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The First and the Last Names on The Wall
By Derek Turner
War is a maddening thing.
The beginnings and endings are often hazy and the facts of the story lie at the mercy of the teller.
The Vietnam War is no different. Scholars debate about when the war really began and in many ways it has never ended. It’s still fought in the bodies and minds of the men who waged it all those decades ago. Little about it is concrete.
As we search for proper bookends to encapsulate the story of a generation at war, perhaps the best we can do is look at what is written in stone.
The wall at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington is 493 feet and 6 inches long, built of thick, polished black Bangalore granite. As many as 3 million people visit each year, according to some estimates, and they come for probably as many reasons.
There are the tourists who make the circuit of all the various monuments and landmarks in our nation’s capital. There are students on field trips, some solemn and curious, but some just happy to get out of class. There are the still-grieving family members who come to pay respects as they would at a cemetery, to leave mementos and make chalk renderings of a loved one’s name. And there are the Vietnam veterans, who come to recognize the sacrifice of their fellow warriors, wondering why their own names are not there, too.
Today, more than 58,000 names are engraved in the wall, and more were added in May. It’s unlikely that anyone who visits the memorial on a given day would have the time, the heart or the stomach to read and consider each one.
But there is a beginning. And there is an end.
Army Major Dale Buis’ name is etched into the granite half an inch tall, no bigger or smaller than any of the others. It is more notable, perhaps, only because his was the first name engraved into The Wall.
His name does not appear at either far end. Instead it’s nearly in the center. Buis can be found at the top middle of a slab designated Panel 1E. It stands near Panel 1W, which holds the name of the last to die in combat. The panels come together to form a point, linking the first and last together in enduring tribute.
The casual visitor might not immediately recognize that Buis’ name is the first. Nor did America recognize, on July 8, 1959—the day he was killed—that another long and bloody war lay in wait. The first Americans to die did not perish in a foxhole or beneath stars obscured by a jungle canopy.
On the last day of his life, in the moments before our nation’s history changed forever, Dale Buis was sitting around a rec center watching a movie called The Tattered Dress, starring Jeff Chandler.
Buis was in Vietnam by his own volition. He’d volunteered to join a small U.S. military advisory team attached to the South Vietnamese army, and he’d been in the village of Bien Hoa for only two days.
When the sound of exploding hand grenades rang out in the hall, Buis and others ran toward the sound. As they came through the door, Viet Cong guerrillas opened fire with machine guns. Buis died, as did Army Master Sergeant Chester Ovnand, whose name is second on the wall.
Kurt Buis was 8 years old the day his father died. Twenty-five years later, in an interview with People magazine, he described playing with his two younger brothers as the news reached their home in Imperial Beach, California.
A doctor arrived and gave his shaken mother a sedative. An aunt came and loaded the three boys into the car. They went for a ride and she gently told them that their father would not be coming home.
Kurt became the man of the house, even as a boy. In high school, he joined ROTC and kept his father’s medals pinned next to his own awards on a piece of crimson cloth. As the Vietnam War dragged on, Kurt tried twice to enlist. The Army refused him, for medical reasons, both times.
More names are added to the wall every year. The ceremony is held on Mother’s Day and the additions might be as simple as rectifying a clerical error or as heartbreaking as a veteran dying, all these years later, from a wound suffered during the war.
This year, 14 names were etched into the wall.
Though the memorial continues to grow and evolve, the last name on the wall still belongs to Air Force Second Lieutenant Richard Vandegeer, a pilot who died after his helicopter crashed on May 15, 1975, during the war’s final combat action.
Vandegeer was on a mission to rescue the crew of the SS Mayaguez, a merchant ship captured three days earlier off the coast of Cambodia by the Khmer Rouge. The ship had been taken to the island of Koh Tang.
As Vandegeer piloted his CH-53 helicopter toward the island, a wall of anti-aircraft fire knocked it from the sky, and it crashed toward the water with 26 men aboard. Though 13 were rescued at sea, the rest died, either upon impact or soon after.
Twenty years passed before Vandegeer’s remains were identified and another five passed before his funeral at Arlington National Cemetery. Folded American flags were presented to his parents and an Air Force helicopter flew over the ceremony.
It was fitting that Vandegeer finally returned home to American soil, because he spent his last weeks at war evacuating Americans as Saigon fell. By his estimate, he helped pull out close to 2,000 people.
In an audiotape recorded for a close friend shortly before Vandegeer’s death, and transcribed in Bernard Edelman’s book Dear America: Letters Home From Vietnam, he described the perilous mission in Saigon.
“I could tell you about how real the fear was that I felt, since from the time we crossed the Delta and made the run into Saigon, we were over enemy territory. We were being fired upon by anti-aircraft guns. The VC had commandeered Air America Hueys, and they were flying them around, which simply made for a very interesting chess game. I mean, it was bad.”
Vandegeer’s message also depicted a man who believed the worst was behind him. He admitted no particular feelings about the righteousness of the war, and allowed himself to look ahead into a future free of war and obligation.
“I can envision a small cottage someplace, with a lot of writing paper, and a dog, and a fireplace, and maybe enough money to give myself some Irish coffee now and then and entertain my two friends …
“I don’t think it will be too terribly long until we are together again.”
Richard Sandza received the message on the morning of May 15, 1975, the day his friend became the last American to die in combat during the Vietnam War.
–Derek Turner is a freelance writer and a former senior editor of On Patrol.
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