The first American killed in the Vietnam War was born in Minnesota and died watching a movie
Master Sgt. Chester Ovnand was born in Thief River Falls and also spent part of his childhood in Adams, North Dakota.
FARGO — Chester “Chet” Ovnand certainly had nothing to prove. In 1958 at the age of 44, he had retired from the U.S. Army after proudly serving in both World War II and Korea. He was living a comfortable life in Copperas Cove, Texas, when something called to him from Vietnam.
Before he was a Texas man, Chet was the Minnesota-born son of a Norwegian-born carpenter. Perhaps it was his Scandinavian sense of responsibility, but Ovnand had to be part of the fight. It would eventually lead to tragic consequences but also his place in history as the first American casualty of the Vietnam War.
While some middle-aged men decided Vietnam was a young man's battle, Ovnand opted to rejoin the army. He was assigned to an eight-man American Military Assistance Advisory Group sent to train South Vietnamese troops. He was stationed at a base camp in Bien Hoa, 20 miles northeast of Saigon, where trouble was brewing.
In a 1984 interview with People magazine, his wife Mildred said despite her husband voluntarily serving in Vietnam, he was still homesick and looking forward to coming home soon. With every letter he wrote to her, he would count down the days.
On July 8, 1959, with 115 days left in his deployment, Ovnand dropped a letter in the mess-hall mailbox. It would be his last.
According to a TIME magazine report from that night, after mailing the letter, Ovnand and five others sat down in the gray stucco mess hall to watch a movie — “The Tattered Dress" starring Jeanne Crain. They set up the home movie projector and settled in for a night that, perhaps, made them feel a little closer to home.
But they’d only make it to intermission.
“While they were absorbed in the first reel, six Communist terrorists (who obviously had cased the place well) crept out of the darkness and surrounded the mess hall. Two positioned a French MAT submachine gun in the rear window, two pushed gun muzzles through the pantry screen, the other two went to the front of the building to cover the Vietnamese guard. When Sgt. Ovnand snapped on the lights to change the first reel, the terrorists opened fire,” according to TIME.
When Sergeant Ovnand snapped on the lights to change the first reel, the terrorists opened fire.
Ovnand and Maj. Dale Buis of Imperial Beach, California, fell and died within minutes of each other and became the first U.S. soldiers to die in combat in Vietnam. (It's not clear who died first, so they are both credited as "the first.") Capt. Howard Boston of Blairsburg, Iowa, was seriously wounded, and two Vietnamese guards were killed. Within minutes Vietnamese troops arrived, but the rest of the assassins had already fled. Maj. Jack Hellet of Baton Rouge, Louisiana, escaped without injury. Two other officers in the unit were also safe, having chosen that night to play tennis on the base instead of watching the movie.
Who was Chester Ovnand?
While official military records of Ovnand list his home state as Texas, Ovnand began life in Minnesota. He was born to Engebret “Bert” and Mable Ovnand in Thief River Falls. When Chester was 6-years-old, in 1920, the family, which now included younger sister Furleigh, moved to Adams, North Dakota, where Bert worked as a carpenter.
Following his parents' divorce, Ovnand and his sister moved to Mankato, Minnesota, with their mother who, by 1930, had remarried. In 1937, Ovnand married Catherine Reynard. The couple would later divorce.
When WWII broke out, Ovnand was working in retail. He enlisted in Milwaukee in 1942. Following his service from 1942 to 1945, he later served in the Korean War from 1950 to 1953.
During his time in the service and after his death in Vietnam, Ovnand received several commendations and medals including the Purple Heart, National Defense Service Medal, Vietnam Campaign Medal, Vietnam Service Medal, Army Presidential Unit Citation, Vietnam Gallantry Cross and the Army Good Conduct Medal.
A street in Fort Hood, Texas, was also renamed Ovnand Boulevard.
All of it served as little consolation to his wife who learned about her husband’s death while sipping coffee and watching the "Today" show.
"I miss him every day," she told People magazine. "I just regret the whole damn war. I hated every minute of it."
Mildred died in 1987, just five years after her husband had the distinction of being just the second name, of 58,000 total, inscribed on the Vietnam Memorial Wall. Buis is the first because names are listed first according to chronological date of death and next alphabetically. However, Ovnand’s name is actually inscribed twice on the wall because it is misspelled on the first panel. Authorities remedied the mistake, by inscribing it on a later panel.