The stories are short. They all end in death.
But, after those similarities, there is much more to add to the life stories of 28 men remembered at the Dogwood Vietnam Memorial.
Members of the Dogwood Vietnam Memorial Committee are hoping to fill in the missing bits and pieces of war-shortened lives. Some were killed in combat. Some were killed in accidents. All served in an unpopular war and all came from the greater Charlottesville area.
The memorial that stands on the side of McIntire Park overlooking the U.S. 250 Bypass bear witness to the ultimate sacrifice of men who died during the Vietnam War. Three of men whose names are on the memorial were discovered in the past year and, while they have temporary markers, committee members hope to track down more information before the memorial’s annual rededication during the Dogwood Festival.
A 29th name is currently being researched, committee members said.
“We have four more servicemen who are from the area that we’re trying to track down but it hasn’t been easy,” said Jim Carpenter, of the committee. “We want to find out more about them and maybe connect with their families, but it’s been more than 50 years since their deaths and it gets more difficult every year.”
One man who remains a mystery is Staff Sgt. Walter Franklin Payne, of the U.S. Army. Born in 1931, he fought through the Korean War and died in Oct. 5, 1966, in a hail of shrapnel fragments from an unknown explosive device that detonated in his base camp near Quang Tri province, South Vietnam.
His death is listed on official documents as an accident, but that’s about all the members of the can pin down on the man who served more than 14 years in the Army’s 1st Cavalry Division.
“We couldn’t find many files on him. There’s one photo of him but it’s very grainy and hard to see exactly what he looks like,” Carpenter said. “His home of record is Baltimore, Maryland, but he was drafted by the Charlottesville-Albemarle draft board in the early 50s.”
Some records indicate Payne, who was 35 and single when he died, may have attended Jefferson High School or Burley High School, both of which were African American high schools during the years of segregation. The only photo for Payne on any Vietnam veteran site is the grainy black-and-white that shows a featureless face beneath a mid-20th Century U.S. military helmet.
“It’s been 53 years since he died and we don’t know if he has any family around the area,” Carpenter said. “He’s buried in Baltimore but we’re hoping some members of the African American community who went to Burley might recognize his name.”
“A lot of names were of people grew up here and moved away and had their hometowns listed as from somewhere else,” said retired Marines Col. James T. O’Kelley, a local veterans’ advocate and committee member. “It’s not that we’re going out to try and find more, but as we’re told of people or made aware of them we look into them and try and determine if they should be on the memorial. If they’re from here, they should be honored here.”
Joining Payne on the Christmas list for the memorial committee are Pfc. Charles Rudolph Milton, U.S. Marines, who was killed in 1967 three days before his 20th birthday, and 21-year-old Spc.4 Edward Allen Lamb, a U.S. Army medic who died in 1969. Both were killed in action and both have temporary markers at the memorial as does Payne.
Milton’s official home of record is in South Carolina, but memorial committee members say they believe he was the son of a University of Virginia professor who went to teach at the University of South Carolina.
Official records say he was single and was in Vietnam for less than a year when he was killed during combat on May 15, 1967, in Thua Thien, Hue province, South Vietnam.
Lamb’s home of record is Dundalk, Maryland, but committee members say he, too, has local roots. Single, he was killed in combat in Phu Yen province, South Vietnam on Jan. 31, 1969, eight months after he arrived in Vietnam.
The newest name to surface is Pfc. John Robin Vrabel, U.S. Army, who died nine days before his 23rd birthday. His home of record is Culpeper, but committee members believe he married a Charlottesville-area woman before going overseas.
Vrabel was killed in combat in Binh Dinh province after being in Vietnam for three months.
“Whenever we have a rededication, we seem to have people notify us about other potential candidates,” Carpenter said. “We had 23 names and in just a year or two it went to 28. Now we’re looking at some other candidates who may have grown up here or married folks from around here or were drafted through the local draft board.”
Carpenter said committee members scour the internet for Vietnam veteran sites that often have more background than official military channels. Putting together the men’s stories and contacting family can be difficult, though.
“We don’t have a lot of information. We often just get a name and then we’ll do some research and reach out on social media,” he said. “We’re hoping to get some people who think ‘I remember him’ or know family and that they’ll reach out to us.”
O’Kelley said the committee’s effort at tracking down family and information for the fallen is simply keeping faith with their brethren.
“Now people thank active duty personnel and veterans for their service, but it was different when we came home from Vietnam in the 1960s and 1970s,” he said. “We do this because these people gave their lives. We don’t want that sacrifice to be forgotten.”