The First to Die

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.    

Battleground Saigon — 1968

Background

The Tet Offensive of 1968 was a general uprising and major escalation of the Vietnam War.  It was one of the largest campaigns launched by the Viet Cong (VC) and North Vietnamese Army (NVA) targeting the Republic of Vietnam Army (ARVN) and the United States military forces.

Communist forces launched the Tet Offensive prematurely in the early morning hours of 31 January.  It was a well-coordinated, country-wide assault involving more than 80,000 communist troops.  They attacked more than 100 towns and cities, 36 of 44 provincial capitals, five of six autonomous cities, 72 of 245 district headquarters, and the capital in Saigon.

Communist leaders in the North Vietnamese capital of Hanoi decided to launch the offensive in the belief that it would trigger a popular uprising leading to the collapse of the South Vietnamese government.  Although the initial attacks stunned the allies, causing them a temporary loss of control over several cities, American and South Vietnamese forces quickly regrouped beat back the attacks, and inflicted heavy casualties on NVA/VC forces.  A popular uprising never occurred.

Earlier, on 15 December 1967, U.S. forces communicated their confidence in the South Vietnamese military forces by turning over to them the authority and responsibility for defending the capital city.  From that day forward, U.S. forces present in Saigon would only be responsible for defending themselves and their facilities within the confines of the capital city.

On the night of 30 January 1968, four South Vietnamese police (Cảnh Sát) posts provided an outer line of defense for the United States Embassy.  Two military policemen from the 716th Military Police Battalion, 18th Military Police Brigade, guarded the vehicle entrance on Mac Dinh Chi Street.  Two U.S. Marines of the Embassy’s Marine Security Guard stood post inside the Chancery Building: Sergeant Ronald W. Harper and Corporal George B. Zachuranic.  Another Marine stood post on the roof of the Chancery Building; his name was Sergeant Rudy A. Soto.

The Fight

Shortly after midnight on 31 January, Viet Cong (VC) sappers from the C-10 Sapper Battalion gathered at a VC safehouse in the rear of a car repair facility at 59 Phan Thanh Gian Street to receive their weapons and receive their final briefing before their planned assault.  Two of these men were employed by the U.S. Department of State.  Their orders were to seize the embassy grounds, break into the chancery building, and seize hostages.  The sappers were told that hundreds of anti-war and anti-government university students would converge on the embassy and stage a sit-down strike — thereby aiding the sappers in maintaining control of the Embassy.

Sappers approached the embassy in a truck with its lights off.  Cảnh Sát sighted the vehicle, but rather than acting they took cover.  As the vehicle off Mac Dinh Chi onto Thong Nhut the occupants opened fire on the military policemen guarding the vehicle gate.  U.S. Army Specialist-4 Charles L. Daniel and Private First Class William E. Sebast returned fire, closed, and locked the steel gate, and radioed that they were under attack.  Hearing the gunfire, Sergeant Ron Harper, who was at the rear of the Embassy, ran back through the rear door of the Chancery, across the lobby, past Corporal Zahuranic (who was in the process of calling for reinforcements), pulled a Vietnamese night watchman into the Embassy, and then closed and bolted the heavy teak doors to the Chancery.

The VC blew a hole in the perimeter wall at 0247 and gained access to the embassy compound.  Daniel and Sebast killed the first two VC through the breach.  Daniel radioed to his command that the VC were breaching the perimeter.  While on the radio, a VC armed with an automatic rifle emerged from the rear parking lot and killed Daniel and Sebast.  A second man carrying a rifle came around the building and the two men later determined to be the two employees of the State Department, joined the other VC on the front lawn.

