By Rachel Maidl
Reprinted from www.mediamilwaukee.com
For Willie Bedford’s five siblings, his face was a distant memory. They lost their brother 45 years ago in Vietnam. In the decades since, one-by-one, their photos of him were also lost, especially after the family matriarch died. It had been about 20 years since any of them had seen his picture.
Until Memorial Day weekend, that is.
This is where Andrew Johnson, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund, and a journalism class at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee come in. Johnson and Bedford’s siblings had never met but have a great deal in common. They are both Gold Star families. That means they have both lost an immediate family member in combat.
And each had the same goal: To find a picture of the young Marine from Milwaukee who drowned in a dam in Vietnam in May, 1970, at age 19. His was the last out of 1,161 Wisconsin service members who died in Vietnam whose photos were needed for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund’s Wall of Faces project to match a face with every name on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall (read the students’ stories on other service members whose photos they found here.)
Last Friday, a student journalist from UWM, Rachel Maidl, and her instructor, Jessica McBride, brought a photo the student had unearthed from a North Division High School yearbook to three of Bedford’s siblings—Carol Shaw and Robert and Eddie Claybrooks of Milwaukee—and messaged it to a fourth—Charles Bedford, in Tulsa, Oklahoma. They all confirmed it was Willie; the photo was labeled “B. Bedford” even though Willie never went by a name starting with B that his family can remember.
Willie Bedford’s face had almost been lost to history because of a typo.
“That’s him!” Shaw exclaimed emotionally when she saw the photo. “That’s him… That’s him… That’s my brother!” she said emphatically thumping her hand down on the coffee table, breaking down. “That’s him.”
“That’s my brother, Willie,” concurred Eddie Claybrooks a short time later, expressing how important it was that Willie’s photo was found, not just for the Wall project but also for his family. There aren’t many people in the world who do things for others anymore, he told the student journalist, with deepening emotion. The other siblings commented how much Eddie Claybrooks resembles Willie in the yearbook photo, which none of them had ever seen before.
And with that, photos of Wisconsin’s Vietnam fallen had all been found, making Wisconsin only the 5th state to do so and the state with the largest number to find that has completed the task (a 6th state, Iowa, has one more photo to provide).
“In terms of the response over a certain period of time, the Wisconsin effort has been by far the most efficient and the most successful,” said George DeCastro, the Faces Never Forgotten Program Coordinator for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund in Washington D.C. “The high level of coordination and cooperation between all parties involved was astounding. And, of course, (the UWM) students and all of the other volunteers are the ones who actually got it done. It is a huge accomplishment to be able to say that we have a fifth completed state, towards our goal. Most importantly, it gives a great template for future efforts in other states.”
Three existing photos
On Monday, Memorial Day, Bedford’s only child, Tonya Scott, also of Milwaukee, who was just three months old when her father died, and Scott’s mother, Loretta, provided two other photos to the UWM journalism class instructor for the Wall education center, rounding out what may very well be the only three photographs of Bedford anywhere. All of the photos have now been sent to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund in Washington D.C. for an education center that will be built in a few years there. Willie’s siblings had completely lost contact with his daughter and her mother; they didn’t even remember their names and at one point Shaw offered to drive around to see if she could remember the house. But after the Scotts contacted the UWM class, after learning about the search through the media, the instructor connected them with Shaw, who said she had a lengthy, warm conversation with Willie’s only child, and they are meeting up soon.
“I have his picture, and now my niece back. This has truly shined a light on my life in a good way,” said Shaw.
Loretta Scott met Willie Bedford when both attended North Division High School in the late 1960s. She also knew him through his membership on the NAACP Youth Council, which he’d joined “because he was working for equality,” Loretta said, adding that Bedford had joined the military to provide for her and for his soon-to-be-born child, Tonya. The Youth Council’s adviser was Father James Groppi, and it helped lead fair housing and other demonstrations.
Tonya, 45, was stoic and silent, expressing repeatedly that the only way she could deal with the loss of her father was to completely wall it out of her mind because it caused her so much pain growing up to not have a living dad. But she broke a brief smile when she revealed a maternal uncle had told her once she was a lot like her dad because “he said I will give anything to anyone and always try to do things for other people.”
To Willie’s siblings, he was the pride of a family which had struggled through poverty and discrimination in the Jim Crow South, moving from Illinois to Milwaukee. Eddie Claybrooks recalled how, in Cairo, Illinois, in the late 1950s and early 1960s, the family members had to go in the backdoors of restaurants, couldn’t swim in the same pools as whites, and were limited to jobs picking cotton and beans. They came to Milwaukee for jobs, but they fell on hard times here, too, which contributed to the loss of the photos. Two of his brothers said their last memories of Willie were from jail. They were both incarcerated, but he came to see each of them one-by-one, wearing his uniform. “He was the one who was going to go on the right side of life,” said Willie’s brother, Robert Claybrooks.
