It was late October 1942. World War 2 was moving into North Africa, and American troops had just landed at Guadalcanal two months earlier. Back in Washington, D.C., in a hallway of the basement of what was then known as The District Building, Brig. Gen. Charles W. Kutz, appointed by President Franklin Roosevelt as Engineer Commissioner for the District of Columbia, stood among a crowd of D.C. government employees and dedicated a Roll of Honor listing the names of 829 D.C. government employees serving in the war.
As the war went on, names were added to the large glass plaque. By the end of the war, the names of 1,869 men and women were listed.
In 1959, 14 years after the war ended, District commissioners voted to approve $175 to have the honor roll updated, for what they assumed would be one final time. The Legend that hung over the plaque still read “those who are serving.” It was updated to read “those who served our country in World War II.”
The 6-foot-high glass plaque with gold leaf engraving remained as a testament to those brave men and women for generations.
Until the late 1990s, when the plaque disappeared.
Missing Plaque Honoring DC Veterans Found After Decades
In 1995, District leaders leased the building to the federal government, which set about a massive renovation of the historic building, which stands on Pennsylvania Avenue near the White House. It was during those renovations that the Roll of Honor and the 1,869 names it carried were torn down and discarded.
The only memory of or proof the plaque ever existed was a photo found by Bill Rice, a member of Friends of the DC Archives. Rice brought the picture to the attention of this reporter in 2010, after I had lead the effort to have the press room in the John A. Wilson Building rededicated in honor of Maurice Williams, the WHUR reporter killed in the building during the March 9, 1977 terrorist siege.
The plaque honoring Williams also was discarded during the federal renovations.
After scouring the building for weeks and asking anyone I could, Larry Cooper, a longtime Wilson Building employee found me in the sub-basement snooping around. I told him what I was looking for.
A week or so later, Cooper found me in the halls of the Wilson building and told me a janitor may have what I was looking for. He took me to a janitor's closet on the fifth floor of the building, directly across from the main Council chambers where I had spent countless hours over the years.
The two of us made our way through the paint cans and trash cans and ladders, and there in the corner were several large pieces of the plaque.
I walked down the hall to the office of the Chairman of the Council to tell him what we had found. Vince Gray, a lifelong Washingtonian who had worked in the Wilson building for years, knew immediately the significance of the find.
Along with Cooper, Chairman Gray and I carried out three large sections of the plaque. But all we could determine was that it was a list of names. There was no legend to explain their significance. Cooper and his staff secured the pieces for safekeeping.
In November 2010, Gray held a press conference and launched the “Chairman’s Challenge,” asking the public for help determining what the plaque represented and whose names appeared there. For the next several years, through several transitions in leadership in the Wilson Building, the plaque remained in limbo. People, including myself, had moved on or lost interest.
Or so it seemed.
Two years ago, Josh Gibson came on board at the D.C. Council as the new public information officer. He quickly earned a reputation for his witty tweets. He wasn’t tasked as an historian, but his love of the District and the Wilson Building lead him to want to solve the mystery.
Gibson pulled old blueprints of the building, but they provided no clues.
He began by sifting through old newspaper archives, but his searches for “D.C. government employee plaque” were dead-ends. It turned out the ever-changing English language was to blame.
“'Employees' was spelled differently in the 1940s,” Gibson explained. "But, when I searched 'District government employes' with one “E”, all of a sudden things started to pop.”
Gibson found articles from the Evening Star, The Washington Post and The Washington Times-Herald from 1942 and 1959 describing the dedication.
“It turns out this type of plaque was called a roll of honor,” Gibson discovered from the news reports. “It was installed in October 1942, mid-war, listing the District government employees who were serving in the war.”
With the date of the dedication, and knowing that is was called a roll of honor, Gibson had more to go on.
"That takes us to the commissioner's minutes. Back in the '40s, the District was run by three federally appointed commissioners," Gibson said.
Since those commissioners were federally appointed, all the records from those years are housed at the National Archives in Suitland, Maryland.
"With the dates of the newspaper articles, we knew which minutes to look in and those told us further information, the company where it was ordered from, the exact name of the material, the inscription on the plaque." Gibson said.
While the manufacturer was unable to provide the original purchase order, the commissioners' minutes did provide the inscription atop the plaque.
But Gibson wasn't satisfied. He called upon a former D.C. employee who was now with the federal government. Dan Tangherlini had worn many hats in the District government, but now was the head of the General Services Administration. The GSA had been in charge of the renovations of the Wilson building in the 1990s.
"Dan put me in touch with the photographer who took pre-construction photos for the GSA, and she was nice enough to give me all her negatives, more than a thousand." Gibson said. "Among the 1,000 pictures, there was one oblique picture of the plaque, but it was high enough quality we could zoom in and get additional information."
Now, Gibson had two pictures of the plaque, and he was able to determine beyond any doubt the plaque's meaning and history.
While nobody knows for sure how the plaque made its way from a wall on the ground floor to a janitor's closet on the fifth floor, Gibson has a theory that someone recognized its value as it was being discarded and set it aside.
"The contractors tried to take it down, damaged it and that’s how it ended up in the closet, where it remained for quite some time." He said.
Until the fall of 2010, 68 years after it had first been dedicated, when the chairman of the Council, a building employee and a reporter carried it out of that closet in pieces.
Today, the plaque is in about a dozen pieces, stored safely in a nondescript room in the Wilson Building, under the watchful and caring eye of Gibson.
But the mystery was not completely solved until a few weeks ago. While the majority of the plaque had been recovered and pieced back together like a jigsaw puzzle, a corner of the plaque was still missing. Also missing, three names.
Those missing pieces had Gibson back in the fifth-floor janitor's closet, down on his belly crawling through the dust bunnies. In the dark corner of the closet, he felt four small jagged pieces.
"They looked inconsequential," Gibson said, holding the pieces. "But when you place them back in the puzzle, they're three names of people who served our country who would have been forgotten."
"That was the literal last missing piece of the puzzle," he continued.
Today, Council Chairman Phil Mendelson announced plans to have the plaque restored, and on Veterans Day 2016, the plaque and the names it preserves will once again be back on the wall of the Wilson Building.
Gibson deservedly takes pride in the work he has done to solve the mystery and restore the plaque, but he says there is a lesson everyone can learn from the names on the plaque -- the names of men and women who, like D.C. residents today, have no vote on whether or not to go to war, but choose to serve their country like so many other Americans.
"The names represent every branch of the armed services, including the WAVES [Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service], the women's volunteer corps [and] men and women of all races," Gibson said. "It's a tribute to the diverse makeup of D.C. today."