Durham County

A successful, decade-long mission for 2 brothers: Finding photos of NC Vietnam casualties

Brothers Tom and Jim Reece at the New Hanover County veterans memorial in 2013.
Brothers Tom and Jim Reece at the New Hanover County veterans memorial in 2013. Paul Stephen – Wilmington Star News

For more than a decade, two brothers from Wilmington have been trying to find photographs of everyone from North Carolina who was killed in the Vietnam War.

It was part of a broader volunteer effort to find a photo for each of the nearly 58,300 names that appear on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall in Washington, D.C. As each photo is found, it’s posted on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund website, www.vvmf.org, and will be displayed in a planned education center near the wall, along with some of the hundreds of thousands of objects left at the memorial over the years.

Last week, Jim and Tom Reece found the last of 1,958 photos for North Carolina: Army Spec. Douglas Bane Smith, a native of Durham who was killed in a firefight at a mountain outpost in the central highlands of Vietnam on May 4, 1968. He was 21 and is buried in Maplewood Cemetery near Duke University.

The Reece brothers couldn’t find any family members for Smith, and as far as they could tell he dropped out of school after finishing what was then Carr Junior High School. The usual strategies of following clues on genealogy websites, classmates.com and military websites – as well as telephone books, newspapers and public libraries – had failed to turn up anything for Smith.

His was among the 22 photos the brothers still needed last fall when The News & Observer wrote about their effort. These were the toughest of the tough, they said, the ones with tenuous or no connections to family or the places they had lived.

Douglas Bane Smith
Douglas Bane ‘Smitie’ Smith

The publicity helped, but the real breakthrough was getting in touch with Dan Brodt, an ex-Special Forces soldier and Vietnam veteran who has maintained his contacts inside the military. Jim Reece says Brodt found several of the remaining photos, including Smith’s.

“I don’t know where he got his photo from,” Reece said. “It was sent to him, and he sent it on to me, without explanation.”

The search for the photos of Vietnam casualties began as a project to find Jim’s high school classmates in Wilmington who had died in the war. The brothers expanded the effort to include all of the state and eventually got involved in the larger national project.

The brothers say being able to see the faces of the young men and women who gave their lives in war is a more powerful way to remember and honor them than simply reading their names on a wall.

Jim Reece spent   years in the Army starting in 1970, then more than three decades in the Air Force Reserve, but was never sent to Vietnam. He now lives in Washington State. His brother Tom, who works at International Paper in Riegelwood, never served in the military; he messed his knees up playing football and wasn’t physically fit.

The brothers have had help over the years, most notably from Rosa King in Rowan County and Janna Hoehn in Hawaii. They say they’ll continue to help find photos of people from other states; in California there are still about 500 photos missing, Jim Reece said.

But Reece, 67, says after spending part of nearly every day looking for these photos over the last decade, wondering if they’d ever find them all for North Carolina, he says he can rest a bit.

“It’s a sense of relief,” he said. “It’s something you can hang your hat on, like the country song says. You can look back and say, I’ve done a good thing.”

Richard Stradling: 919-829-4739, @RStradling

See the photos

Photos of men and women killed in the Vietnam War can be found on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund website, www.vvmf.org, as well as the “roll of honor” section of togetherweserved.com.