Project Aims to Match Faces to Names on Vietnam Memorial

By Michael E. Ruane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 17, 2009

After Jerry Martin's hooch mate, Bob Hagan, vanished over the rugged highlands of Vietnam in 1969, Martin went looking for him in a small observation plane. Back at their base, he tried to raise Hagan on the radio. When it was clear that Hagan was not coming back, Martin cleaned out Hagan's footlocker and sent his clothes, Bible and medals to Hagan's parents in Savannah.

Forty years later, Martin is set to do one more thing for his long-lost Vietnam War buddy: At a ceremony at the Newseum, he will submit a plain black-and-white photo of Hagan in his Marine Corps officer's uniform to a project that is collecting photographs of the 58,261 people whose names are etched on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.

The goal, Martin said, is a measure of immortality.

Others will do the same. Colleen Shine will supply a photo of her father, Anthony, an Air Force pilot whose jet was lost over Vietnam in 1972, and uncle, an Army officer. Dan Kirby will provide a snapshot of his company commander, Harvey P. Kelley, who was killed in an ambush in 1969.

The ceremony kicks off part of the effort to build the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund's new Education Center, an underground facility planned for a site on the Mall between the Lincoln Memorial and the Vietnam Memorial.

The photographs are to be projected on a wall inside the center. Each day, images of the war's dead born on that date will be shown, project officials said.

Since 2001, officials with the fund, which also paid for the memorial's iconic black granite wall, have been gathering photos for a so-called virtual wall they maintain on the Internet. "We've got 10,000 already," said Jan C. Scruggs, the fund's founder. "By the time we get this built, we'll have 80 to 85 percent of them. And then, within 10 days, we'll have the rest."

The fund has raised $20 million for the $85 million center, which has congressional approval but is probably several years from construction.

The public fascination with images of those killed in war goes back to the stiff, gray portraits from the Civil War and forward to the riveting faces of the fallen in Iraq and Afghanistan.

They evoke "the life that could have been," Scruggs said. "The accomplishments that could have been, from this 19-year-old kid. Would he have become the guy who found the cure to some awful disease? Would he have invented the solution to some problem perplexing mankind?"

Martin, 64, a retired Marine and high school history teacher from Nokesville, met Hagan in Vietnam in 1968, when they were aerial observers flying in tiny planes at treetop level to spot enemy formations.

It was tricky business. Often, the spotter and a pilot were wedged into the two-seat, single-engine aircraft armed with only a rifle. There were no parachutes. The aviators sat on their flak vests for protection.

John Robert Hagan, 23, a 6-foot-6 red-haired Marine officer, was known for getting airsick on the dangerous, twice-a-day missions. Few knew he had been awarded a Silver Star, Bronze Star and Purple Heart in the war. He and Martin bunked in the same "hooch," as their thatched huts were known, at a base near Quang Tri, Martin said.

On May 6, 1969, a group of the planes had gone out but were ordered back to base because of bad weather. All returned but Hagan and his pilot, Norman Billipp. Martin and others got on the radio and tried to reach the two. Later, they braved enemy fire to fly over the area, searching. They found nothing.

It would be more than 25 years before Hagan's and Billipp's remains were found and identified in 1996. Martin's black-and-white photo depicts Hagan as a young man, eternally 23, in a crisp Marine uniform. In the picture, he "becomes immortalized," Martin said. "You never grow old."

Colleen Shine said she will forever remember being 8 years old and watching with her mother as her father's jet took off from the old Air Force base in Myrtle Beach, S.C., for his fateful tour of duty in Southeast Asia. She remembers that her mother gave him a thumbs-up as he roared off.

She remembers, in December 1972, running through the snow holding her mother's hand after the family had been told his aircraft had vanished. And she remembers sending care packages for him to the Vietnamese government, in case he was a prisoner.

He, too, was missing in action for almost a quarter-century, until his remains were found in the mid-1990s.

She has pieced together much about him from others, and from letters he wrote her mother. But she has always had the black-and-white photo of him kneeling in front of a jet, wearing a broad-brimmed hat with the sides turned up.

Now 45 and an Arlington resident, she said photos make soldiers more than statistics. They become "real men who are missed and loved and remembered," she said. "They had mothers and fathers, in many cases children, wives." She is also donating a photo of her uncle, Army 1st Lt. Jonathan Shine.

Now, she said, "how they lived and why they died is going to be carried one step further."

Dan Kirby, 65, of Arlington said he thinks the photo of his former commander -- a simple shot of a young man with a towel around his neck -- will allow Kelley to help recount the war's story. "Regrettably, at some point in time, there won't be any Vietnam veterans left to tell the story of America's longest war," Kirby said.

And so the job, in a way, will be left to those who never came home.

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