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A letter to a 21-year-old Vietnam Vet

DCN Correspondent

Dear Mr. Bruce Johnson,

I found your name on your parents’ grave in Park Hill Cemetery. It said you were the first Minnesotan killed in the Vietnam War. I didn’t know much about you before, and unfortunately, not much has changed.

I had originally planned on researching your father, Vivian, who died in 1993 in Viewcrest Nursing Home. He was a lifelong Duluthian, who lived on Lindahl Road for most of his life, and had retired as a machinist in 1964. As I would learn, this was two years before your death.

I didn’t know anything about you, but I found out the year you died while reading your Father’s obituary. I searched countless Web sites until I found your full name, your birthday, and the date you died. Born Nov. 30, 1944, you died in Vietnam from small arms gunfire on June 21, 1966. You were only 21 years old.

I tried to find an obituary on the microfilm of the Duluth News Tribune, the way I found your father’s, but to no avail. I searched for a month after your listed date of death in the obituaries, front and subsequent pages, trying to find anything I could about you. I wasn’t able to find anything.

I thought I might need help so I went to the Northeast Minnesota Historical Center where they had some great ideas on finding out more about you. First, we tried the directory of people living and working in Duluth during the time you should have been in high school. We found your dad and your mom, but we didn’t find you.

So, we decided to go through some yearbooks. We thought that since you lived in northern Duluth, you most likely went to either East or Central High School. Unfortunately, we didn’t find you there either. We hit the Internet again, going through countless Vietnam Veteran sites, where we were able to find your name, birth and death date, but no more.

We eventually found someone we thought was your mom, but after a search through the microfilm, it turned out to be someone else. The trail had run cold.

So, Bruce, I am sorry that I was unable to find out more about you, how you lived, how you grew up, how many friends you had, and what made you unique. I am sorry that after researching you for over a week, all I was able to find was your birthday, death date and military rank. But most of all, I am sorry that you died at 21, that you were four years younger than me, and that you died far from home in a foreign country. I hope that even though you weren’t near your family, you were surrounded by friends.

Best regards,

Ryan L. Hanson

This biographical sketch was written for the Research for Reporters class at the University of Minnesota Duluth. Each student in the class went to a cemetery in Duluth, got a name from a grave marker, and then used a variety of primary and secondary sources to find out as much as possible about the person.