WAYNE — More than a half-century after small-arms fire killed Sgt. Archie Melvin Ellyson in a Vietnam battlefield southeast of Ho Chi Minh City, Linda Whaley found him in England.
The soldier from Richwood was the last of 734 servicemen Whaley tracked to ensure they had a grave marker in remembrance of their sacrifice. All died in the Vietnam War, and all were from West Virginia.
Their gravesites were scattered across the country and, in Ellyson’s case, across the pond.
Registrar and chaplain of the Huntington chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, Whaley and fellow member Patricia Haught spent the past year searching for the markers. Whaley’s personal goal: Finish by the end of 2020.
In the week before Christmas, five were left, some buried in Kentucky and some in northern West Virginia. And finally there was Ellyson.
“The one that we were struggling with is actually buried in England with his British wife. A niece confirmed this with Linda just this past week,” Haught said. “Once Linda visits Wyoming and Mingo counties and we get verification of a marker for the West Virginia soldier buried in Kentucky, we will have covered all of the 734 soldiers. Hallelujah! It is really a big deal, worth celebrating.”
About two years ago, Whaley said, she learned about the Virtual Wall of Faces, a website founded by the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund. That group is responsible for the famed black granite wall in Washington listing the more than 58,000 names of every service member who died in the Vietnam War. The Wall of Faces website displays names, photos and biographies.
But Whaley found missing pieces for the servicemen from West Virginia. Ninety-seven profiles lacked photographs. Whaley decided to work with Haught and others to find pictures.
Helpers researched online, checked old newspapers and contacted relatives of the fallen veterans.
In less than a year, the group found photos for all West Virginia’s servicemen, Whaley said.
“Giving people a name and a face and a little bit about them brings people to life,” Whaley said. “It really helps make it so you can start thinking about what the person may have been like and it can be very powerful.”
After finishing that project, Whaley decided there was more to do. She began the work of researching and documenting grave markers.
She and Haught spent hours researching servicemen online, in newspapers and in conversations with relatives to track down headstones, cemetery documents, family burial sites or grave marker applications.
For Whaley, it “was an emotional journey.”
“Some of the stories just break your heart, especially when you look at those young faces and you know what they went through,” Whaley said.
One story stayed with her. A soldier began drowning crossing a river. Another tried to help. Both soldiers drowned. Only one body was recovered.
Other servicemen died in crashes or from dehydration.
Ellyson was 31 when he died. Others were still in their teens.
“I’m sure that none of these soldiers wanted to give their lives but when it came down to it, they were in the midst of battle, and that’s what happened,” Whaley said. “Most of them were not men but teenage boys, 18 and 19 years old. They never had a chance at life, but they experienced the end of life.”
Most markers were found in West Virginia. Some were in Arlington National Cemetery east of the Pentagon, and others were in military cemeteries throughout the country.
“Personally, I have gotten to learn about many of these young men and their families,” Haught said. She recalled a soldier’s sister emailing three photos of her brother. “I really got to know him and his family through our email exchanges.”
Haught said she also learned something about West Virginians.
“We care about our military,” Haught said. “We care about those who don’t come home alive. We care that they are honored and respected, even 50-plus years later.”