These Were The First Two Americans Killed in the Vietnam Conflict
Widespread attention towards U.S. involvement in Vietnam may not have hit many televisions and media outlets before 1965, but U.S. advisors were arriving, almost silently, in Southeast Asia.
The U.S. military advisory effort in Vietnam began in September 1950, when the United States Military Assistance Advisory Group (MAAG) was established to administer military aid and help train South Vietnam’s armed forces. That same year, President Truman authorized $15 million in aid to the French to support their military efforts in Indochina. The First Indochina War continued from 1946 until 1954, when the French were defeated by the Viet Minh at the Battle of Dien Bien Phu.
In July 1954, The Geneva Accords temporarily split Vietnam into North and South with the 17th parallel as the dividing line. The agreement also stipulated that elections were to be held within two years to unify Vietnam under a single democratic government, but the elections never happened. In 1955, Ngo Dinh Diem, a Western-educated Catholic favored by the U.S., would serve as the first president of South Vietnam. Ho Chi Minh would lead a communist state in the North. A trail was also in the midst of being constructed to help supply North Vietnamese forces, which would later be known as the Ho Chi Minh Trail.
On July 8, 1959, there was an attack on a MAAG compound in Bien Hoa, 20 miles northeast of Saigon, where the first two Americans were killed by hostile fire. The two men were U.S. Army Major Dale R. Buis and Master Sergeant Chester M. Ovnand. Both were advisors supporting the South Vietnamese in their fight against the North.
Buis and Ovnand are the first names inscribed on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C.
Pulitzer Prize-winning author Stanley Karnow, who worked for TIME and Life magazine at the time, recalls the incident. After arriving at the site, he discovered that the two Americans had been killed in an ambush while watching the film, The Tattered Dress, during a break in their duties.
Ovnand is said to have risen to turn on the lights to change the reel when the enemy surrounded and opened fire. The advisors were killed instantly.
Two Vietnamese guards were also killed.
Karnow recalls the attack being “the beginning of one of America’s longest wars,” though he did not recognize it at the time.
Dale Buis was 37 years old when he made the ultimate sacrifice. He had arrived at Bien Hoa just two days prior. He was a 1942 graduate of Wentworth Military Academy, one of 13 Wentworth graduates listed on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.
Chester Ovnand was from Copperas Cove, Texas and was exactly two months shy of his 45th birthday.
The names inscribed on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, also known as The Wall, are listed chronologically by date of death. Ovnand and Buis’ names are located at the apex of the memorial.
Ovnand’s name is inscribed twice. First on Panel 1E, Line 1, and then again on Panel 7E, Line 46 to rectify a spelling error.*
*To learn more about the process of adding a name to The Wall, click here.