Winter 2010 | Volume 59, Issue 4
A magazine reporter covered the first American deaths in Vietnam, unaware that the soon-to-explode war would mark America’s awakening to maturity
On the evening of July 8, 1959, six of the eight American advisers stationed at a camp serving as the headquarters of a South Vietnamese army division 20 miles northeast of Saigon had settled down after supper in their mess to watch a movie, The Tattered Dress, starring Jeanne Crain. One of them had switched on the lights to change a reel when it happened. Guerrillas poked their weapons through the windows and raked the room with automatic fire—killing Maj. Dale R. Buis, M. Sgt. Chester M. Ovnand, two South Vietnamese guards, and an eight-year-old Vietnamese boy outright.
Buis and Ovnand were not the first U.S. soldiers killed in Vietnam. Lt. Col. A. Peter Dewey of the Office of Strategic Services had been mistakenly gunned down by a Viet Minh band outside Saigon as far back as September 1945. And a daredevil American pilot, Capt. James B. McGovern—nicknamed “Earthquake McGoon” after a character in the Li’l Abner comic strip—crashed to his death while flying supplies to the beleaguered French garrison at Dien Bien Phu in May 1954. But the two were the first to die during the Vietnam Era, the official U.S. euphemism for a war never formally declared.
At the time, I had just arrived in South Vietnam as chief correspondent for Time and Life magazines. Insurgents were just emerging to challenge the regime created there five years before, when an international conference held in Geneva had partitioned the country following the French defeat. The term Viet Cong, a pejorative label invented by the South Vietnamese government to brand the rebels as Communists, had not yet been conceived—and they were still known as the Viet Minh, the movement that had vanquished the French. Several hundred American military advisers had been assigned to train and equip the South Vietnamese army, but signs of serious trouble were rare. Then the guerrillas struck that camp near the sleepy town of Bien Hoa. I drove there the next day to gather the details.
My dispatch about the incident at Bien Hoa earned only a modest amount of space in Time —and deserved no more. For nobody could have imagined then that some three million Americans would serve in Vietnam—or that more than 58,000 were to perish in its jungles and rice fields.
Nor did I then, surveying the bullet-pocked villa at Bien Hoa, even remotely envision the holocaust that would devastate Vietnam during the subsequent 16 years of war. More than 4 million Vietnamese soldiers and civilians on both sides—roughly 10 percent of the entire population—were to be killed or wounded. Most of the South Vietnamese dead were interred in family plots. Traveling in the north of the country after the war, I observed neat rows of whitewashed slabs in every village cemetery, each bearing the inscription Liet si , “Hero.” But the tombs were empty; the bodies had been bulldozed into mass graves in the south, where they had fallen.
Two decades after Buis and Ovnand died, their names, along with the other 58,000 Americans who lost their lives in Vietnam, were etched on a memorial located within sight of the national monuments to Washington and Lincoln. The memorial, an angle of polished black stone subtly submerged within a gentle slope, is an artistic abstraction. Yet its simplicity dramatizes a grim reality. The names of the dead on the granite record more than lives lost in battle: they represent a sacrifice to a failed crusade, however noble or illusory its motives. In a larger sense they symbolize a faded hope—or perhaps the birth of a new awareness. They bear witness to the end of America’s absolute confidence in its moral exclusivity, its military invincibility, its manifest destiny. They are the price, paid in blood and sorrow, for America’s awakening to maturity, to the recognition of its limitations.