Did you know the 1st Minnesotan killed in the Vietnam War was from both Moorhead and Grand Forks?
Bob Larson, a 1951 graduate of Oak Grove Lutheran School, died in the first U.S. Air Force plane crash in South Vietnam.
Editor’s note: On Sunday, Sept. 11, for the first time in the history of the Veterans Honor Flight of ND/MN, the majority of the veterans going on the trip to Washington, D.C., are those who served during the Vietnam era. Forum reporter Tracy Briggs is flying with the group. Find her reports on Inforum Sept. 11-13. Over the next two days, to mark the flight’s transition to serving Vietnam veterans, The Forum is taking a closer look at the first soldiers from Minnesota and North Dakota killed in the war. Today, a story about a Minnesota Air Force captain who was Grand Forks to the core.
MOORHEAD — With a tilt of his head and a shy smile, Bob Larson looks back from the second row of the weathered old basketball team photo. Standing a foot shorter than others on the team, Larson was, by no means, the star of that 1950 Grand Forks Central High squad. However, years later, he’d stand out for another reason — a tragic one. He would become the first Minnesotan killed in the Vietnam war.
Larson was one of three U.S. Air Force officers killed when their Fairchild C-123 Provider became the first USAF plane to be lost in Vietnam. It happened on Feb. 2, 1962, during the earliest years of what would become one of America’s longest wars. Despite Larson’s story being dramatic and noteworthy, many were unaware of his ties to our region, which included carefree days on the basketball court in the northern Red River Valley.
Life on the court
Bob Falos was a year behind Larson at Grand Forks Central. He played on the "B" squad in 1950 while Larson suited up with the varsity squad. But even 72 years later, Falos remembers good old number 46.
“We weren't close friends or anything, but I definitely remember him, " Falos said, "I remember him being a nice, pretty easygoing guy,”
He doesn’t recall Larson getting a lot of playing time, but that didn’t stop him from putting in the work. “He was kind of ‘Y’ rat,” Falos said, referring to teenagers who spent their days and nights practicing at the YMCA.
However, Larson wouldn’t get to play ball again with his Central teammates. Right after his junior year in 1950, his family moved to Moorhead. Just the year before, his older brother Clarence had become president of Oak Grove Lutheran School in Fargo. It was decided younger brother Bob would finish his education there. He and his mother, Anna, moved in with another brother, Elmer, an insurance agent who lived at 802 14th St. N. in Moorhead.
Larson seemed to embrace being the new kid at school, playing football, acting in the school play, working on the yearbook and picking up where he left off at Central, joining the Grover varsity basketball team. He was also part of the Edda Society which is similar to a speech club.
Larson seemed to do it all. And his adventures were about to get even bigger.
The Wild Blue Yonder
Following graduation from Oak Grove, Larson enlisted in the Air Force from Clay County, eventually working his way up to the rank of captain. He got married to a woman from Tennessee, and the couple had three children. By 1955, four years after Larson graduated from Oak Grove, America’s involvement in Vietnam escalated.
By early 1962, Captain Larson and his aircraft were assigned to Operation Ranch Hand, an effort to expose the roads and trails used by the Viet Cong, by dumping an estimated 19 million gallons of defoliating herbicides over 10% to 20% of Vietnam and parts of Laos.
The project started with Larson’s group in 1962 and carried on until 1971. The herbicide they most often used came to be known as Agent Orange — so named from the color of the containers it came in.
In later years, Agent Orange became highly controversial because of its long-term ecological impacts and the sometimes very serious impacts it had on the health of the soldiers who had been exposed to it.
Few details are known of the crash on Feb. 2, 1962. Larson's record on HonorStates.org says his death was recorded as: “Died through hostile action, air crash on land. Incident location: South Vietnam, Bien Hoa province.” For his service, Larson received several medals, including the Purple Heart.
Remembering Bob Larson
The bodies of Larson and his fellow officers were recovered. He was buried in North Carolina. According to a 1973 story from The Forum, his young family, including an infant son he had never met, resettled in California.
The fact that a man who was so tied to the Grand Forks and the Fargo-Moorhead region was the very first of the 1,070 Minnesotans killed in the Vietnam war doesn't appear to be common knowledge here. Everyone we spoke to, from former teammates to school officials, was surprised at the sad news.
We only discovered the fact after stumbling upon an old newspaper clipping in The Forum archives. But now that Larson's loss is known, maybe those who now walk the same high school hallways at Grand Forks Central or Oak Grove Lutheran or walk the streets of north Moorhead where he once lived, might give a thought to the nice, easygoing kid who loved basketball and sacrificed all.
Tomorrow, a closer look at the first North Dakotan to die in the Vietnam war including a nearly 50-year-old visit with his grieving parents.