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Woman finds photos of Hawaii’s 277 fallen Vietnam vets

Five years after visiting local high schools, combing through yearbooks and the Internet and making countless phone calls, Wailea resident Janna Hoehn and friends have found photographs of all 277 Hawaii Vietnam War veterans killed in the conflict.

The photographs will go to the “Wall of Faces” online memorial with the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund as well as in the future Education Center to be built adjacent to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial wall in Washington, D.C. All over the country, dedicated volunteers like Hoehn are doing detectivelike work, searching for the photographs of fallen veterans to be memorialized. Through serendipitous moments, “chicken skin” episodes and the use of the Internet, newspapers, television and radio broadcasts, photos have made their way to Hoehn.

“I was just sitting at my computer just crying,” Hoehn said Monday, recalling her reaction to seeing the last Hawaii veteran’s photo – of Felicisimo A. Hugo – come through email last week. “I wanted to finish Hawaii so badly. No matter how hard you work, you can’t finish the state (easily).”

Since the Vietnam War five decades ago, many family members of the fallen veterans and those who knew them have died. Living family members are often unaware of their relative’s Vietnam War connection, said Hoehn, who calls Hawaii her home after moving here more than 25 years ago.

Sometimes all Hoehn has to go on is a name and a “hometown,” which is actually where a person enlisted and may not be the true residence. This makes it challenging to find relatives or former schools.

“(But) the families are so grateful when you finally find them. They are so excited and grateful. That’s what helps keep me doing this,” said the freelance floral designer, who works part time around her photo searches.

Hoehn began her quest five years ago, with the goal of finding the 42 fallen Vietnam veterans from Maui. She wanted to honor the veterans, remembering returning Vietnam veterans being treated badly and forgotten in a divisive and unpopular war. Her memories go back to when she was a teenager in high school in Hemet, Calif., in the 1970s.

“It’s my way of saying ‘thank you’ and ‘welcome home’ to them,” she said.

The quest for photos all began with a visit to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial wall in the nation’s capital. Hoehn did not know anyone who died in the war but randomly chose a name, made a rubbing from the wall and brought it home as a memento. Hoping to find a photograph to add to her scrapbook, she did some research and found nothing.

Tapping her cousin with genealogy skills, a photograph of the veteran was found. After learning about the national project to collect photographs of fallen Vietnam service members, she sent her photo to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund. The organization thanked her and asked her to help with the effort on Maui.

At the time, there was an ongoing effort to find photographs of fallen Hawaii veterans. Hoehn eventually took that challenge on as well, assisted by Billie Gabriel on Oahu.

Friend Rona Adams, who was a nurse during the Vietnam War, proved helpful in the search. They drove to many Oahu high schools during a three-day period in 2014 to look at yearbooks and to locate photos and spent several days at the Hawaii State Library doing research. The three-day search turned up 10 photos.

Hoehn has expanded her photo quest for fallen Vietnam War veterans to other states, recently helping to complete the search for photos in Montana. She also is working on and assisting groups and individuals in Alaska, California, Colorado, Idaho, Nevada, Oregon, South Dakota, Texas, Utah and Washington.

They are close in Idaho, only two more photos to go, and in Nevada, only three more photos.

When Hoehn started her quest for photos, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund was attempting to collect the photographs of all 58,000 troops who died in the war and whose names are on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall. Last week, the memorial “just went over the 45,000 mark for photos,” Hoehn said. That leaves the photos of 13,000 troops.

Over the years, Hoehn has taken her picture board of Maui’s 42 fallen Vietnam veterans to community groups and schools. Once afraid of public speaking, she makes presentations easily now and even spoke in front of around 2,000 people at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund Memorial Day event in 2014 in Washington, D.C.

Hoehn has been receiving assistance from 10 Vietnam veterans on the Mainland, and it was one of them who linked her to the Hugh photo – the last one she needed for Hawaii. His hometown was listed as Oahu, but he was originally from the Philippines, so there were no high school or close family ties easily found in Hawaii.

The Mainland veteran, who is retired from the Secret Service and lives in Maryland, visited the Philippines Embassy while on other business in Washington, D.C., recently and inquired about Hugo. Armed with the only information they had, which was the date and the name of the ship he arrived on from the Philippines, embassy workers were able to find Hugo’s application to come to the U.S.

“It had photos and a really good photo. When we found the right person (to help us), it was like two days, we got the picture,” Hoehn said.

For more information and those who may have photos of relatives killed in action in the Vietnam War, contact Hoehn at neverforgotten2014@gmail.com.

Online:

* Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund “The Wall of Faces” – www.vvmf.org/Wall-of-Faces

* Melissa Tanji can be reached at mtanji@mauinews.com.

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