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Brother’s memory inspires contribution to Vietnam memorial

Ernie Santos shows off two medal certificates that his brother, Joseph, received posthumously for his service in Vietnam.
Ernie Santos shows off two medal certificates that his brother, Joseph, received posthumously for his service in Vietnam. rchang@sacbee.com

Each Veterans Day, Ernie Santos thinks about his brother.

The 65-year-old Sacramentan still remembers the day Joseph Santos shipped out for service in Vietnam. Barely seven months had passed before his family received a knock on the door.

“My mom cried like a baby,” Ernie Santos said about the day a military official notified the family of Joseph’s death.

Joseph Santos, 21, died after a mortar attack on an American airfield near the Demilitarized Zone. Ernie Santos said an eyewitness told him that his brother and two other soldiers rushed out from a bunker to save a Jeep that had overturned from a mortar explosion. A second round of mortar fire killed the three soldiers instantly, but the Jeep driver survived.

The memory of the Vietnam War hasn’t faded for Ernie Santos, who continues to hold onto a trove of letters, artifacts, photos and yellowed newspaper clippings to remember his elder brother. The stash includes a black-and-white photo of a lady friend Joseph Santos had taped onto his assault rifle.

That kind of dedication to his brother helped Ernie Santos contribute to a national effort to create a comprehensive digital “Wall of Faces” for Vietnam veterans who died in battle.

He read a Sacramento Bee article last year about a woman who was on a quest to piece together those photos. The Bee published a list of names provided by Janna Hoehn, a volunteer for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund.

Ernie Santos contacted Hoehn and provided her with a newspaper page from The Bee in 1985 showing 141 photos of the Vietnam War dead from Sacramento County, including his brother.

“She thought I was just going to bring a few photos,” he said. “She was overwhelmed. She had tears in her eyes.”

Hoehn is still on the search for photos, including 23 in Sacramento County. To date, she has collected about 1,200 photos from multiple states over the past two years.

For Ernie Santos, the memory of Vietnam is very much alive in these artifacts. Eighteen years old at the time of his brother’s death, he received a draft notice a month later.

“I was scared. I was very afraid,” he said.

Ernie Santos said he narrowly missed the draft because his “lottery number was high.” He thinks about the fun times he could have had with his brother.

“The last three years before he died, I got close to him,” he said. “We started to go out and party. He was a player. He had lots of girlfriends.”

In the letters he wrote, Joseph Santos showed he didn’t forget about his family and longed to come back home. The draft period was two years, with 12 months in Vietnam followed by service in the United States.

“Tell Ernie to take it easy and stay away from the law,” Joseph Santos wrote their mother, Josephine Santos.

Ernie Santos said his brother feared for his life. Upon arriving in Vietnam, Joseph Santos wrote, “Well so far it doesn’t look like it’s going to be a picnic for me, but I’ll manage the best I can.”

As a result of The Bee’s article last year, Hoehn said she was able to persuade other newspapers in California to run similar stories and lists of names.

“Ernie was crucial to me even continuing because he gave me so many photos,” Hoehn said. “This was huge.”

“It was important to keep this for my mom,” Santos said of his collection of items honoring his brother. “So I can pass it onto the next generation.”

Call The Bee’s Richard Chang at (916) 321-1018. Follow him on Twitter @RichardYChang.

Missing photos of Vietnam veterans

The Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund seeks photos for its “Wall of Faces” honoring those who died in Vietnam. Twenty-three photos are still missing from Sacramento County. Those with photos of the following veterans can contact Janna Hoehn at (808) 879-5454 or neverforgotten2014@gmail.com.

Name

Birth

Death

Hometown

John Michael Acosta

1947

1968

Sacramento

Kenneth Eugene Aznoe

1950

1970

Sacramento

Gary Nolan Bass

1941

1966

Sacramento

George Henry Brewer

1947

1968

Sacramento

John Parm Carr III

1951

1971

Fair Oaks

Thomas James Daniels

1946

1967

Sacramento

Charles Edward Davis

1947

1968

Galt

Alger Edgar Durell Jr.

1946

1967

Fair Oaks

David Levant Felt

1946

1965

Sacramento

James R. Godwin

1941

1968

Sacramento

Jerry Lee Houser

1947

1967

Sacramento

John Richard Humphrey

1931

1966

Fair Oaks

Gerald C. Hunsbarger III

1947

1966

Sacramento

Richard J. Johnston

1947

1967

Sacramento

James C. Krouse

1931

1967

North Highlands

Chevo Garcia Lara

1943

1966

North Sacramento

Rodney Dean Martinez

1947

1967

Galt

David Leslie Palmer

1949

1970

North Highlands

Tamage Cecil Stevens Jr.

1948

1967

Sacramento

Dennis Ray Stewart

1948

1971

Sacramento

Marvin LeRoy Wagner

1947

1970

Elverta

Jackie Don Weatherly

1947

1967

Sacramento

Loy Neal Whaley

1947

1968

Sacramento

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