FARGO — Chester “Chet” Ovnand certainly had nothing to prove. In 1958, at the age of 44, he had retired from the United States Army after proudly serving in World War II and in Korea. He was living a comfortable life in Copperas Cove, Texas when something called him from Vietnam.
Before being a Texas man, Chet was the Minnesota-born son of a Norwegian-born carpenter. Maybe it was his Scandinavian sense of responsibility, but Ovnand had to be part of the fight. This would ultimately lead to tragic consequences, but also to 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 join the military. He was assigned to an eight-man U.S. 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 that despite her husband serving voluntarily in Vietnam, he was still homesick and eager to get home soon. With each letter he wrote to her, he counted the days.
On July 8, 1959, with 115 days remaining on his deployment, Ovnand dropped a letter in the mess mailbox. It would be his last.
According to a TIME magazine report from that night, after posting the letter, Ovnand and five others sat in the gray stucco dining room to watch a movie – “The Tattered Dress” starring Jeanne Crain. They set up the movie projector at home and settled down. for a night that, perhaps, made them feel a little closer to home.
But they wouldn’t arrive until the intermission.
“While engrossed in the first reel, six Communist terrorists (who had obviously surrounded the place well) slipped out of the darkness and surrounded the mess. Two placed a French MAT submachine gun in the rear window , two pushed cannons through the pantry screen, the other two went to the front of the building to cover the Vietnamese guard.When Sgt. Ovnand turned on the lights to change the first coil, the terrorists opened fire,” according to TIME.
When Sergeant Ovnand turned on the lights to change the first coil, the terrorists opened fire.
South Vietnam: Death at intermission – Time magazine, July 20, 1959
Ovnand and Maj. Dale Buis of Imperial Beach, Calif., fell and died within minutes of each other and became the first American soldiers to die in action in Vietnam. (It is unclear who died first, so they are both credited as “the first”.) Captain Howard Boston of Blairsburg, Iowa was seriously injured and two Vietnamese guardsmen were killed. Within minutes, Vietnamese troops arrived, but the rest of the assassins had already fled. Major 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 base instead of watching the film.
While Ovnand’s official military records 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 his younger sister Furleigh, moved to Adams, North Dakota, where Bert worked as a carpenter.
After her parents’ divorce, Ovnand and her 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 World War II broke out, Ovnand was working in retail. He enlisted in Milwaukee in 1942. After his service from 1942 to 1945, he then served in the Korean War from 1950 to 1953.
During his service and after his death in Vietnam, Ovnand received several honors and medals, including the Purple Heart, National Defense Service Medal, Vietnam Campaign Medal, Vietnam Service Medal, Citation of the Army Presidential Unit, the Vietnam Gallantry Cross, and Good Conduct of the Army. Medal.
A street in Fort Hood, Texas was also renamed Ovnand Boulevard.
All of this served as small consolation to his wife who learned of her husband’s death while sipping coffee and watching “Today.”
“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 only the second name, out of 58,000 in total, inscribed on Vietnam’s Memorial Wall. Buis is the first because the names are listed first according to chronological date of death and then alphabetically. However, Ovnand’s name is actually inscribed twice on the wall because it is misspelled on the first panel. Authorities corrected the error by putting it on a later sign.