Veterans turned out in support for a service at the 24-year-old’s high school in the small city of Mayville. The former soldiers, mostly Vietnam veterans, honored the Johnson family by brandishing American flags and commemorating the sacrifice Johnson had made for his country.
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"Vietnam veterans from home to across the country have been so kind and good to my family during our incredible grieving journey," said Andrew Johnson. "They have shown great honor to my son as well as all KIAs."
Ever since the outpouring of support Johnson received from veterans during his family’s time of need, he has felt deeply indebted to these men and women.
Johnson, publisher of the Dodge County Pioneer, has since found a way to return the kindness.
He’s been the driving force behind the effort to locate a photograph of every Wisconsin soldier listed on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall in Washington, D.C.
Seven Beloit soldiers are on that list, along with one from Roscoe (see sidebar).
The photographs will be part of a display at the new education center near the existing memorial. The new building will include an electronic Wall of Faces, corresponding to each name on the wall. The Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund is working to locate photos of all 58,286 soldiers listed on the wall. Construction for the facility is planned to start in 2016 and be completed for a grand opening in 2019.
Upon hearing about the Wall of Faces project, Johnson found himself in a unique position to participate. He has been in weekly newspaper publishing in Wisconsin for 25 years, has served as the president of the Wisconsin Newspaper Association and is currently a regional director with the National Newspaper Association, so he knows a thing or two about getting the word out.
Johnson hopes to have all the photos collected by Veterans Day of this year, Nov. 11.
"When I read about the effort it was a no-brainer; newspapers can significantly help find these pictures," Johnson said. "I brought it to our newspaper association in Wisconsin and they thought it was terrific and that local papers could join the effort."
Moving right along
The effort has been moving at a good clip, according to Johnson. He said that when he got involved, there were still 450 photos to collect in the state, and that number has since dropped to 175. Many media outlets across the nation are helping to spread the word, and several states already have finished collecting their photos.
Ordinarily, the military keeps its soldiers’ photos in their records, but this particular project was made challenging by a fire in 1973 that destroyed many of those records. A large fire at the United States National Personnel Records Center in a suburb of St. Louis resulted in the loss of roughly 16 to 18 million official military personnel records.
That being the case, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial fund has been forced to try to rebuild a large portion of the lost collection of photos by trying to individually locate them in relatives’ or friends’ private collections. The official list of photos still missing shows at least 13 soldiers from Rock and Walworth counties.
Tracking down local photos
Chris Jordan, Walworth County Veterans services officer, has been scouring her resources to help.
"What we had previously done when we heard about the project is we went through our files to find soldiers who were casualties from Walworth County to see if we had a file," Jordan said. "For the soldiers that we had information on that they didn’t already have, we sent it in. Unfortunately a lot of what we had were newspaper clippings, so the pictures weren’t the best."
Jordan would love to see the project meet its goal and feels that the Wall of Faces would be a touching addition to the memorial, both for family members of veterans, but perhaps even more so for living veterans themselves.
"I think a photograph is so meaningful; these were very young people that we lost in the prime of life," Jordan said. "They made the ultimate sacrifice, and I think a picture brings it home more than seeing a name on the wall. But, of course, the wall is also very meaningful because you see 58,000 names all at once."
Vietnam veteran Tom Stehura, president of the Janesville Patriotic Society, says that it will be a great way to recognize a group of veterans who felt undervalued in their time.
"During, and for long after, it was not a very pleasant thing to be a veteran, especially one who served in Vietnam," Stehura said. "In fact, when we came home we were pretty much insulted and scorned. It took years for that hurt given by our fellow countrymen to finally resolve itself, so we’ve been slowly coming back out of hiding and make ourselves more and more known."
Stehura is happy to see his peers being honored in this way and thinks it’s worth the time to track down the many remaining photos.
"As a Vietnam veteran I say that it’s really important to not forget the sacrifice these men and women made for this county," Stehura said. "I think having the wall there and these pictures of the folks who died is very important, and we should do whatever we can to help out."
If you have information that you think may lead to a missing photo, or just want to learn more about the Wall of Faces project at the Vietnam Memorial Wall, visit the VVMF website.
Do you have a photo?
Missing photos from Rock, Walworth and Winnebago counties:
Nolan E. Black Beloit
James P. Mcconnell Beloit
Michael C. Nielsen Beloit
Timothy J. Norman Beloit
Gerald W. Schultz Beloit
Ernest W. Tews Beloit
Dennis M. Wood Beloit
Louis A. Pavlacky Jr Delavan
Thomas D. Walker Elkhorn
Alvin L. Halverson Janesville
John M. Kessinger Janesville
Michael Schumacher Janesville
Ralph M. Wixson Janesville
Harold F Werle Roscoe