Private Ruben Bell Jr. has a name, a rank, a hometown, five service medals and several living family members. For 50 years, though, he has remained a ghost.
Bell enlisted in the Marine Corps in July 1967, when he was 19, and arrived in Vietnam that December, assigned to George Company, Second Battalion. The day after Christmas, he was critically wounded in his left arm and both legs. Nine days later, he died.
He is buried in St. Petersburg.
Little else is known about his short life and shorter military career. As of this week, he was one of just four of Floridaís 1,957 Vietnam casualties with no known photograph.
The Wall of Faces project, started in 2006, is trying to find a picture of every U.S. serviceman and woman who died in Vietnam, complementing the 58,318 names on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. Including the four in Florida, 2,170 are still missing photos.
The project is a mammoth task. While everyone who served in Vietnam had his or her photo taken at some point, Department of Defense files donít include pictures.
"There was no way to gather, say, a third of the pictures [at once]," said Tim Tetz, director of outreach at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund. "Every single picture had to be gathered individually."
Veterans organizations across the country have made big inroads over the last two years, by searching newspaper files, old yearbooks and reaching out to families. Twenty-eight states have every face accounted for, Tetz said.
Eventually, the photos will be displayed on a two-story screen at an education center to be built near the memorial wall. For now, the collection exists as a virtual wall online. Many of the images are of young men in uniform, betraying little emotion. Others are shown at ease ó on holiday, hugging a loved one, grinning for their school pictures.
"Pictures we love are guys on surfboards or with family or loved ones," Tetz said. "These are the pictures that explain to the viewer that these people who died in Vietnam had the same hopes and dreams that you and I have."
Bellís body was brought home soon after he died. A funeral was held in St. Petersburg on Jan. 13, 1968. A brief obituary in the then-St. Petersburg Times named his grandmother and an aunt, now deceased, but no parents or siblings. Funeral home records listed other friends or next of kin, but the names that were traceable turned up nothing. The Times spoke to several of Bellís distant relatives. None had a photograph or any information about him. Some didnít even recognize his name.
A search for a fuller obituary in the Weekly Challenger, the African-American newspaper in St. Petersburg, also proved fruitless. The paper only had editions back to 1970. The St. Petersburg library system didnít keep any at all.
Bellís name and picture arenít listed in the 1967 Gibbs High School yearbook.
His only tangible legacy is a gravestone. He was laid to rest in Lincoln Cemetery, a burial ground for black residents of St. Petersburg through segregation. Many graves at the front of the cemetery are neat and well-tended, surrounded by cut grass. Bell lies near the back, under an oak tree, in a cluster of other graves, some markers cracked and damaged.
On Friday, one of the first inquiries the Times made ó a request to the National Personnel Records Center for Bellís military service record ó came back. It provided a little more information: that Bell was born in Miami, that he earned a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star for valor in Vietnam. "His exceptional ability to search out and close with the enemy inspired his fellow Marines to greater efforts," the commendation said.
On the last page, almost as an afterthought, is a grainy, passport-sized photo of a young man. All that is visible is his face and a board confirming his serial number. It is nobodyís idea of a perfect picture, but at least Ruben Bell is no longer a ghost.
Senior news reseacher Caryn Baird and military reporter Howard Altman contributed to this story. Contact Michael Wright at [email protected]