First Americans killed in Vietnam honored 50 years later
WASHINGTON — It was July 1959 and Stanley Karnow, Time magazine's chief correspondent in Asia, was on his first trip to Saigon when he heard about an attack at an Army base about 20 miles north of the city.
Six northern Vietnamese had attacked the Army's residential compound in the town of Bien Hoa, killing two American men while they watched a movie on a home projector. Karnow wrote three paragraphs about it for Time.
"It was a minor incident in a faraway place," said Karnow, who reported from southeast Asia from 1959 to the early 1970s. "Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine that these two guys would be the first in a memorial to 50,000-some others."
On Wednesday, those guys — U.S. Army Maj. Dale Buis and Master Sgt. Chester Ovnand — were remembered on the 50th anniversary of their deaths during a special ceremony near the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. An armed services color guard marched and a bugler played "Taps" on a hill overlooking the memorial wall, where Buis' name is listed first, followed by Ovnand's, in panel 1E, Row 1, at the wall's apex.
"Today we are here to reflect and honor the individuals who paid the supreme sacrifice for our country," said Jan Scruggs, president and founder of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund, a nonprofit authorized by Congress in 1980 to build the memorial.
Scruggs said the group began organizing Wednesday's ceremony just three weeks ago. "We thought it would be a really good idea to remind people of this first tragedy among many deaths that followed from the Vietnam War," he said, adding that he hoped people would pause to remember servicemen and women killed in combat, as well as those at war now.
More than 58,000 Americans and some 1.5 million Vietnamese were killed during the Vietnam War.
According to Karnow's 1959 Time article, Ovnand, of Texas, had just mailed a letter to his wife and Buis, who was from California, was showing off pictures of his three sons. They were two of eight men who lived at the compound, and among the six who took a break in the mess hall that July 8 to watch "The Tattered Dress," starring Jeanne Crain.
The soldiers were sprayed with bullets by "terrorists" when Ovnand turned on the lights to change the home projector's first reel, Karnow wrote.
Ovnand was just a month away from finishing up his yearlong tour of duty, according to Nathaniel Ward IV of San Diego, a retired Army captain whose father was chief of staff of the U.S. Army Military Assistance Advisory Group in Vietnam. Ward was 17 at the time of the Bien Hoa attack and remembers his father changing into his fatigues to rush to the outpost that had been ambushed.
Ward and others said little is known about Ovnand, except that he was married when he died at 44.
Buis was originally from Nebraska, but was living in California before he went to Vietnam. He was a 1942 graduate of Wentworth Military Academy in Lexington, Mo., and is one of 13 Wentworth graduates listed at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.
Buis arrived in Vietnam just two days before he was killed at 37, leaving behind a wife and three young sons. Ward, who in the mid-1980s tried to locate relatives of Ovnand and Buis, said only one of Buis' sons is alive today and lives in San Diego.
On Wednesday, a wreath of daises, lilies and irises was laid at the memorial wall under the year 1959, where Buis and Ovnand's names appear. Mementos propped against the wall included a plaque commemorating the 50th anniversary of their deaths, a red Wentworth Military Academy flag and a copy of a story in the Pacific Stars and Stripes, with the banner headline: "2 Americans Killed by Saigon Terrorist."
"They became a part of history," Ward said of the fallen soldiers, "when they never intended to."
See Stripes' July 11, 1959 front page with the story about the two soldiers' deaths here.