There is power in names.
That is something of which former Illinois Congressman Paul Findley was keenly aware. Findley, a Republican from Jacksonville, died last month at age 98.
Findley, who served in the U.S. House from 1960 until 1982, was an early critic of American military involvement in Vietnam.
“We were looking for a way to send a message of our opposition,” said Stephen Jones, a former aide to Findley. “He had voted against extending the draft and reappointing General (Earle) Wheeler as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. But then we came up with the idea of putting the name of every servicemen killed in action into the Congressional Record.”
More than 35,000 names were initially entered into the record, throwing the Government Publishing Office into disarray and forcing the Congressional Record to be published a day late for perhaps the first time in modern history.
“It had an impact. More than 100,000 copies were printed and it became one of the most requested items from that office. To the best of our knowledge, it was the first time all of those names became publicly available. Every six months, Paul would add names of additional people killed in action to the record.”
The printed names were read aloud at anti-war demonstrations, treasured by families of those slain and stood as a silent testimony to the horrible cost of war.
In the years following the conflict, the list took on new significance.
“My father always believed that the architect for the Vietnam Memorial, Maya Lin, drew her inspiration to list all of the names on the memorial from the work he had done with the Congressional Record,” the congressman’s son, Craig Findley, told me after his father died.
What is known, is that Lin used the list Findley had the Pentagon compile to inscribe the name of every American killed in Vietnam onto to the memorial, Jones said.
The black granite wall, with the names of 58,318 fallen soldiers carved into its face, was completed in late October 1982 and dedicated in November 1982. The wall is V-shaped, with one side pointing to the Lincoln Memorial and the other to the Washington Monument.
Lin’s conception was to create an opening or a wound in the earth to symbolize the gravity of the loss of the soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines. The memorial is now the most visited site in Washington.
Mary O’Malley Bragg, of Mansfield, first visited the memorial with her mother to see her brother Freddy’s name.
“It was so emotional. There were people just like us standing there crying. Each name on that wall represents a whole universe. Each person on the wall is loved and is connected with others and each name represents its own tragedy.”
A rubbing of Fred O’Malley’s name is framed and hanging in her home.
“It’s so nice that when friends visit Washington, D.C., they trace his name and share it with us. It reminds us that he is remembered and honored. I keep all of them.”
For Steve Watts, of Galesburg, visiting the wall is a means of coming to terms with a tumultuous era.
“The name of my cousin, Gale Vogler, is on that wall. He was five years older than me and we weren’t close. But it was a controversial time. I remember being worried about being drafted. I don’t like the word ‘closure.’ For me, going to the wall and seeing his name was like putting a period at the end of a sentence.”
Vogler was a standout athlete at United Township High School in East Moline.
For this writer, when I first stood in front of that black granite wall, I was a senior at Galesburg High School visiting our nation’s capital with a dozen of my classmates in April of 1983.
Although the war had ended only eight years earlier, for a teenager it was ancient history. It might as well have been the Romans and Carthaginians fighting in 264 BC. Vietnam seemed a distant time, unrelated to me.
As I reached out and touched the black granite and my fingers traced a random name, a National Park ranger sidled next to me.
“Do you know the average age on this wall?” she whispered. I shook my head and she said, “19.”
I looked again into the wall and saw my 18-year-old self, reflected back among the names. A chill passed through me. These were men and women my age. The war became real.
Scott Reeder is a veteran Statehouse journalist and a freelance reporter. ScottReeder1965@gmail.com.