There it was: a black-and-white yearbook photo from the 1964 junior class of Marquette University High School. In the front row sat a young man whose picture I had been seeking for weeks by the name of Phillip Eberhardt. Almost four years after that picture was taken, he died in Vietnam. That was jarring enough. In this photo, he looks so young. It’s hard to imagine what unfolded a few short years later, when he was cut down at age 20 by Vietcong fire while heroically giving first aid to a sergeant. He won the silver star for that but gave his life.
I didn’t expect, though, what else I saw in that picture. More on that in a minute.
For the past few weeks, I’ve been trying to find the photos of Wisconsin service members who died in Vietnam. My UWM journalism students are too. Maybe you can help.
I’ve been doing this, in part, to help Andrew Johnson, the man who has made finding these photos his personal mission. He’s a newspaper publisher from Dodge County who wants to make sure our Vietnam veterans are remembered because they were there for his family when his son David died in Afghanistan. Most recently, he was in Milwaukee at a dinner honoring our local hero, Congressional Medal of Honor winner Gary Wetzel. Johnson stood at a booth at the War Memorial with a sign and a list.
A list of names. Names that are missing photos. Names of young men who left Wisconsin 45 years or so ago and never returned.
Now, I need your help because he does. There are currently 46 Wisconsin service members who died in Vietnam whose photos are still missing.
Maybe you know some of those 46 (at the Wetzel event there were 48, so more are being found every day).
The people who built the Vietnam Memorial wall in Washington D.C. – the Vietnam Memorial Fund – are trying to find a photo to match each name. They reached out to media in all states some time ago, and that’s how Johnson found out about their effort. Various local media ran stories on it, and names started to fall off. I met Johnson at the Wisconsin Newspaper Association convention in Pewaukee a few weeks ago. At that time, his list contained 63 names.
It’s extremely important to him that all of the pictures are found, that Wisconsin can say we’ve found all of ours. We remember our own. A few other states can already say that.
The goal is to memorialize the sacrifice of these service members by humanizing them. The Vietnam Memorial Fund is currently engaged in fundraising to build a major education center across the street from the wall. Each service member’s photo would be projected in that center on their birthday. The photos are currently running on a Virtual Wall of Faces.
I started focusing on the seven missing who were from Waukesha County for the Waukesha Freeman, where I am a freelance writer. I’ve now found six and written two stories about it for the Freeman (I expect to get the seventh photo this week; the sixth was Phillip Eberhardt). I’d still like to find the family of one of those seven, though – his name was Robert Howard Barr, and he was in the Air Force, hometown given as Pewaukee, in case you know them.
I have now assigned the rest of the names to my reporting class at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. The journalism students are currently pursuing the remaining photos and interviews with the families. Students Zach Mathe and Sarah DeGeorge have already found two more of the photos (of service members William J. Hondel of West Allis and Lloyd McGrew of La Crosse) and other students are also starting to make major progress. I’ve given them a late April deadline. The goal is to find all of these photos by Memorial Day.
Other newspapers around the state, as well as public radio and TV, have also been helping with this effort. I’m hopeful that the students will find most of them. My students are extremely hard-working and talented. As I told them, a large part of investigating reporting is being able to find people. The ones they don’t find, I’m committed to helping find. We plan to publish the results of the class efforts through our award-winning student news site, Media Milwaukee.
It’s wonderful to see so many elements of Wisconsin journalism come together for this worthy cause. Newspapers from the Eau Claire Leader-Telegram (reporter Julian Emerson especially) to the Lakeland Times have also found photos and taken the lead on this. It’s a reminder, frankly, of the importance of newspapers, which are often closely connected to their communities – and online sites like this one, which can improve the reach of the message. Similarly, one strength of UWM is its connection to the surrounding region. Public TV and radio was instrumental in early attention to this. The El Conquistador Latino newspaper in Milwaukee is also helping the students locate the photos of the service members of Hispanic descent.
