Death in the Mess
July 8, 1959 - Today was the day the first two Americans died in the Vietnam War. The men were working with South Vietnamese troops as military advisors in a village called Bien Hoa, 20 miles northeast of Saigon.
Master Sergeant Chester Ovnand had just written a letter to his wife. He dropped the missive in a mailbox inside the mess hall. The room was darkened for a screening of the movie, The Tattered Dress. Also in the room was a Californian named Major Dale Buis. He had just arrived in Vietnam two days earlier. As the first reel ended, Ovnand hit the light switch. A hidden group of Viet Cong commandos had been waiting patiently for that moment. They opened up with a barrage of machine gun fire on the unarmed crowd.
Ovnand and Buis died almost instantly. Two Vietnamese guards were also killed. The whole audience would have been massacred if it had not been for a quick-thinking Major from Baton Rouge named Jack Hellet. He darted across the room and turned out the lights. Seconds later one of the attackers botched his toss of a homemade bomb and blew himself up.
Vietnamese troops soon arrived and the surviving assassins scattered.
Dale Buis and Chester Ovnand are the first of over 58,000 names on the Vietnam War Memorial. In the carving process Ovnand's name was misspelled and appears as "Ovnard."