Sometimes it’s hard for even Ernie Guthrie to remember the real names of those who fought with him in the jungles of Vietnam.
The 70-year-old Lincolnton Army veteran is flying dozens of American flags on his property right now. He regularly talks to school children about a horrific experience he had long kept to himself. And he successfully petitioned the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund to send the traveling replica of its famous wall to his small hometown two years ago.
Five decades later, it’s usually the nicknames that still stick. When other veterans think of Guthrie, it is probably “Georgia Boy” that comes to mind.
But sometimes he thinks of Thomas Steven Hickman, a 19-year-old Indiana native who was among 31 soldiers from Guthrie’s company who died when their helicopter was shot down while trying to land. Guthrie, who saw the crash, said he had been with Hickman and the others just 15 minutes earlier.
“That was as close to hell as I want to be,” he said.
It’s a haunting memory – and the kind of story he worries will one day be lost.
“I’m concerned about – 25 years from now – who’s going to remember Vietnam veterans,” Guthrie said in an interview Friday. “I hope my children and grandchildren do but people who didn’t have some real connection with it … it’s just going to fade away.”
That’s why Guthrie tracked down photos for two Lincoln County men – Nathan Thomas and Thomas Lane – when he learned their photos were missing from a massive collection overseen by the same organization behind the famous memorial in Washington D.C. He said it wasn’t hard. All he had to do was walk into a local American Legion post and scan photos that hang on the wall there.
The photo collection, called the Wall of Faces, features photos of many of the 58,000 soldiers who died during a war with a complicated legacy in America. Each soldier who died, including Hickman, has an individual online profile that includes some biographical information, and local photos are also displayed along with the traveling replica of the wall.
The project is now missing just 200 or so photos, including nine from Georgia. There are only a handful of states left with missing pictures.
But it’s not just about finding any photo, says Tim Tetz, who is the director of outreach with the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund. There is also work underway to replace photos that are blurry or maybe just don’t quite show the soldier’s personality.
As an example, Tetz pointed to David Windsor from Guyton, Georgia, who died in 1971 and is pictured in his uniform. “Pretty much when you put a Marine in uniform in the 1960s, he looks exactly like a Marine in uniform in the 1990s and even the 2020s,” Tetz said.
Instead, volunteers are working to find photos from high school graduations, proms, weddings, the birth of a first child or other more personal moments.
“Then, we’re able to show visitors that this wasn’t just some Marine in a uniform that you can’t identify with,” Tetz said. “This was somebody who caught fish down in the local creek that you go fishing in. This is someone who went to the same school and had the same gosh darn graduation cap that none of us like to wear.
“Those are the kinds of things that bridge generations,” he said.
Guthrie said he’ll also keep doing his part to preserve the national memory of these soldiers, many who were young men like him who never wanted to go to war. Guthrie was drafted in 1969 at the age of 19, when he says he was more interested in hotrod cars and girls than anything else.
“Going to Vietnam as an infantry soldier – that certainly wasn’t what I wanted to do,” he said.
He hasn’t always been willing to talk about the war. He said he went 43 years without sharing his experience, and then a similar helicopter crash in Afghanistan about a decade ago stirred his interest.
Guthrie, who has been diagnosed with late-onset PTSD, says he slept better when he didn’t talk and think about his time in Vietnam. He doesn’t regret it, though. For one, he reconnected with a friend he assumed died long ago after being shot while out on a patrol in Vietnam, but he also sees a greater purpose.
“There are 8,800 people who live in our county, and I’ll guarantee you 90% of them know a whole lot more about the Vietnam War than they did,” he said.