Josh Gibson, the D.C. Council’s public information officer, explained the tools he used to unlock the mystery of a broken plaque that once hung in the Wilson Building. (John Kelly/The Washington Post)

The Case of the Mysterious District Building Plaque has been solved. In the end, it wasn’t so very mysterious. But that doesn’t diminish the plaque’s power or the sacrifices made by the hundreds of people whose names appear on it. They were all District government employees who marched off to World War II. Some of them didn’t march back.

The secret of the plaque was unveiled at a news conference Friday afternoon in a hearing room at what is officially called the John A. Wilson Building (formerly called the District Building).

For years, the plaque — six panes of thick black glass covered by more than 1,800 names painted in gold — hung in a corridor there. If you worked there and passed it often, it sort of faded into the background.

In 1997, the Wilson Building underwent a renovation, and the plaque was removed. In the process, it broke. The pieces were tucked away in a closet. Local journalist Mark Segraves — then of WTOP radio, now with NBC-4 TV— heard about the plaque and went in search of it. When it was rediscovered, it was missing the topmost pane, the one that explains why the names were there.

The paint is flaking on the name of Wilmeth Sidat-Singh, a famed athlete and former D.C. police officer who died in 1943 in a plane crash. (John Kelly/The Washington Post)

In November 2010, then-D.C Council Chairman Vince Gray turned to the public for help, announcing the “Chairman’s Challenge.” His hope was to have an answer by Veterans Day 2011.

The public wasn’t much help. But Josh Gibson was. He was hired two years ago to handle communications for the D.C. Council under Chairman Phil Mendelson.

“The chairman, he loves that stuff,” Josh said of the hidden corners of the District’s past. “He knew that I loved that stuff. I just love D.C. history. For me, it’s a hobby and a lifestyle.”

Six months ago, Josh started sleuthing. His first breakthrough came when he realized that many newspapers back then — including The Post — spelled “employee” with only one “e” at the end: employe.

“The other thing in terms of search terms: What this plaque is called is a roll of honor, not an honor roll,” he said.

With that Josh began to get some hits. He learned that the plaque went up in 1942 and that it displayed the names of city workers in the armed forces. Names were added as the war went on. In 1959, the wording at the top of the plaque was changed to the past tense, honoring “those who served our country in World War II.”

Josh figured that photos must have been taken during the renovation in the 1990s, which was overseen by the General Services Administration. He contacted Dan Tangherlini who once headed the GSA. Dan suggested that he get in touch with photographer Carol M. Highsmith, who for years has busily photographed government buildings and other American scenes for the Library of Congress.

“The negatives were at her house,” Josh said. He pored through hundreds. Although there wasn’t a picture with the plaque as its main subject, in one image it was visible at the end of a hallway.

“Fortunately, she uses a larger negative,” Josh said. An enlargement provided a better look at the plaque, though it still wasn’t exactly clear what design was on top. (Probably an eagle.)

The plaque itself had been moved to the D.C. Archives. Two weeks ago, it was returned to the Wilson Building, still missing a few names where the bottom had sheared off.

“I went back in the famous closet across from the [council] chamber and wriggled in the dust on the ground and found four more pieces of the plaque,” Josh said. They fit perfectly, providing the lost names. The plan is to restore and reinstall the plaque in time for Veterans Day. Perhaps by then, the missing top pane — or a better photo — will have been found.

At Friday’s event, Mendelson pointed out an injustice. “The District, like all of the states in the union, has volunteered individuals to serve in our armed forces in the many wars this country has fought, and yet we don’t have the same representation the citizens in the other states have,” he said.

Some of the individuals listed on the plaque made the ultimate sacrifice, among 3,800 D.C. residents killed in the war. I researched a few.

John E. Rogers worked for the District’s Department of Vehicles and Traffic before joining the Army. In August 1943, he volunteered for a daylight raid in Kolombangara, in the Solomon Islands. He was posthumously awarded the Silver Star for “courageously sacrificing his life to protect his comrades.”

James S. Chumbris was an employee in the highway division before he became a Marine Corps aviator. He and two crew members were declared missing in action when their plane disappeared over the Pacific.

William T. Howell worked as a draftsman in the District Building before earning his commission as a second lieutenant in the Army Air Forces. He died when the bomber he was piloting crashed in the Gulf of Mexico.

Wilmeth Sidat-Singh, a D.C. native and famed athlete, played football for Syracuse University and was benched in the 1937 game against the University of Maryland because Maryland refused to take the field against a black player. He was a police officer in the District’s 13th Precinct before enlisting in the Army and earning his wings as a Tuskegee airman. He died on a training flight when his stricken plane went down in Lake Huron’s Saginaw Bay.

Thomas B. Keene was also a District police officer. A gunner’s mate in the Naval Reserve, he was captured after the fall of Corregidor in the Philippines and died in a Japanese POW camp in 1943. In 1948, his remains were returned to the United States, and he was buried in Arlington National Cemetery, Section 1, Grave 385.

For eternity, he overlooks the city he once served.

Twitter: @johnkelly

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