These Were The First Two Americans Killed in the Vietnam Conflict
Escalation and widespread attention towards the conflict in Vietnam may not have hit many televisions and media outlets before 1965, but American advisors were arriving, almost silently, in Southeast Asia.
In 1959, Vietnam was divided into South and North, with different regimes trying to retain control. Ngô Đình Diệm and Ho Chi Minh were two leaders with power and a willingness to indoctrinate their people. While Diem held power over the South, the North began sending enemy forces, known as the Viet Cong, to impact his government. A trail was also in the midst of being constructed to help supply Viet Cong forces in the South, which would later be known as the Ho Chi Minh Trail.
Communism was spreading, and U.S. involvement came in support of the Military Assistance Advisory Group (MAAG). MAAG offered military aid and training to the South. In the spring of 1959, U.S. service members were authorized to accompany the South Vietnamese Army missions, “provided they do not become involved in actual combat.”
In July of the same year year, President Diệm created a program to concentrate the people of South Vietnam. People in rural areas were to stay together in compounds, where they could be protected by South Vietnamese forces. One of the compounds was tragically attacked on July 8th.
On July 8th, there was an attack on a compound about 20 miles outside Bien Hoa, where the first two Americans were killed. The two men were 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 when he made the ultimate sacrifice. He had arrived in Vietnam just two days prior. He was a 1942 graduate of Wentworth Military Academy, one of 13 Wentworth graduates listed at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.
Chester Ovnand was from Copperas Cove, Texas and was exactly two months shy of his 45th birthday. Little has been said about Ovnand, however, it is known that he was married.
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, and then again on 7E, 46 to rectify a spelling error.*
What impact do you think the deaths of these servicemen had on the United States’ involvement in Vietnam?
*New names are added to The Wall every year to fix mistakes and clerical errors.