News Release

Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall

50th Anniversary Of The First American Combat Casualties Of The Vietnam War

02 July 2009

The Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund will commemorate the 50th anniversary of the first two American combat casualties of the Vietnam War with a special ceremony and wreath laying at The Wall on Wednesday, July 8, beginning at 10:30 a.m.

U.S. Army Master Sgt. Chester Ovnand and Maj. Dale Buis died on July 8, 1959, when their compound was attacked by North Vietnamese communists. Theirs are the first two names on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, occupying panel 1E, Row 1, at the apex of The Wall.

The July 8 ceremony will commemorate these first two lives lost during one of America’s longest and most divisive wars. Speakers at the event will include:
  • Stanley Karnow, a noted author and expert on the Vietnam War. In 1959, Karnow was in Saigon covering Asia for Time magazine, and he reported about the deaths of Ovnand and Buis from the scene. Karnow reported on the Vietnam War from 1959 throughout the 1960s and 1970s for Time and a number of other publications.
  • Capt. Nathaniel P. Ward IV, USA (Ret.), a Vietnam veteran whose father, Col. Nathaniel P. Ward III, was the chief of staff of the U.S. Army Military Assistance Advisory Group in Vietnam from 1958 to 1960. Col. Ward knew both Ovnand and Buis, who worked for him. His son, Capt. Ward, worked with the Mekong Education Foundation to locate relatives of the two men in the late 1990s and has met members of the Buis family.
  • Jan C. Scruggs, founder and president of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund, will serve as master of ceremonies.

A Military District of Washington Armed Forces Color Guard and a bugler from the U.S. Air Force Band will be in attendance to pay respects to Ovnand and Buis. In addition, representatives of the Wentworth Military Academy in Lexington, Mo., will attend the ceremony to honor their alumnus, Dale Buis.

The first of 58,261 casualties
Although in the end, the Vietnam War would span three decades and claim more than 58,000 lives, in the late 1950s, America’s involvement was minimal. Advisors had been sent to help the new Republic of South Vietnam protect itself from Communist foes, including North Vietnam.

In Bien Hoa, just a little north of Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City), eight advisors with the U.S. Military Assistance Advisory Group were helping the 7th Infantry Division of the South Vietnamese Army. These eight advisors included Master Sgt. Ovnand, a Texan who was finishing up his one-year tour of duty, and Maj. Buis, a Californian who had arrived just two days before.

Taking advantage of some down time, the Americans were pursuing various leisure activities in their residential compound. Six of the group decided to watch a movie: “The Tattered Dress,” starring Jeanne Crain. During an intermission, communist guerillas attacked, killing Ovnand and Buis and wounding one other.

First names on The Wall
Names on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial are arranged by casualty date, beginning with Buis and Ovnand in 1959. Their names are found at the intersection of the two sides of The Wall, in the middle, which is known as the apex, on the right side—Panel 1 East.* As the panels continue moving eastward, decreasing in size, they list in chronological order the names of those service members who were killed or remain since 1959. When the eastern arm of The Wall ends, the chronological list of names picks up again on the smallest point of the western side, progressing inward back toward the apex. The last casualties of the war are listed on the last, tallest panel on the western side, Panel 1 West.

As Memorial designer Maya Lin explained, “Thus the war’s beginning and end meet; the war is ‘complete,’ coming full-circle.”

Due to a misspelling of his name, Ovnand’s name was added again to The Wall, with the correct spelling, at Panel 7E, Row 46.

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