Johnny E. Lewis’s picture is not a very good one.
A Google Image search for the young soldier produces just a small and gritty black-and-white photograph.
A wide-brimmed cap shadows his eyes, but his youthful smile transcends the picture’s graininess, representing the hope of someone who had a whole life to live.
Lewis, a graduate of Zephyrhills High School’s Class of 1965, was only 19 when he was killed in the Vietnam War on April 6, 1967.
He left behind a wife, Janice Williams, the daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Barry V. Thomas.
They spent 15 months living as newlyweds in St. Augustine before he reported for military duty.
Lewis, whose name is positioned on panel 17E, row 112 of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall in Washington, D.C., will be included on the Wall of Faces, an ongoing effort to match each fallen soldier’s name with his or her individual picture.
The display will be part of an Education Center that will be situated between the Memorial Wall and the Lincoln Memorial.
Tim Tetz, the Director of Outreach for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund, said the pictures will be displayed on a giant, two-story screen that will show the pictures of each soldier on their respective birthdays.
Although the physical display is not up yet, an online version of all pictures acquired is constantly being updated. Visitors to the website (vvmf.org) can also see which pictures are missing through the Advanced Search tool.
The fundraising for the center will be finalized in 2018, and the final building will hopefully be completed by 2020, Tetz said.
Locally, the Vietnam Veterans of America (VVA) Chapter 1036 in the Villages, Florida, is spearheading an effort to find and acquire all 777 of the photographs of fallen Vietnam soldiers from Florida who are listed on the wall.
There are approximately 30 other VVA chapters in Florida who are joining forces to find the rest of the pictures, according to an email from John Thomstatter, the secretary of Chapter 1036.
The search began in February of this year after Thomstatter spoke to someone at the Fund’s office and realized that no one in Florida was doing anything to locate the missing photographs.
Thomstatter said only 46 of the 777 pictures have been collected for the project so far.
Duval County in the Jacksonville area has 101 missing photographs, the largest number of any county so far, he said.
Ten states have completed their search for all the pictures, and Oregon is the most recent state to reach that goal, according to an article on the Fund’s website.
One obstacle that has made the process difficult is that sometimes the listed hometown of a soldier is not actually where he or she is from, Thomstatter said.
He noticed this discrepancy while researching the names of fallen soldiers from Monroe County prior to a trip to the Florida Keys.
“One person I did find out was from another state – Savannah, Georgia,” he said. “So, the search doesn’t always end up where you think it’s gonna be.”
He said he’s also had difficulty finding pictures of certain soldiers because some of the schools in poorer neighborhoods might not have released a yearbook, or he can’t find their obituaries.
Thomstatter is also working closely with Forest Hope, the president of the local VVA chapter in Alachua County and a Vietnam veteran.
Hope said the project is meaningful to him because he lost friends in combat – people who he graduated high school and played football with.
He said he’s trying to acquire as many photographs as he can before Memorial Day, but there is no deadline. The photos aren’t just limited to Alachua County – he said he’s also searching for surrounding counties like Putnam, Columbia, Baker, Hamilton, Suwannee and Gilchrist.
“Just all the counties around this particular area,” he said. “Anybody knows of someone who died in Vietnam, if they will go to that website and click on that person’s name, if there’s not a photograph, we need one.”
Thomstatter, who is originally from Johnstown, Pennsylvania, said he worked to uncover more photographs of fallen soldiers that were missing when he used the Advanced Search to search for his hometown.
He said he then contacted the local librarian in that area and was able to obtain the pictures to add to the archive.
“It’s really heart-warming,” he said. “And people are really very eager to help you. They’re recognizing the sacrifices that these soldiers made for their country.”
Thomstatter was part of a maintenance company of about 100 others that worked below Saigon, Vietnam during the war. Although he wasn’t in direct combat, he fully realized the impact of the losses when he started his search.
One story he encountered involved an entire helicopter crew that was killed after being hit with an RPG on a mission to save wounded soldiers.
“[Those stories] just bring back more awareness of all the sacrifices that people made when they were over there,” he said.
He said every time he and his team research a soldier's name, they see the magnitude of the personal sacrifices and tragic loss to the comrades, families and communities they left behind.
“Our research team members share a common bond of realizing, ‘There but by the grace of God go I,’” he said. “We knew there were no safe areas in the Vietnam war zone. The tragic results of war seldom justify the purpose.”
Tetz said he appreciates the work that passionate volunteers like Thomstatter are contributing on a local level.
“Having that passion coupled with local knowledge is what we rely on to finish these communities and really to do a great job,” he said.
He said he believes personifying names that are on the Wall brings a whole new appreciation for the fact that these people were living, breathing human beings.
“Of the 4.5 million visitors a year that come to the Wall, over half of them weren’t alive in 1982 when the Wall was built,” he said. “[The soldiers listed on the Wall] had lives; they had children. They had everything that is the magic of America. And they left those things behind.”
# # #