By Samantha L. Quigley
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, July 8, 2009 – Bright blue skies above the National Mall today belied the solemnity of the ceremony commemorating the first two American combat casualties of the Vietnam War.
U.S. Army Master Sgt. Chester Ovnand and Maj. Dale Buis were the first two U.S. servicemembers killed in the Vietnam War. Their sacrifice was honored in Washington, D.C., Jyly 8, 2009, in a ceremony commemorating the 50th Anniversary of their deaths. DoD photo by U.S. Army Sgt. 1st Class Michael J. Carden
“On this date 50 years ago, two men lost their lives in a country that most of us here in the United States had never heard of at the time,” said Jan C. Scruggs, founder of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund. “The deaths of U.S. Army military advisors Maj. Dale Buis and Master Sgt. Chester Ovnand marked the beginning of a lengthy war, which became a very divisive event for our society.”
U.S. involvement in Vietnam ended in 1975. By then, the fighting had claimed the lives of more than 58,000 U.S. servicemembers and nearly 2 million Vietnamese.
Pulitzer Prize-winning author Stanley Karnow, a World War II veteran, was there from the beginning, covering Asia for Time and Life magazines. In July 1959, he happened to be in Saigon, then the capital of South Vietnam and now known as Ho Chi Minh City, when he heard about an incident at a South Vietnamese army camp in the small town of Bien Hoa, about 25 miles to the north.
After a taxi ride to the camp, he discovered two Americans had been killed in an ambush as they watched a movie during a break in their duties as part of the U.S. Military Assistance Advisory Group.
The movie, “The Tattered Dress,” was two reels long, and when Ovnand turned on the lights to change the reel, the enemy, who had surrounded the building and pushed gun muzzles through windows, opened fire.
Buis, 38, of California, had been in Bien Hoa just two days when he died in the hail of bullets. Ovnand, of Texas, was a hair’s breadth from retirement and exactly two months shy of his 45th birthday.
Army Capt. Howard Boston of Iowa was seriously wounded in the incident, and two Vietnamese guards were killed.
Karnow wrote in his Time article that if it hadn’t been for Army Maj. Jack Hellet of Baton Rouge, La., who turned the lights out again, all six Americans in the room might have died.
“I was quite astonished, but … I’d been around wars for awhile, so the idea of a couple of guys getting killed in a remote place that nobody’s ever heard of in America struck me as an interesting story,” Karnow told those gathered for today’s ceremony.
His dispatch to Time magazine ended up as a three-paragraph summary when the magazine was published, and as all Time stories were then, it was anonymous.
“It was just a minor incident in a faraway place. Here I was at the beginning of one of America’s longest wars,” Karnow said, noting that witnesses to history often don’t recognize it at the time.
“I have a lot of experience of being at historic occasions, which at the time they occurred, I did not know they were historic,” he said.
When Scruggs and his Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund were authorized by Congress in the late 1970s to build the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, the decision was made to list the casualties in chronological order. The question then became where to start.
Retired Army Col. Nathaniel P. Ward III, the advisory group’s chief of staff at the time of the Bien Hoa incident, took an active role in ensuring Buis and Ovnand were properly recognized as the first U.S. casualties.
Initially, the Defense Department was considering an Army captain killed in 1961 as the first name to be inscribed on The Wall, retired Army Capt. Nathaniel P. Ward IV said during the ceremony. That didn’t set well with his father, who had worked with Buis and Ovnand in Bien Hoa.
“[My father] petitioned for about a year, and they finally agreed to go with Major Buis and Sergeant Ovnand,” the younger Ward said.
Ovnand’s name appears on The Wall twice. The first time is on the first line of panel 1E, next to Buis’s name. It later was re-inscribed on panel 7E, Row 46 because of a misspelling in the original inscription.
The ceremony concluded with the playing of “Taps,” and the placing of a wreath at the apex of The Wall, below the names of the first two U.S. combat casualties of the Vietnam War.