Milwaukee War Memorial wants to put faces to every name on Honor Roll.
Project putting faces to names on Honor Roll
Wayne Thomas looked at the camera, a hint of a smile behind the cigarette dangling from his mouth, rifle resting on a leg as if just a second before a fellow Marine had yelled “Hey Wayne!” and clicked the shutter.
It was a moment in the steaming jungles of Vietnam some time before June 17, 1969. Thomas sent a copy of the black and white photo to his buddy Gary Weckworth back home in Milwaukee.
Weckworth taped the picture of Thomas to his locker in Army boot camp. You can still see the piece of tape in the top right corner.
Weckworth can’t remember if he took Thomas’ photo with him to Vietnam when he followed his friend to war. By then Thomas was dead, killed while crawling through enemy fire to bring ammunition to a Marine machine gun team three days after his 20th birthday.
This June it will be half a century since Thomas died. Weckworth hasn’t forgotten his friend.
“Oh, Wayne was a great guy,” Weckworth said in a phone interview. “When we first met in sixth grade at Fratney Grade School, he was bigger than we were. So we called him ‘Big Chu Chu Wayne.’”
Now, through an ambitious project at the War Memorial Center in Milwaukee, others will get to know Thomas and learn of his sacrifice.
Launched at the start of this year, the project is attempting to find photos and biographical information for each of the 3,481 names dating back to World War II on the Honor Roll at the Milwaukee War Memorial.
Weckworth, 69, learned of the project in an email and sent in a photo of Thomas, who is the first name on the Milwaukee County Honor Roll to be recognized with a picture and biography.
The idea sprouted after a traveling exhibit of the Vietnam Wall of Faces came to the Milwaukee War Memorial last year. A project to find photos for every name etched on the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, D.C., was started several years ago to attach pictures to the fallen.
“We honor the Milwaukee war dead by having their names here, but we can do so much more,” Kristen Scheuing, education program manager at the War Memorial Center, said Sunday afternoon. “They all have stories to be told.”
Every name on the honor roll is someone who pulled on an American military uniform, raised their right hand and swore to defend the United States. Every name is someone who was loved, who was mourned.
Because of the massive project, Milwaukee War Memorial officials are trying to get the community involved, to crowdsource the effort by asking for help from schools, families and friends of people listed on the Honor Roll and anyone else who wants to find the stories behind the casualties.
On Sunday, Wisconsin National Guard Officer Candidate School can-
didates spent the day at the War Memorial organizing the names, copying pages from a World War II-era scrapbook filled with crumbling newspaper clippings and typing information into a spreadsheet.
The scrapbook was thick.
“This is just Milwaukee County. I would have thought it was for all of Wisconsin. There are so many,” said Sam Jollie, 26, of Madison.
“And so young,” added Jason Permann, 33, of La Crosse, as he stood before a copy machine carefully placing scrapbook pages on the glass.
The National Guard officer candidates found stories of the deaths of a 22-year-old Army captain and a 23year-old staff sergeant, very young for those ranks.
“It’s pretty sad, actually. I just saw a photo of a little girl getting her dad’s medals,” said Jollie, holding up a picture of a girl about 4 years old receiving her father’s Distinguished Flying Cross.
So far, two schools have volunteered for the effort, St. Mary School in Janesville and Marquette University High School in Milwaukee. Scheuing sent each school 15 names from the Honor Roll, five each from World War II, Korea and Vietnam.
Jon Parsons, a social studies teacher at Marquette High, is having juniors and seniors in an elective class on the history of America in the 1950s and ‘60s work on the Honor Roll project. The school librarian has started working on resources to help students dig in to military records, obituaries and newspaper archives.
“This is a unique opportunity for students to see a more personal look at warfare. Too often history is too abstract — it’s generals and battles and dates,” said Parsons.
“We’re going to look at soldiers that are comparable in age for them. I think it will be a very powerful experience for them, something unique that they wouldn’t normally get in a history class,” Parsons said.
War Memorial officials know there are discrepancies and misspellings on the Honor Roll. The original criteria for inclusion was World War II combat deaths from Milwaukee County, but in the decades since, others who died in accidents or illnesses have been included.
The list of names has been digitized for the War Memorial Center’s web page. There’s a link on the web page to submit information and photos. Eventually, the plan is to build a separate website for pictures and biographies of everyone on the Milwaukee County Honor Roll.
“I know there are people who enjoy that type of sleuthing,” said Scheuing. “I know there are genealogy buffs who are good at finding connections.”
For more information or to participate in the project to find photos and biographical information for every name on the Milwaukee County War Memorial Center’s Honor Roll — warmemorialcenter.org
Gary Weckworth is surrounded by photos and letters in his Glendale home from his childhood friend Wayne R. Thomas, who was killed in Vietnam three days after his 20th birthday in 1969.
A photo of Wayne R. Thomas is from 1969 while Thomas was on duty in Vietnam.
A letter from Wayne R. Thomas included a humorous P.S. that reads "Join the Marines for 2 years you'll never regret it. After it's over of course."