Herman: Putting faces with Austin names on the Vietnam Wall

The mission is admirable. And now, thanks to people dedicated to putting faces with names, a local portion of it is a mission accomplished.

Just about a year ago, when a replica of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall was on display during the Vietnam War Summit at the LBJ Presidential Library, I told you about Janna Hoehn’s wonderful and challenging effort to find photos of all 58,315 deceased vets whose names are on that most moving of memorials.

“We are trying to put a face with every name etched on the Vietnam Wall,” she told me back them from her Hawaii home.

At the time, she had 12,000 to go for the Faces Never Forgotten Program, which envisions a photo display in an education center near the wall in Washington. A year ago, the list of missing photos included the names of 28 Austin-area vets.

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Hoehn asked for local help in finding the local photos. Thanks to some local folks who cared, she got the help – and we all now have the photos.

“Aloha, Ken,” she recently told me. “Wasn’t sure I would be able to ever send you this email. The Austin fallen were not easy to find.”

“So thrilled to be complete with Austin!” she said in expressing her appreciation for the local help.

Retiree Jules Lund, 70, is one of the local folks who cared enough to help. A Marine vet of non-combat duty in Vietnam, Lund read my column last year about Hoehn’s effort and, with his wife Tricia, felt he had to get involved.

“I just think that those who made the ultimate sacrifice with their lives to serve in the military and for their country deserve some recognition,” said Lund, who was in Washington for the wall dedication in 1982.

The Lunds helped find several of the missing local photos, but some eluded them, including Afton Watts and Sam Canada Jr. The search for Canada’s photo was complicated by a fact that also complicated his life: Canada was African-American.

“He went to school in Taylor back when the schools were segregated,” Lund said. “And they didn’t have high school annuals every year. So it was hard, very hard, tracking him down.”

That’s when Dan Brodt of Frederick, Md., becomes the go-to guy. Brodt is a Vietnam vet who has worked with Hoehn on the photo project. He was able to track down the Watts and Canada photos. Watts was the last local photo found. But Canada’s was the more difficult to find.

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Watts arrived in Vietnam on June 1, 1967, and died there May 5, 1968. He was 31, had served 10 years in the Army and was among seven Americans killed during a road-clearing operation 6 kilometers west of Hue.

Though he enlisted through Austin, Watts was from Southeast Texas where he graduated from Port Neches-Groves High School.

Brodt, using his military knowledge and contacts, figured out that Watts, a captain, had gone through Officer Candidate School at Fort Benning, Ga. A check of records there found a group photo that included Watts.

There now are three photos of Watts, one in cap and gown (found on classmates.com), one in a newspaper clipping and a third in uniform. He is buried at San Jacinto Memorial Park in Houston and is remembered by several people on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Foundation website.

In May 2009, somebody named Mike Murphy posted this about Watts:

“Captain Watts, I will always remember that day in 1968, as we awoke that morning. I can still hear you say just 51 days left. We hit an ambush that day on May 5th. He and his entire group was hit by a mortar and killed as they moved up the road. That was a lot of years ago, and I will always remember it.”

And there is this October 2012 post from somebody named Patricia Gruben, whose words remind us how Vietnam divided us at the time:

“In 1969, I joined one of the big peace marches in Washington. They gave me the name card of a fallen soldier to hang around my neck. It was Afton Watts. I took the card home to Austin to honor him. Tonight I looked for him online and found that he, too, was from Austin. I came to Canada because of that war but I will never forget him.”

Which serves as an odd transition to Sam Canada Jr., who served in the Army, was born in Coupland on Feb. 11, 1944, and died in Vietnam on June 18, 1966.

Brodt’s search for Canada’s photo led to a Taylor funeral home and Bastrop County’s Walnut Creek Cemetery, where he’s buried. After chasing a few leads that led nowhere, Brodt turned to military contacts in the division in which Canada had served.

“I got a lot of names and asked a lot of questions,” he said. “Still no picture.”

But the leads included a Kansas man who had served in Canada’s unit.

“He said he had a box of photos from back in the day and he thought he remembered Canada,” Brodt said of his January contact with the Kansas vet.

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“About two weeks later, he called me and said, ‘Dan, I have found two pictures. And I have found Sam Canada,’” Brodt said.

Two grainy photos on the website show Canada, cropped from a group photo. There’s also a photo of his grave marker.

An online database of Vietnam fatalities shows Canada was a specialist four who served one year. He was paid $163.50 a month, and his mother, Effie J. Canada, was the listed beneficiary on his $10,000 life insurance policy. Military records show he died “as a result of gunshot wounds to right arm, chest and back received in hostile ground action.”

His full name was Sampson Canada Jr., though he served and was buried as Sam. Line three of the military casualty form notes he was a Baptist.

And, according to the records, a “Caucasian.”

I called Brodt back to ask if he was sure that the African-American in the photo identified as Sam Canada is the right person. Brodt is certain that “there’s more than enough information” to guarantee the Caucasian notation on the form is an error made long ago.

A distant relative of Canada sent me family research she did that shows he indeed was African-American.

On Oct. 30 of last year, an unidentified person posted this on the honorstates.org website:

“Sam Canada Jr. was my cousin I never knew. I was only nine or 10 when he went to serve our country. Although I never knew him, I am very proud to say he is my cousin. His body was laid to rest in Walnut Creek Cemetery in Bastrop, Texas, our family cemetery located on Highway 20 & Pleasant Chapel Road. Hats off to all the men and women in uniform; I salute you all. Rest In Peace!”

We all salute them. Seeing their names on the wall is moving and meaningful. And now, thanks to folks dedicated to the task, so is seeing their faces. It’s important that we never forget the faces.

The local portion of the effort is over. But the nationwide one continues.

“We are down to needing only 7,303 out of 58,315,” Hoehn said.

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