On the Chancery roof, Sergeant Soto observed the VC coming through the wall and attempted to fire on them with his 12-gauge shotgun.  The weapon jammed.  He then emptied his .38 caliber revolver, but the fire was inaccurate from that distance.  Inside the Embassy grounds, the VC opened fire on the Chancery Building with automatic weapons and rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs).  Several RPGs penetrated the walls of the Chancery, wounding George Zahuranic and destroying two radios in the guard post.  Soto tried unsuccessfully to contact the lobby guard post and assumed that the Marines were dead or otherwise incapacitated.[1]

The Commanding Officer of the 716th MP Battalion, Lieutenant Colonel Gordon D. Rowe, received the distress call from the Embassy and dispatched several jeep patrols to investigate what was happening.  The first two vehicles took routes that passed through to the south of the rear vehicle gate, arriving at the base of an unfinished high-rise building — where the attacking VC had decided to shelter during the assault.  The VC destroyed these vehicles, killing two MPs and wounding three.  A third jeep reached the Embassy’s pedestrian gate without incident but was unaware of the situation.  VC gunners cut down Army Sergeant Johnnie B. Thomas and Specialist Owen E. Mebust as they exited their vehicle to investigate.

In addition to the three Marine Security Guards, there were two Vietnamese and six American civilians inside the Chancery building at the time of the assault.  The Americans armed themselves with .38 revolvers, Beretta pistols, and available M-12 shotguns — and then waited for the VC to enter the building.

Outside, the VC were unsure of their next move because MPs Daniel and Sebast had shot and killed the leaders of both sapper teams.  Together, the sapper teams had more than forty pounds of C-4 explosives and could have blown their way into the Chancery, had they thought of it.  Instead, they took up positions in or near the circular planters on the Embassy grounds and returned fire at the growing numbers of Americans shooting at them.

Major Robert J. O’Brien, USMC

Five blocks away from the U.S. Embassy, at “Marine House,” Captain Robert J. O’Brien received word of the attack from Corporal Dennis L. Ryan at around 0250.[2]  O’Brien mustered off-duty security guards, Sergeant Richard G. Frattarelli, Sergeant Patullo, Sergeant Raymond E. Reed, and Corporal Timothy P. Inemer, and headed for the Embassy.  Arriving at the Embassy, Captain O’Brien and his men immediately engaged the VC inside the compound but were driven to seek cover by the superior firepower of the enemy.  At around 0300, two civilian security officers (Mr. Crampsey and Mr. Furey) reinforced the Marine reaction force.  Attempts to shoot off the locks of the gates were unsuccessful in the darkness.

Meanwhile, according to Captain O’Brien’s after-action report, his reaction force and the two civilian security officers began receiving fire from the Cảnh Sát station 200 yards further distant from the Embassy.[3]  Cảnh Sát targeting U.S. Marines put the OIC out of communication with Marine House for about three and one-half hours until around 0630.

About 0300, Army MPs stopped O’Brien and Staff Sergeant Banks and their small team at the corner of Hai Ba Trung Street and Thong Nhut Boulevard near the Norodom Compound Gate.  O’Brien and Banks decided to split their force leaving one group at Norodom.  O’Brien led one group along the Embassy wall toward the main front entrance.  Enemy automatic weapons and RPGs drove them back toward Norodom Compound.  Remaining outside the compound, SSgt Banks integrated the Marines into existing firing positions.  He placed some of his men on the Consular section roof from where they could bring fire to bear on the Viet Cong inside the Embassy grounds.

About 0350, a group of about six or seven MPs arrived at Norodom and joined in the firefight with the Marine Security Guard.  At about this time, some of the Marine Security Guard had worked their way behind the Consular Buildings and found the rear gate by the maintenance shacks open.  Both Marine Security Guards and MPs tried to get into the Embassy Compound through this gate but were prevented from doing so by enemy automatic weapons and RPG fire from inside the Embassy compound.

The Norodom gate is where Sgt Jimerson was hit by enemy fire while trying to get through the gate.  The Viet Cong had this entrance covered from positions behind parked cars in the Embassy parking lot.  Sgt Jimerson was quickly evacuated to the 17th Field Hospital.  While this action was taking place other Marine Security Guards and MPs were exchanging fire with Viet Cong from the Norodom roof.

