turlock. He and Anthony J. Blevins joined the Marines on the buddy plan. They were killed in action three months apart in 1968.
There is a story behind every name on every memorial wall.
A woman in Hawaii with no local ties beyond her quest wants a face to accompany each one.