Pictured: SFC Gerald Johnson, final photo submitted for the state of Minnesota. Submitted by Linda Johnson Auten via Jessica McBride.
"The work of the Minnesotans, including local vets, to find 1,075 photos is a monumental achievement,” said Jessica McBride, a journalism instructor at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee. McBride was able to track down the photo of Gerald J. Johnson. Johnson's photo was the final one needed for the state to complete its effort in VVMF's Faces Never Forgotten campaign.
Faces Never Forgotten puts a picture to every name inscribed on The Wall in Washington, D.C.
Johnson fell in the Pleiku province of Vietnam on February 5, 1969.
McBride, who became involved in the effort after her journalism class helped find the last of Wisconsin's photos, decided to continue helping the project because it's “so important and meaningful. She recalled, “I tracked down his daughter in South Carolina by tracing burial records and learning that Gerald was buried with his deceased wife.” McBride then contacted the daughter, who was happy to provide a photo.
The photo, now seen on VVMF’s Virtual Wall of Faces page and will be showcased at the future Education Center, was taken one month before he died. Johnson's daughter said that "his cigar always in hand,” when talking about the photo.
The submission of Johnson’s photo allows Minnesota to join Wisconsin, who completed their state's photo collection effort last week. Other states include Wyoming, North Dakota, South Dakota, and New Mexico.
For those who choose to be a part of the national effort, it's personal. “These are more than photos; they represent lives, families, dreams, and men [and in some cases women] who meant so much to so many people and to our country,” McBride says.
In addition to her milestone effort, McBride was in contact with two other detective rock stars, Robert Ahles and Herb Reckinger Jr. Both are deeply motivated volunteers whose effort with the Faces Never Forgotten campaign consisted of writing to city halls across the Midwestern state, to researching libraries and yearbooks for months on end.
“I've been deeply impressed with the degree of devotion and hard work they and others in Minnesota have committed to this project for years,” McBride said of Reckinger and Ahles. “They are leading the way nationally in demonstrating how this can be done.”
Ahles, a Vietnam veteran, got involved in January of 2013, by sending letters to local American Legion Posts, VFW Posts and city officials throughout Minnesota enlisting their help. Ahles obliged to help with the effort having always felt very lucky to have the chance to come back to the “world,” but sad for those who did not make it home. “I felt that all the veterans who died over there deserved the same recognition with faces behind their names and just made a commitment to myself that I’d try to find the 570 pictures that were missing,” he said.
On March 8, 2014, Ahles sent a letter to the St. Paul Park City Council and someone then passed his letter on to Herb Reckinger Jr., who took a keen interest in the project. The letter asked for help locating photos for fallen Minnesota soldiers. “There were 3 soldiers names in that letter. In about 2 weeks I found the pictures. One was simple and the other 2 were difficult,” Reckinger remembers.
Reckinger is a 63 year old retiree who lives in Cottage Grove, Minnesota with his wife, Nancy. Since 2014, Reckinger has worked tirelessly with this project and became instrumental in its success.
Before long, he was on a search of fallen soldiers from southeast Minnesota, realizing he lived closed to the best resources in the state. He would begin with little towns saying, “the more pictures I found, the more I wanted to go on.” Reckinger spent countless hours "searching obituaries for high schools, addresses, and names of the loved ones," from the Minnesota Historical Society to the Minneapolis libraries, until he was close to the end.
Ahles remains so pleased that so many Minnesotans and others, "came together and found pictures for the memorials of our heroes," repeatedly saying, "Thank you, thank you, and thank you!"
On the night of June 3 at 10:30 p.m., McBride emailed Reckinger with the final photo. It didn’t take long for Reckinger to send an outpouring of thanks to all involved, saying, “When I came aboard with the project, there were about 300 soldiers left to find a picture for...the..list was 7 pages long.”
VVMF is ecstatic for Minnesota's most recent accomplishment, and hopes it will serve as inspiration for more states to do the same.
Reckinger proudly recounts, “I am so grateful to do this and so grateful to the soldiers and all of the people who helped out. Jessica McBride helped us out greatly at the end. Every state needs a Jessica.”
*Updated: In correction, SSGT Jay Leslie Lieberman became the last photo submitted for the state of Minnesota on June 7, 2015.