At around 0400, the VC fired several rockets at the Norodom roof, which injured Corporal Ryan, who was also evacuated to the hospital.  Corporal James C. Marshall, Corporal Wilson, and two Army MPs remained on the roof and continued to fire at the VC.  Marshall was hit with shrapnel from an RPG explosion but remained in place and continued to engage the enemy until killed by automatic weapons fire.

Sergeant Scheupfer, who remained at ground level, received a shrapnel wound to his hand.  O’Brien and Crampsey climbed onto the rooftops of buildings along the rear wall of the Embassy Compound facing the Mission Coordinator’s House.  From that position, O’Brien and Crampsey brought two or three VC under fire.  Meanwhile, an aide to Ambassador Ellsworth Bunker contacted the head of the Saigon Police and demanded reinforcements.  The officer commanding the first precinct (nearest the Embassy) blatantly refused to move his men in the darkness of the early morning.[4]

SSgt Banks notified GySgt Allen Morrison at the Marine House of the difficulty he was having in trying to gain entrance to the embassy.  Morrison advised Banks to hold in place until daylight when reinforcements and resupplies could be moved up.  This was a sound tactical decision.  By this time, Banks had learned from Harper that no Viet Cong had gotten inside the building, but Corporal Zahuranic was wounded.  Additional MPs began to arrive at the time and began taking up positions in the vacant lot across the street from the Embassy.

At 0420, General William Westmoreland, Commander, U.S. Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (COMUSMACV), ordered the 716th MP Battalion to clear the embassy as their first priority.  Colonel Rowe, lacking armored vehicles or helicopters, moved reinforcements by truck and jeep to cordon off the Embassy.  The tactical situation was confused and hampered by darkness and lack of communications between allied forces (Marines inside and outside of the Embassy, Marines with supporting Army MPs, Americans with Vietnamese police).  In any event, it was easier to locate a herd of unicorns than it was any presence of Cảnh Sát around or near the U.S. Embassy over the next 18 hours.

At 0500, a helicopter carrying troops from the 101st Airborne Division attempted a landing on the roof of the Embassy, but enemy fire drove it off.  An hour later, another helicopter landed on the roof of the Embassy, picked up Corporal Zahuranic, and dropped off three cases of M-16 ammunition.  Since the Marines didn’t have M-16s, the resupply was a wasted effort.

At dawn, MPs were able to shoot the locks off the Embassy gate on Thong Nhut Boulevard and ram open the gates with a motor vehicle.  Once the gate was open, Army MPs and Marine Security Guard reinforcements charged into the Embassy compound.  The second team of MPs stormed the rear parking area.  Within a few moments, all remaining VC were either killed or dying from gunshot wounds.  At about this time, a helicopter carrying troops from the 101st Airborne landed on the roof and began the task of clearing the building.

After the U.S. Embassy buildings and grounds were declared secure, General Westmoreland and his security detail arrived by car to inspect the grounds.  Ambassador Bunker directed that the Embassy reopen for business at mid-day.

(Continued next week)

Endnotes:

[1] Marine Security Guards were armed with either .38 caliber revolvers, 9mm pistols, or M-12 semi-automatic shotguns.  Handguns (or side arms) are not accurate beyond 20 yards and shotguns are “close-in” weapons.  While the Marines did return VC fire, their weapons were not suitable for a sustained firefight with men armed with AK-47 automatic rifles.

[2] Lieutenant Colonel Robert Joseph O’Brien (1931 – 2020) served in both the Korean and Vietnam wars.  He passed away on 23 January 2020, 52 years after the battle of the U.S. Embassy.  He was survived by his wife Joanne and three grown children.   

[3] O’Brien’s report may have been edited to avoid any allegation that Vietnamese police were in acting in accordance with Viet Cong sappers — but if two Embassy employees were involved with the sappers, it is not inconceivable that the police were also aiding the enemy.  

[4] Out of a contingent of 300 National Policemen in Saigon, only 25 reported for duty during the Tet Offensive.