By Paul Tennant
One compelling thing about visiting the Vietnam Veterans Memorial (known by most simply as “The Wall”) in Washington, D.C., is the mementos left by visitors. There are flowers, letters to lost loved ones, photos of fallen heroes, and photos of children and grandchildren left behind.
In December, 1996, my wife and I walked along The Wall, staring at the 58,226 names inscribed in the black granite.
A gentleman ahead of us knelt and read a small piece of paper placed beneath some of the names. He rose, glanced at me while wiping tears from his face, and quickly walked away. Curious, I squatted down so I could make out the writing.
It was a letter, neatly typed and laminated to protect it from the weather, addressed to Ivan Appleby. Appleby was a Lieutenant Colonel in the United States Air Force who had been reported missing in action over Vietnam in 1967, and thus had had his name engraved upon the wall. The author stated that when he returned from active duty in 1972, he had begun wearing a POW/MIA bracelet with Appleby’s name inscribed upon it.
The commitment had been to wear the bracelet until all POW/MIA’s were returned or accounted for. He explained that initially he had worn it 24 hours a day, but the bracelet had begun to cut into his wrist, so he was reduced to wearing it only during the day, removing it before bed each night.
Twenty-three years later, the author had come across a newspaper article containing the names of U.S. servicemen finally being returned to the United States. LTC Ivan Appleby, the article reported, had been shot down in 1967 over North Vietnam, his F-4D crashing into a hillside. After more than 25 years his remains were being returned for internment in U.S. soil.
Shortly after he read this article, in October of 1995, the bracelet that the author had worn for almost a quarter of a century broke one morning while he was putting it on. His wife replaced it for him, again with Ivan Appleby’s name inscribed upon it.
The author closed his letter to LTC Appleby by stating that this new bracelet was still worn daily, in honor of his sacrifice. The letter was signed simply, “Jonathan Barnes, Washington”. Beneath the signature was taped the broken bracelet and a copy of the newspaper article.
To many, I’m sure this seems a simple, perhaps meaningless act. Wearing a bracelet is neither terribly complicated, nor dangerous. But to honor someone in this manner, especially over such a long period of time, is an amazing commitment. How many times, I wondered, had someone asked about that bracelet, and heard the story of the lost pilot? How long did the memory of this soldier endure, due to the simple acts of a single man?
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4 thoughts on “Just One Out of 58,226 Stories”
Here is another story. Back then, I chose to wear a bracelet with the name of a Gentleman from my then wife’s home town. I wore it daily until he returned. After meeting him, i chose to stop wearing it, but still have it and put a picture of it up on facebook on the anniversary of his going MIA
I’ve heard the Spanish have a tradition that a man dies three times.
The first time is when he stops breathing.
The second time is when he is welcomed at the pearly gates.
The third and final time is the last time he is remembered by friends, family and loved ones.
By this standard, he will be remembered for many years to come.
As a reader of Heroic Stories since its original inception, I find I am no less moved by these vignettes of humanity when I reread them years after their original publication.
As an Air Force veteran, I found this story of remembrance especially moving. For this reason, I also felt it worth suggesting one small correction as this one is returned to the archives. Each military service has its own proud way of identifying the ranks of its members, and an Army lieutenant colonel would be referred to in written form as LTC, but an Air Force officer of the same rank would be referred to as Lt Col. The Navy does not use this rank (their equivalent is a commander) but, of course the Marine Corps also has its own version, which is LtCol, with no space between…
Other ranks have similarly subtle variants across the Services, and a good reference can be found at https://www.infoplease.com/us/military-personnel/us-military-ranks.
While I understand the author may not have known these details at the time he shared this story, it might be worth adding a note or sidebar acknowledging the lost Airman’s proper rank. Thanks for continuing to share these stories!
Be assured that as long as someone remembers that you lived, you have had an effect on that person’s life. No one lives or dies in vain.