Newly enlisted and freshly 18, the Philadelphia airman’s eyes steel for battle in the yellowed grain of the photograph.
It would be 16 years before the Overbrook High School graduate would become Master Sgt. Matthew N. Harris Jr. of the 33rd Air Force Dispensary, a medical service technician who served in Japan and Morocco before dying in Saigon at the age of 34 in 1965.
And it would be a half-century more until his photo, his face, and his story would join his name at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall in Washington, beside more than 58,000 of his fallen brothers and sisters.
Last month, volunteer researchers uncovered Harris’ picture, completing a years-long nationwide quest to collect the photos and stories of each of the 3,150 Pennsylvania service members listed on the memorial.
“We’re absolutely thrilled,” said Maj. Gen. Anthony Carrelli, Pennsylvania adjutant general. “There’s a number of things that you do where 99.9% isn’t good enough, and this is one of them. We needed every single one, every single photo, and we weren’t going to stop until we had them all."
The photos of the fallen are displayed on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund’s Wall of Faces, a digital database aiming to personalize each of the names inscribed on the memorial with a photo and information about the service member.
Each year, over 5 million people visit the rows of names at the Vietnam memorial in Washington, said Heidi Zimmerman, vice president of programs and communication for the memorial fund.
“Behind every one of those names, there’s a face and a story,” she said. “That’s why the Wall of Faces is there, to remind people, and to preserve the legacy of our service members.”
So far, researchers have found photos of all the fallen Vietnam veterans from 44 states, including New Jersey, which Zimmerman said lost 1,487 service members in the war. Nationwide, there are about 353 missing photos of fallen Vietnam service members — mostly from New York and Puerto Rico — needed before the Wall of Faces is complete, she said.
But completing Pennsylvania’s photo collection means the project is one step closer to accomplishing a decade-long mission.
While the Wall of Faces effort began in 2009, the search for photos of the commonwealth’s fallen Vietnam vets ramped up over the last few years, Zimmerman said, fueled by a team of volunteer researchers like John Thomstatter.
After Thomstatter, a Johnstown, Pa., native living in The Villages, Fla., finished his goal of locating the photo of every Floridian on the Vietnam Wall, he set his sights on the Keystone State.
Using newspaper archives, yearbooks, grave memorial sites, libraries, and public record locators, and working with retired military officers and a genealogist, Thomstatter estimated, he and his team have put in thousands of hours of work to locate the records of all of Pennsylvania’s fallen Vietnam vets.
Sometimes, the search begins with just a nickname, or a story from a service buddy. Sometimes, like in Harris’ case, dates and information on government records don’t match up, complicating the search. After years of scouring databases, researchers still have little information on the history or family of the Philadelphia noncommissioned Air Force officer, who is buried across the country in the Golden Gate National Cemetery.
But even in the most difficult of cases, giving up is never an option, Thomstatter said.
“I tell you, every soldier you research, you find out the sacrifices they’ve made, and it just drives you to look for more,” said Thomstatter, who is also a Vietnam veteran. “It’s very, very rewarding.”
Anyone is welcome to submit additional photos and memories of service members to the online memorial. The more detailed the database becomes, the better, Carrelli said.