Names on the Wall

Good morning, it’s Monday, July 8, 2019. Sixty years ago today, a small continent of American soldiers anticipated an evening of R&R at a base camp in the town of Bien Hoa. Located 20 miles north of Saigon, the military outpost housed the South Vietnamese 7th Infantry Division as well as an eight-man detail of the little-known U.S. Military Assistance Advisory Group.

Officially, the United States was not involved militarily in Vietnam. But during his second term. President Dwight Eisenhower had authorized the deployment of small teams like this one to advise and assist the South Vietnamese military in their struggle against the Viet Cong — communist guerrillas launching increasingly violent hit-and-run attacks.

Most of the Americans sent over there in 1959 were seasoned combat veterans. Two of them, Maj. Dale Richard Buis and Master Sgt. Chester Melvin Ovnand, had seen action in Korea and World War II. So, they knew the danger. But it’s hard to keep your guard up 24 hours a day, as their fellow Americans were reminded 60 summers ago.

On July 8, 1959, Chet Ovnand wrote a letter to his wife back home in Copperas Cove, Texas, and dropped it off in the post mailbox. Dale Buis, who’d arrived in Vietnam recently, was still showing his new comrades photos of his three young sons, Kurt, Mark, and Lance. That night, Ovnand and Buis were two of the six men in the unit who gathered in the stucco mess hall for a showing of “The Tattered Dress,” a film noir starring Jeanne Crain.

When Sgt. Ovnand turned on the lights to change reels, Viet Cong attackers opened fire. Although the guerillas had been targeting South Vietnamese soldiers, government officials, and the mayors of rural villages, except for a single 1957 incident they had avoided engaging with Americans.

The gunfire and grenade explosion that pierced the humid summer night signaled a change in tactics. Stanley Karnow, a reporter covering Asia for Time-Life publications, was in Saigon that day in 1959 when he heard about the attack on Americans in Bien Hoa. A World War II veteran who would win a Pulitzer Prize for his comprehensive book about the region, Karnow went to the scene of the ambush. What he discovered after interviewing the survivors appeared in a news story published the following week.

Karnow used the word “terrorists” to describe the attackers, as did the U.S. Army. Certainly, the attack was terrifying: Six unarmed Americans take a break from their duties to watch a movie only to be ambushed on their own base.

Picture of “In the first murderous hail of bullets, Ovnand and Major Buis fell and died within minutes. Captain Howard Boston of Blairsburg, Iowa, was seriously wounded, and two Vietnamese guards were killed,” Karnow wrote. “Trapped in a crossfire, all six might have died had not Major Jack Hellet of Baton Rouge leaped across the room to turn out the lights — and had not one of the terrorists who tried to throw a homemade bomb into the room miscalculated and blown himself up instead. Within minutes Vietnamese troops arrived, but the rest of the assassins had already fled.”

In the ensuing years, other details have emerged about the attack, particularly about the brave reactions of the two slain servicemen. It was Ovnand, according to some accounts, who immediately doused the lights. After rushing to the window to ascertain where the shooting was coming from, Buis directed the other men upstairs to get their weapons. It was the last order he ever issued. Second later, he was killed by a bomb that had been planted near where he stood.

Dale Buis and Chet Ovnand have the distinction of being the first two names on The Wall, officially the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. At the 1982 dedication of that monument, their names were joined by 57,937 others. More have been added since, including two U.S. military men who died in Vietnam earlier. Today, 58,320 names are on the wall, as others have been added in the course of time, either because their deaths were discovered or as they died of their wounds.

For the Buis family, the Wall served as vindication for a cohort of men whose service was not venerated the way it should have been. On the occasion of the 25th anniversary of his father’s death, Kurt Buis expressed satisfaction that the country was “finally acknowledging that my dad’s life and all others were worth something.”

If anything, we realize that truism more with the passing of time.  Earlier this year, an American named Mark Gorlinsky posted a poignant note on the Dale Buis Find-a-Gave webpage. Mark Gorlinksy is a son of Victor Gorlinsky, one of the survivors of the Bien Hoa attack.

“Major Dale Buis made the ultimate sacrifice and saved his fellow soldiers, one of which was my dad, on July 8, 1959,” Mark wrote. “Words cannot express my sorrow for his loss. But I hope he knows how many lives he has touched.”

Carl M. Cannon
Washington Bureau chief, RealClearPolitics
@CarlCannon (Twitter)
ccannon@realclearpolitics.com

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