- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 8, 2009


Few Americans have heard of Bien Hoa, but the Vietnam War started there 50 years ago today. At the time, 1,500 Americans were in South Vietnam, 300 of whom were military advisers. North Vietnam’s communist leadership decided it was time to bring the Americans into their ongoing conflict with Saigon. Viet Cong planners targeted the Green House, the American advisers’ residence at Bien Hoa. The attack was planned to coincide with the fifth anniversary of the administration of South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem.

At 7 p.m. on July 8, 1959, six Viet Cong guerrillas infiltrated the post wearing South Vietnamese uniforms, taking advantage of lax security during off-duty hours. It was movie night, and the lower floor of the Green House was dark. Six of the eight Americans based there were watching the 1957 drama “The Tattered Dress.” The other two were playing tennis. Four enemy troops took positions near the windows looking into the large main room, while two others snuck into the kitchen through a back door. One of them, Nguyen Van Hue, carried a half-kilogram bomb made from two milk cans welded together.

The lights went on suddenly while the VC were getting into position. Master Sgt. Chester Ovnand was changing reels on the projector. The guerrillas opened fire. Sgt. Ovnand, Maj. Dale R. Buis and Capt. Howard Boston were hit, and the rest scattered. The Americans were unarmed and could not return fire. Sgt. Ovnand crawled to the second floor, where he died of his wounds. Maj. Buis stumbled into the kitchen, where Nguyen Van Hue was getting ready to detonate his bomb. Startled, Nguyen Van Hue threw the bomb, which exploded, killing him and Maj. Buis. A South Vietnamese cook and his 8-year-old son also died in the blast. The other VC fled with minor wounds. The rest of the assault team withdrew, killing a South Vietnamese soldier along the way. The fight lasted just a few minutes.

Capt. Boston was choppered to Saigon and then flown to Clark Field Hospital in the Philippines. He survived, but Maj. Buis and Sgt. Ovnand became the first Americans to die in the Vietnam War. Their names can be found at the apex of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, on Panel 1E, Row 1, directly below the large engraved “1959.” A ceremony and wreath-laying will be held at the memorial today at 10:30 a.m., sponsored by the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund.

Bien Hoa was a minor engagement in a faraway land. Americans had been killed in Vietnam before that attack, but from the enemy’s point of view, Bien Hoa was the watershed, the declaration of war. The conflict would last 16 more years and take more than 58,000 American lives, a tragic sacrifice in a war that could have been won but wasn’t.

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