“It is our great honor to present these items to honor your graduate, ” VVA National President John Rowan said as he entrusted a black lacquered box to Brown University Archivist Jennifer Betts. The box contained a flight watch and knife, the belongings of Marine Corps Capt. John Brooks Sherman, Class of ’62—Brown University’s first loss in Vietnam.
On May 28 during Commencement Weekend, the Willis Reading Room was filled to capacity as alumni and guests gathered in the John Hay Library to listen to the stories of the university’s own. Vietnam veterans David Taylor ’66; Barry Kowalski ’66; Elaine Zimmer Davis, the widow of Jerry Zimmer ’66; and Augustus A. White III ’57 shared their reflections and memories. Nearly half a century after the war, Brown was celebrating the launch of its Vietnam Veterans Archive and oral history project, collected from more than a hundred graduates who served in Vietnam.
Vietnam Veterans of America came to present Sherman’s personal effects.
For over twenty years, VVA’s Veterans Initiative program has been returning fate-clarifying information to the Vietnamese with the hope that these personal items and maps of mass burial sites might help Vietnamese families recover their loved ones. The VI is highly regarded by Vietnamese veterans and has been widely publicized in the Vietnamese media.
When Vietnam Television producer Minh Le traveled from Hanoi to Washington, D.C., in October 2014, his first stop was VVA national headquarters. Minh Le was helping Vietnamese veteran Nguyen Chi with a special request.
On March 25, 1966, in Quang Nam-Da Nang Province, Nguyen had witnessed a U.S. fighter plane crash after it was struck by enemy ground fire. He and a fellow veteran buried the pilot’s body near the crash site. In the spring of 1990, the pilot’s remains were disinterred and turned over to a joint U.S.-Vietnam accounting team.
Nguyen had kept the pilot’s watch and a knife. But as time passed he wanted to return those items to the pilot’s family. The VI was able to locate a record of loss and a photo of the pilot.
Nguyen Chi verified that the man in the photo was the pilot he had buried. He gave the black lacquer box containing Sherman’s possessions to Minh Le, with the request that it be entrusted to VVA while the search for the pilot’s family was underway.
The search for next of kin was frustrating, but eventually a message on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Virtual Wall led to Brown University. A search of Brown’s website led to a digital bookplate established in Sherman’s memory, which eventually led to Patricia Putney, who, many years earlier had created the digital bookplates for the library’s endowment.
Putney said she “was touched by the effort to return personal items to the family of someone killed in action in Vietnam.” She became “possessed” with finding Sherman’s family. Her search through the endowment files resulted in an address for Sherman’s mother in Winter Park, Fla. Eventually, with the help of Brown staff, Putney learned that Sherman’s parents and brother were dead. VVA decided that Brown University would be the most appropriate recipient of Sherman’s personal possessions, where his service and sacrifice would be memorialized in Brown University’s Vietnam Veterans Archive.
By Mokie Porter