Is it appropriate to argue and jockey for position in announcing the name of the first serviceman to die in Vietnam? This controversy has been going on now for far too long, but families continue to rush forward to have their relative named as the first to die in America’s most unpopular war. The problem is some confusion about what it is we’re talking about. Do we mean to recognize the first serviceman killed in the Vietnam War? Or do we mean the first serviceman killed in Vietnam? Or do we mean the name of the first serviceman killed while engaged in combat?
Does it even matter?
Lieutenant Colonel Albert P. Dewey, U.S. Army, was killed by Viet Minh insurgents on 26 September 1945.
Technical Sergeant Richard B. Fitzgibbons, Jr., was killed in Saigon, South Vietnam on 8 June 1956 — shot and killed by a fellow airman during off-duty hours.
Captain Harry Griffith, U.S. Army (Special Forces) was killed at Nha Trang, South Vietnam on 21 October 1957, the result of a training accident.
Major Dale R. Buis and Master Sergeant Chester C. Ovnand of the U.S. Army, were both killed at Bien Hoa Air Base when the officer’s mess was attacked by Viet Cong sappers on 8 July 1959.
Specialist Fourth Class James T. Davis, U.S. Army was killed in a Viet Cong ambush on 22 December 1961.
Richard B. Fitzgibbon, Jr., was born in Stoneham, Massachusetts on 21 June 1920. During World War II, Fitzgibbon served with the U.S. Navy, but after his discharge, he opted to join the newly created U.S. Air Force. In the Air Force, Fitzgibbon was promoted to Technical Sergeant (E-6). At the time of his demise, he was assigned to duty with the U.S. Military Assistance Advisory Group (MAAG) while attached to Detachment One, 1173rd Foreign Mission Squadron. Fitzgibbon was involved in the training of Vietnamese Air Force Personnel.
The official date for the beginning of the Vietnam War, 1 January 1961, was officially announced by Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson who, at the same time identified Specialist Davis as the first American serviceman killed in that war.
Believing that she had discovered a grievous error, the sister of Fitzgibbons, Ms. Alice Fitzgibbon Rose Del Rossi promptly notified the Department of Defense of its error, bringing to their attention her brother’s death in 1956. Ah, but the Vice President had already spoken and Johnson was not a man who liked anyone to correct him about anything. Ms. Del Rossi then petitioned her congressman who asked the DoD to reconsider the beginning of the Vietnam War. Until then, hardly anyone even knew about Technical Sergeant Fitzgibbons.
After a high-level review by the Defense Department, the start date of the Vietnam War was changed to 1 November 1955, which was the creation date of the U.S. Military Advisory Assistance Group, Vietnam (MAAGV). This date change resulted in the proposition that (at least chronologically), Sergeant Fitzgibbons was the first American serviceman to die in the Vietnam War — and his name was added to the Vietnam Wall. Fitzgibbons, however, was not the first combat death in Vietnam, nor even the first to die in wartime Vietnam. Colonel Dewey owns that plank.
The story of the Fitzgibbon family in Vietnam isn’t over. Lance Corporal Richard B. Fitzgibbon III, U.S. Marine Corps (1944 – 1965) was killed while serving in Vietnam on 7 September. Father and son are interred next to each other at the Blue Hill Cemetery in Braintree, Massachusetts.
And The Last …
Corporal Charles McMahon from Woburn, Massachusetts, and Lance Corporal Darwin Lee Judge from Marshalltown, Iowa, were both serving with the Marine Corps Security Guard, U.S. Embassy, Republic of Vietnam (Saigon) on 29 April 1975 (the day the Vietnam government collapsed) when they were killed by a North Vietnamese Army (NVA) rocket attack on the embassy. At the time of McMahon’s death, he had served in Vietnam for less than thirty days; he was 21 years old. Lance Corporal Judge had served in Vietnam for less than 60 days; he was only 19 years old.
The remains of these two Marines were transferred to the Saigon Adventist Hospital near Ton Son Nhut Air Base, pursuant to the procedures outlined by the State Department, but with the collapse of the South Vietnamese government and the rapid evacuation of the U.S. Embassy, their bodies were left behind during the withdrawal.
It was a year before their bodies could be returned to the United States, and only then because of the intervention of Senator Edward M. Kennedy (D-MA). Corporal Judge was buried with full military honors in his hometown, however, no one from the American news media covered the burial ceremony. I have no information about the burial ceremony of Charles McMahon. The Vietnam War was never very popular and it was probably too much trouble to report these sad events in the press.
McMahon and Judge were the last U.S. Servicemen to die in Vietnam; they were not the last young men to die in the Vietnam War. The term “Vietnam War” includes the U.S. involvement in the so-called Mayaguez Incident, which resulted in another 18 Americans killed in the line of duty (and forsaken by their countrymen). See also: Mayaguez: Crisis in Command.