Maybe you can help now. Maybe you know one of these men or their families. Any clue can help my students crack open the mystery. Even a family member’s first name or high school helps find them.
Too often, the media are derided for only focusing on the negative or what isn’t working. There’s a place for that, to be sure. But there’s also a place for journalism that adds something positive to the community or people’s lives. For my students, this is the chance to put their journalistic skills to work in a project deeply meaningful. It’s also a chance for them to practice grassroots reporting. Tracking down and interviewing the family members of men who died before the Internet even existed is challenging. But possible. They’ve been assigned to obtain a photo but also to write stories recalling who these men were. Some will also be doing video stories.
To me, this isn’t about the politics of war. That’s not even relevant here, what one thinks or doesn’t think about Vietnam. It’s about remembering those service members whose lives were given for it – 58,300 in all.
Now back to that Marquette yearbook photo. I’d been trying to find Eberhardt’s photo for weeks, and it was proving terribly elusive. The military said his hometown was Pewaukee, so he was one of my Waukesha County seven, but Pewaukee High School had no record of him attending. I found an old newspaper article from 1968 that said the family had moved to Pewaukee from Greenfield, but Greenfield High School also had no record of him. I reached a nephew, but he deferred to his father, Phillip’s brother, who didn’t respond and lives in another state. Andrew Johnson reached the brother, also to no avail. But then I discovered through social media that Eberhardt graduated from Marquette. That was the decisive clue.
How important is this to Johnson? He said he would fly all the way to California to ask for the photo, if this was the last one missing.
Through an online site, I found a 1964 high school yearbook, and sure enough the listing in the back said that Phillip was located in just one photo within it (he graduated in 1965, but that yearbook was not online). And there he was, sitting in the first row, a photo at last.
But then I noticed something jarring. Up there, in the top row, in the same class, in the same photo, sat – my father. They were in the same class. Same photo. And, in another row not far away sat the father of the IT guy at UWM, Jeff Loomis, who is helping my class with the presentation of the Vietnam photos on Media Milwaukee when we complete the project.
I am not sure what this means, but I think it means something. To me, it was a stark reminder of what these young men gave. Freedom is not free. My father went on to have a lengthy career (he’s a professor of cinema in California today). He’s 66 years old, and he has two children and one grandchild. Because he didn’t die in Vietnam, I’m able to write this story.
These young men who died in Vietnam – they didn’t get to do any of that. So to me, it underscored – it punctuated – what I already knew, which is how much they gave.
And that made it even more important that we remember each and every one of them.
Here are the remaining names. If you have any clues how we can find their families or photos, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org, and I will pass the information on to my students.
Click here for the list of missing photos (the first page is blank; the list starts on page two).
Jessica McBride spent a decade as an investigative, crime, and general assignment reporter for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and is a former City Hall reporter/current columnist for the Waukesha Freeman.
She is the recipient of national and state journalism awards in topics that include short feature writing, investigative journalism, spot news reporting, magazine writing, blogging, web journalism, column writing, and background/interpretive reporting. McBride, a senior journalism lecturer at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, has taught journalism courses since 2000.
Her journalistic and opinion work has also appeared in broadcast, newspaper, magazine, and online formats, including Patch.com, Milwaukee Magazine, Wisconsin Public Radio, El Conquistador Latino newspaper, Investigation Discovery Channel, History Channel, WMCS 1290 AM, WTMJ 620 AM, and Wispolitics.com. She is the recipient of the 2008 UWM Alumni Foundation teaching excellence award for academic staff for her work in media diversity and innovative media formats and is the co-founder of Media Milwaukee.com, the UWM journalism department's award-winning online news site. McBride comes from a long-time Milwaukee journalism family. Her grandparents, Raymond and Marian McBride, were reporters for the Milwaukee Journal and Milwaukee Sentinel.
Her opinions reflect her own not the institution where she works.