Jim and Tom Reece, brothers from Wilmington, have spent more than a decade seeking out photos of people from North Carolina who were killed during the war in Vietnam.
What began as a project to find Jim’s high school classmates who died in the war grew over time to an effort to obtain photographs of all 1,931 soldiers, airmen, sailors and Marines on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial wall in Washington, D.C., who were either born, based or buried in North Carolina.
The photos appear on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund website, www.vvmf.org, along with thousands of others from around the country, and will be displayed in a planned education center near the wall along with some of the hundreds of thousands of objects left at the memorial over the years.
It’s one thing to read the more than 58,300 names on the black granite wall, says Tom Reece, 62, but seeing their faces is more powerful.
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We want everybody to see that these are human beings. They’re not just names on the wall.
“We want everybody to see that these are human beings. They’re not just names on the wall,” he said. “When you see a face and look at it, you see, ‘Man, he was just a kid.’”
The brothers have had help over the years, most notably from Rosa King in Rowan County and Janna Hoehn in Hawaii. And now they’re in the home stretch, with just 23 photos to go, including three with ties to Wake County and three to Durham.
These have proven the toughest to find for a variety of reasons, the brothers say. They may have dropped out of school early or come from families that were transient or scattered, or simply too poor to have access to a camera that would leave behind family photos. In a few cases, a surviving spouse or parent is too bitter about the war or their treatment afterward to want to contribute a photo to the memorial.
“We’re getting down to the nitty-gritty,” said Jim Reece, 67. “Some of these guys, they didn’t have a mother or father. They had a guardian or they were adopted. These are the tough ones.”
But the brothers continue to try, following clues on genealogy websites, classmates.com and military websites, as well as telephone books, newspapers and public libraries. On several occasions, Tom Reece has found a relative’s address but no phone number, and called the neighbors to ask them to relay a message.
They have also had to overcome some distrust, especially now when a stranger calling about a long-dead relative can sound like a scam. They send a mailer that explains what they’re doing and why.
“It’s kind of hard to prove that you’re a good guy,” Tom Reece said.
Most people come around, he said, and are happy that someone is still thinking about their son or nephew or friend. Tom, who works at International Paper in Reigelwood, says he isn’t afraid to talk to people but that the conversations can get emotional.
“There will be minutes of silence,” he said. “You can hear them in the background sniffling. And I’ve got tears as big as horse turds coming down.”
Tom Reece never served in the military; he messed his knees up playing football and wasn’t physically fit. Jim Reece spent 7 ½ years in the Army starting in 1970, then more than three decades in the Air Force Reserve, but was never sent to Vietnam. He now lives in Washington state.
Jim says that except for the Marines, the military didn’t keep photos of someone unless they were seeking a promotion to a certain level or rank, which is why the brothers look for family, friends and schools.
One of the 23 left on the list is Staff Sgt. Marshall Lee Robinson, a traffic management specialist and 20-year Army veteran who was killed in a vehicle accident in Gia Dinh, Vietnam, on Jan. 27, 1968. He was 44.
The Reeces know that Robinson’s parents, Sherman and Delia Hopkins Robinson, lived at 530 East Bragg St. in Raleigh for a while, and that his wife, Beulah DeBerry McNeill Robinson, lived at 303 State St. All three are dead and buried in Raleigh National Cemetery near Robinson’s grave.
The Wake County schools have no record of Robinson; he is African-American, and the Reeces find many school systems have spotty or no records for segregated schools that were closed. They’ve written to the Pentagon to ask for his military records, but it often takes a year to get a reply.
But the brothers aren’t giving up on Robinson or the 22 others on the list. They’ve come a long way and can see the end of their efforts in sight.
“I want to get this done,” Jim Reece said.
Do you have their photos?
These are the 23 people with ties to North Carolina whose names appear on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and for whom no known photo exists. If you have photos or information, send it to Jim Reece at firstname.lastname@example.org.
▪ Staff Sgt. Marshall Lee Robinson, 44, Raleigh, killed Jan. 27, 1968
▪ Private First Class James Oscar West, 23, Raleigh, killed March 31, 1968
▪ Sgt. First Class Willie Lee Williams, 44, Raleigh, killed Feb. 23, 1969
▪ Staff Sgt. John Marshall Brown, 31, Durham, killed April 7, 1966
▪ Private First Class Harold Lee Harris, 19, Durham, killed Oct. 21, 1966
▪ Specialist Douglas Bane Smith, 21, Durham, killed May 4, 1968
▪ Sgt. John Willie Thomas, 20, Louisburg, killed Feb. 22, 1969
Sgt. John Daniel Morgan, 36, Dunn, killed June 30, 1966
▪ Staff Sgt. Sam Eugene Stout, 44, Newland, killed Aug. 23, 1970
▪ Specialist William Scott, 21, New Bern, killed July 1, 1967
▪ Staff Sgt. Pearly Junior Thomas, 30, Tabor City, killed Feb. 16, 1968
▪ Private First Class Eddie Lee Locklear, 18, Whiteville, killed June 22, 1969
▪ Private James Lee White, 21, Fayetteville, killed Feb. 23, 1969
▪ Sgt. First Class Robert Lee Henderson, 37, Spring Lake, killed June 15, 1970
▪ Specialist Clyde Lewis Tensley, 24, Thomasville, killed July 30, 1970
▪ Private Bobby Ray Wilkins, 24, Tarboro, killed June 29, 1969
▪ Private Chester Randy Odom, 23, Winston-Salem, killed March 31, 1971
▪ Cpl. Willie C. Walker, 20, Trenton, killed Dec. 12, 1968
▪ Private Charles Curtis Whitfield, 28, Kinston, killed Feb. 24, 1966
▪ Private First Class Linwood Earl Hyman, 18, Oak City, killed Nov. 27, 1969
▪ Specialist James Earl Parker, 21, Oak City, killed Feb. 8, 1968
▪ Cpl. Johnny Max Saxon, 20, Charlotte, killed April 18, 1971
▪ Sgt. Eugene Carter, 21, Warrenton, killed Feb. 28, 1970