By Jessica McBride
When Tiffiny Neal heard that a class of UW-Milwaukee journalism students and many others were looking for photos of three Milwaukee men who died in Vietnam, including two who were African-American, she knew she could help.
“I have been researching as a genealogist for more than 20 years,” she told the Courier. “It started as a hobby… I realized that I wanted to do more in a capacity to help others find their family stories.
I wanted to share the techniques that I learned with others.
When I saw the story on the news, I thought that I could use these skills to help find the families of these men who gave their lives for us.”
The three men – Carl Leslie Crowley, Willie Bedford, and Rudolph G. Valenta – were last on the Defense Department list of 1,161 Wisconsin service members who died in Vietnam and for whom photos were being sought.
For years, veterans, volunteers, students and reporters had been trying to find their pictures.
They had found the photos of many African- American service members and talked to their families in some cases, but the two north side men and Valenta, who grew up on the city’s near south side, were still missing.
Now only Bedford’s photo is missing. If you have a photo of Bedford or know who might, please email all information to firstname.lastname@example.org.
In other cases, African-American service members have photos, but they were obtained through yearbook photos.
If you knew Clarence Clifton Adams, Thomas Cottrell, Ruben Horton, or Andrew J. Taylor, they are among those for whom more photos would be helpful. You can also send them to email@example.com.
It’s part of a national project to put a face with every name on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial wall. They will run some day in a major education center planned for across the street.
Neal’s crucial clue – an old newspaper obituary of Carl Leslie Crowley from Nov. 14, 1969 – led to his family within 24 hours. It said that Crowley had drowned when he fell off a barge in Saigon.
He was a welder in the military and left behind a wife, Brenda, and three children.
The obit sketched out a lengthy family tree, and by Wednesday evening his brothers Andre and Robert Crowley, of Milwaukee, were meeting with the media and providing a photo, including to the Courier.
“He was an athlete,” Andre says. “He played hardball and softball. He was a swimmer. Strong as an ox.
He lifted weights. And he was a hard worker. He did whatever he had to do and he did it to his best.” Carl worked in foundries before joining the military for better opportunities, his brothers said.
For Neal, it was heartwarming that her genealogical training came to such use.
“My own father was a veteran, I have an uncle who served in Vietnam, and I have visited the wall in D.C. a few times,” she said.
“It is such a moving experience to be there in person. I believe that African-Americans especially need to reconnect with their elders and learn their history. Not from books, but from their own family members.
I know that if young people knew more about them they would understand that sacrifice, and have more respect for themselves in the process.”
Carl was one of 12 siblings. His mother was a cook in various Milwaukee schools for 40 years and only missed one day of work in all that time – the day her husband died, her sons said proudly. The father worked at A.O. Smith.
The family moved to Milwaukee in the 1940s.
“I am proud that he’s getting the recognition for what he did for our country,” Andre said of Carl.
Andre was surprised when he turned on the TV news and saw the Vietnam story about the missing three names.
He recognized another Milwaukee man whose photo the UWM students found – Vincent Wright (the UW-Milwaukee class obtained Wright’s picture from his family).
He went to elementary school with him. Then, they announced the name: Carl Leslie Crowley.
Five of the siblings also served in the military and their father, also named Carl, was a World War II veteran. They kept Carl’s photo – their only one – tucked away in a case with an American flag.
Andre remembers the faintness of his mother’s voice when the man showed up at the door to say Carl had died.
The stories of other African-American service members who died in Vietnam are equally moving.
Take James Calvin Ward, of Milwaukee, whose cousin in Michigan gave the UWM class his photo for the project.
Ward was just 17 when he died in Vietnam, and his death caused the military to ban combat for juveniles (Only about 18 juveniles died in combat in Vietnam).
Ward’s family remembers him as handsome, tall, and kind.
He left behind a son, who lives in Hot Springs, Arkansas, where the family has deep roots and a tradition of military service.
Now the goal is to find Bedford. Neal is one of those volunteers who is determined to find his photo. Milwaukee Public Schools says Bedford attended Riverside, North Division, and the old Lincoln High Schools.
But they can’t find any photo of him there. UW-Milwaukee student Rachel Maidl reached two of his siblings, including Carol Shaw of Milwaukee, but they also do not have a photo (but would love to see one). A platoon member didn’t have a picture.
A comrade posted this on his memorial site, “Pvt. Bedford drowned in the Song Yen River while on a routine day patrol.
I was the Guns Squad Leader and decided to hump the Gun that day. There was a dam / waterfall that we think Pvt. Beford slipped into the water right below the dam, and was held under by the current.
His pack, helmet, rifle and ammo were still laying on the sand at the exact spot he went under….Patrols were sent out every day to locate him.
On the third day, a Vietnamese fisherman and his son came up to our CP and said they have a ‘Soul Brother Marine’ tied to their boat.
We called in a chopper for a routine medevac and away he flew to Graves Registration in Danang. They ruled it a drowning. Panel 11W, Line 89.”
Sheneal Pearson, 24, of Milwaukee, is Bedford’s niece. She is hoping someone in the community has a photo or can tell her more about him.
She has never seen what he looked like. It’s exactly that kind of comment that motivates Neal’s work.
“I see that it’s important, and I would like to see myself,” Pearson said of the young man who died at an age even younger than she was. Sheneal said Bedford was t
he son of Josephine Claybrooks of Milwaukee and has siblings Eddie and Robert Claybrooks and Tyrone McPherson, in addition to her mother Carol Shaw and Charles Bedford, of Oklahoma.
“I will do whatever I can to help,” she said of the photo quest.
If you knew Willie Bedford or have a photo, you can help Wisconsin say that all of its fallen on the list have been properly humanized and honored. Please let us know by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.