The UWM class had become involved in the project in February after learning about a local father’s quest to help find the photos, which many volunteers have worked on over the years. That father, Andrew Johnson’s son, David Johnson, was killed in 2012 in Afghanistan. Johnson has been an advocate for Gold Star families since the death of his son. For some time, he had been working on a project to collect pictures of every fallen Vietnam Soldier from Wisconsin. Johnson and a team of volunteers have collected hundreds of photos. In February, when the UWM class became involved, 64 photos were missing. Last Thursday as a result of combined efforts of the students and others (like Baraboo vet Terry Kramer), there was only one picture left to uncover out of the 1,161: Willie Bedford’s.
The disappearing man
In the last 45 years, traces of Willie had been slowly disappearing. It started in 1973 when the National Personnel Records Center in Overland, Missouri burned down. Millions of files and pictures were lost. When Charles moved away from Milwaukee County where he and Willie grew up, boxes were mismanaged. Eddie’s photos were thrown out by his landlord while he was incarcerated (he now says he has turned to religion). When their mother died, no one remembered where her photos went. Tonya had a photo that was lost in a fire, and Loretta used to have more but lost some in moves. All of this contributed to the physical memories slowly slipping away.
Slowly, the only photos of Willie Bedford’s life narrowed down to three—two in a box at Loretta’s house and one in a yearbook that no one remembered and was mislabeled “B.” (MPS says Bedford attended three high schools and was not pictured in the other two).
The photos collected are posted on the Virtual Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall. Willie’s page was relatively blank. It listed his name, his hometown, and when he served and died for his country. The real heartbreaking and personal information was in the remembrance section of his page. It contained a remembrance from a platoon leader who knew him, but that man, when contacted, said he had no photos, either.
The first lead chased was Charles, Willie’s brother. Charles posted on the page, “Jr. I never got a chance to let you know how much I loved you. I pray for you every day, I will never forget my brother. Love Charles.”
When the student journalist first contacted Charles Bedford, he was living in Tulsa, hundreds of miles away from his home town. He said that his family had lost all of the photos and mementos of Willie. From there, the student called Carol Shaw. Willie’s younger sister. She also had not seen any photos of Willie in years. Carol was young when Willie passed. Her memories could not have been clear after a 45-year absence.
They did not know if there were any photos left or where they could be found. Getting a photograph from Willie’s family was not an option. The search moved onto institutions that might have a picture. For a young adult that would mean a yearbook picture.
Over a phone call, Carol Shaw was asked where her much older brother went to high school. She leaned away from the phone and asked someone in the room with her, “Where did Willie go to school? North Division?” It seemed the details of Willie’s life were slowly disappearing too.
When asked the same question, Charles said, “Yes [North Division] or Riverside.” A visit to Riverside High School unearthed no photograph of Willie Bedford. Onto North Division High School.
The student went to North Division three times. The first she was flat out turned away. She was told that the yearbooks were kept in the archive person’s house and that she needed to come on a different day. The second trip, she was told that the archive person did not have the yearbooks between 1966 and 1970. A helpful security guard told her that he thought there were copies in the library. The third time she was able to look at yearbooks. MPS PR manager Tony Tagliavia, was then contacted, and, offering immediate help, he opened up access and even drove to high schools to pore through yearbooks himself.
The principal had already looked through the North Division yearbook and said there was no W. Bedford listed. The student went back at Tagliavia’s offer, and paged through the 1967 yearbook looking for any trace of Willie Bedford. She started by looking through sports teams and clubs in hope that Willie was part of a group photo. There was no mention of him.
She started poring through the portraits. There was a freshman named B. Bedford. His siblings had already said he never went by Bill or Billy and he should have been a sophomore. She had to ask one of the siblings if that was Willie, even though it was a long shot. She took a photo and emailed it to Charles.
He said immediately that it was Willie. There was no doubt in his mind that it was his brother.
Shown the photo, the siblings’ love for Willie shone through in the gratitude in their eyes.
Willie Bedford almost turned into an invisible man. He was a half century old memory to his family and the nation he fought for. He has his name on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall in Washington D.C. His name is remembered, but nothing connects people like pictures. Now his family can see his face and remember their brother who made the ultimate sacrifice. And his daughter and the mother of his child have another photo. The photo search has united the different branches of Bedford’s family after 45 years.