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History students uncover biographical information about Virginians killed in Vietnam War

A VCU class is conducting research on Vietnam casualties for the Virginia War Memorial’s Shrine of Memory.

A view of a glass wall enscribed with names, with a statue in the background at right.
The Shrine of Memory at the Virginia War Memorial. (Photo by Brian McNeill, University Relations)

Engraved on the Virginia War Memorial’s Shrine of Memory are the names of 1,303 Virginians killed in the Vietnam War. Of these, however, only 186 have pictures and complete biographical information.

This fall, graduate students in a Virginia Commonwealth University history course are conducting research on a number of these names, digging through databases, searching government records, contacting family members, and connecting with others who served alongside the person.

Kyndall S. Drumheller, research and policy manager at the Virginia War Memorial, said the class’ research is instrumental to the memorial’s educational efforts.

“When the memorial was built in 1956, all we had were the names, ranks and branches of service for each person listed in the shrine,” she said. “What we have been doing for the past three years is gather biographical information and photographs on each individual so we can better tell their stories of sacrifice. The students’ efforts play an integral part in this process.”

The class, “Readings in American History: the Vietnam Era,” is taught by Emilie Raymond, Ph.D., a professor in the Department of History in the College of Humanities and Sciences.

“In this class, we’re reading all these books about the Vietnam War, whether about political and military policy or journalism during the war or even antiwar activism,” Raymond said. “But with this project, each student can focus on an individual’s service, and the significance of his loss.”

Brennan Wurtz, a history teacher at Elko Middle School in Henrico County who is working on his master’s degree in history at VCU, is taking the class and is researching Navy Capt. Harry Lee Blackburn Jr.

“He was a graduate of Highland Springs High School, so I went there and looked through yearbooks and learned he was student council president his senior year. He was also voted ‘most likely to succeed,’” Wurtz said. “He was in the Naval ROTC program and graduated from Duke University in 1958. He was a pilot in the Navy and had achieved the rank of captain by the time his plane was shot down over North Vietnam in 1972.

“He was captured and held as a prisoner of war,” Wurtz added. “When his co-pilot was released in 1973, he was not released and remains that were identified as his were returned to the U.S. in 1986.”

Wurtz didn’t find much about Blackburn in public records, but discovered a wealth of information in databases and message boards dedicated to remembering Vietnam veterans and prisoners of war.

“These gave me some direction and I was able to find sources backing up most everything that was written on these sites,” he said. “I found a lot of information about who he was through the Highland Springs yearbook and wrote to the alumni relations department at Duke to confirm his attendance there.”

The project, Wurtz said, has been interesting because it allows him and his classmates to view the Vietnam War through a human perspective.

A group of people with books and notebooks seated around a table.
Emilie Raymond, Ph.D. (right), a professor in the Department of History, leads her graduate level “Readings in American History: the Vietnam Era” course. (Photo by Brian McNeill, University Relations)

“Most study of wars focuses on political and military strategy, but not so much on the human element,” he said. “Learning about Mr. Blackburn, his life and his family made the war and its consequences much more real. What really got me was seeing that he was voted ‘most likely to succeed’ in high school. From what I have learned about him, I would say that he did succeed in serving his country, but wonder what else he may have been able to accomplish.”

Meika Downey, a master’s degree in history student who is pursuing a certificate in public history, is researching Lance Cpl. Ernest D. Cardwell.

“My soldier was a Marine from Campbell County, Virginia, and I located his marriage certificate,” she said. “This was a key find because it was able to tell me a lot about him — obviously who he married, but the certificate also reported what level education he had (fifth grade), what town he was born in, and who his and her parents were. I also learned that not only was he deployed to South Vietnam just a short while after he was married in 1970, but that after his premature death in Quang Nam province, this man also had a son back in Virginia that he of course never got to meet.”

Downey found much of the information through online resources, such as the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund Wall of Faces, FamilySearch.org, the National Archives Access to Archival Database, the Library of Virginia’s Virginia Military Dead Database, Find A Grave and others.

Downey said she has a special interest in the project because, as a historian, she is passionate about 20th-century military history and because she is an education intern this semester at the Virginia War Memorial.

“There are over 10,000 Virginian names on the memorial's Shrine of Memory from World War II to Vietnam, and for over 1,000 Vietnam casualties the memorial knows next to nothing,” she said. “With understanding how important the Shrine of Memory is to the families and how instrumental the memorial is with student school groups, it is very important to learn as much as we can about our Virginia casualties.

“Take this man that I've been researching — Lance Corporal Ernest D. Cardwell — he was only 21 years old when he was killed in action in South Vietnam. The only information the memorial had on him was his rank, unit and date of death. As all the casualties do, Lance Corporal Cardwell deserves to be known and remembered. I think this is a very important project that I am happy to contribute to.”

Downey recently emailed Cardwell’s son and a woman she believes may have been his wife.

“I would love to learn more about his early life and any memories they may have of him,” she said. “Some families don't even realize their loved one's name is written on a big wall here in Richmond, so hopefully if I hear from them, they are happy to have heard from me and that someone is dedicated to researching as much as they can about him.”

A black and white photo of a young man in suit and tie.
William Beadnell, a private first class in the Marine Corps, enlisted at age 17. (Courtesy photo)

As the professor leading the class, Raymond also researched a couple of names on the Shrine of Memory.

One of them, William Lee Beadnell, a private first class in the Marine Corps, enlisted at age 17 and died less than a year later in a helicopter crash.

Raymond found basic information about Beadnell in his public military records, but found much more information on message boards. On one, she saw that Beadnell’s brother had posted looking for information about his brother. Raymond messaged him on Facebook and learned much more about Beadnell’s life and hobbies and interests.

“William attended Mary Calcott Elementary, Northside Junior High and Granby High School in Norfolk.  He was an Eagle Scout who loved music, surfing and beach combing,” according to Raymond’s report.

His helicopter crashed on Dec. 28, 1969, while returning from Phu Bai as a result of radio difficulties.

“The crew had been cleared at 5,000 feet but apparently heard 3,000 feet,” Raymond’s report says. “Although Approach Control made numerous attempts to contact the helicopter, the crew never responded, eventually crashing in the Hai-Van Pass. All aboard were killed instantly. In addition to William, the crew members included aircraft commander 1LT Charles K. Butler, co-pilot 1LT William P. Higgins, and crew chief SSGT Robert R. Swain. The passengers were PFC James M. Alderman, CTC Robert S. Gates, LCPL James H. Pence, LCPL Leslie L. Shelton, MGYS Edward R. Storm, and SSGT Richard D. Walsh.

“According to fellow Marine Ric Van Norton, William and his friends enjoyed singing Neil Diamond’s ‘Cracklin’ Rosie,’ amongst other songs, the night before the crash,” it said.

The Purple Fox logo cut from the tail pylon of Beadnell’s helicopter, YK-13, is on display at the National Museum of the Marine Corps in Quantico.

The class will present their findings to the Virginia War Memorial on Dec. 3.

The research will be added to the Virginia War Memorial’s online veterans’ database and will be displayed on TV monitors at the memorial, rotating from name to name, as well as included in outreach efforts in schools and during speaking engagements.

“We want the names not just to be names on a wall, but actual, real live people with families and their own unique story,” Drumheller said.