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SOUTH VIET NAM: Death at Intermission Time
Monday, Jul. 20, 1959
It was a quiet evening in the sleepy little town of Bien Hoa 20 miles north of Saigon, base camp for the South Vietnamese crack 7th Infantry Division and its eight-man U.S. Military Assistance Advisory Group. The presence of the Americans symbolized one of the main reasons why South Viet Nam, five years ago a new nation with little life expectancy, is still independent and free and getting stronger all the time—to the growing chagrin of Communists in neighboring North Viet Nam. Since the beginning of 1959, Communist infiltrators have stepped up their campaign of terrorism, assassinating an average of one South Vietnamese a day, frequently hammering lonely victims to death and then hanging their battered bodies in trees under a red flag. But not since 1957 had the Communists dared attack any Americans.
In the residential compound where the eight Americans lived in Bien Hoa, Master Sergeant Chester Ovnand finished a letter to his wife in Copperas Cove, Texas and dropped it in the mess-hall mailbox. Major Dale Buis of Imperial Beach, Calif, had arrived in Bien Hoa only two days before and was showing his new friends pictures of his three young sons. Two of the officers drifted off to play tennis; the other six men decided to watch a Jeanne Crain movie, The Tattered Dress, on their home projector in the grey stucco mess hall. While they were absorbed in the first reel, six Communist terrorists (who obviously had cased the place well) crept out of the darkness and surrounded the mess hall. Two positioned a French MAT submachine gun in the rear window, two pushed gun muzzles through the pantry screen, the other two went to the front of the building to cover the Vietnamese guard. When Sergeant Ovnand snapped on the lights to change the first reel, the terrorists opened fire.
In the first murderous hail of bullets, Ovnand and Major Buis fell and died within minutes. Captain Howard Boston of Blairsburg, Iowa was seriously wounded, and two Vietnamese guards were killed. Trapped in a crossfire, all six might have died had not Major Jack Hellet of Baton Rouge leaped across the room to turn out the lights—and had not one of the terrorists who tried to throw a homemade bomb into the room miscalculated and blown himself up instead. Within minutes Vietnamese troops arrived, but the rest of the assassins had already fled.
For Major Dale R. Buis, July 8 started out like any other summer day. As usual, he missed his family, and he wondered what his small son Kurt would be doing today. He thought about the Nebraska prairie, and how different that was from where he lived now, a new American military outpost on the edge of the jungle in Southeast Asia. But at least this afternoon was going to be special. It was to be R&R time, when the top brass brought a little bit of home to the men stationed so far from family and friends. Major Buis had been looking forward to watching a double feature at the rec hall. Officers and non-coms alike would gather together to watch a movie and forget about the heat and the jungle, and the unseen dangers hiding out there.
Major Buis had been stationed in Bien Hoa as part of the Military Assistance and Advisory Group, sent to South Vietnam by President Eisenhower to help train the Vietnamese Republican Army. Of course, everyone knew this wasn’t really a “republican” army at all, since it was common knowledge that the elections which had taken place 2 years earlier were a sham, used to consolidate the increasingly dictatorial authority of President Ngo Dinh Diem. But Diem’s corruption wasn't Major Buis's main concern. He believed there were greater geopolitical considerations at stake. He remembered how Communist China had sent millions of soldiers across the 38th parallel in Korea just a few years earlier. To Major Buis, similar Chinese aggression in Vietnam seemed a very real possibility. That threat gave his assignment an urgency not to be taken lightly.
Insurgent attacks against South Vietnamese forces had been increasing, both in number and in effectiveness. In the past year there were more and more indications that North Vietnamese army regulars had been transporting war materiel through neighboring Laos and Cambodia, supplying insurgent guerillas with state of the art ammunition made in the Soviet Union. Some had even given a name to the covert route through Laos: the Ho Chi Minh Trail, named for the aged, but charismatic Communist leader whose strength and popularity seemed to increase in direct proportion to American efforts to contain him. So strong had the guerrilla insurgents grown as a result of their new weapons, that they had started making bold attacks on American advisors, including those stationed at Bien Hoa.
But today had been quiet so far. When the Americans gathered to watch the movies, few thought to bring their weapons along. They rarely felt the need to have them nearby, and they certainly didn’t this afternoon. It was R&R time.
The first film of the double feature ended, and the projectionist was loading the second reel. The next film was to be “The Tattered Dress’, a murder mystery starring the lovely Jeanne Crain and Jeff Chandler. Just before the movie was to start, Major Buis and the others in the room heard gun shots outside. Insurgents had opened fire on the South Vietnamese guards along the camp perimeter.
Major Buis was one of the more experienced men at Bien Hoa. Several of the soldiers instinctively ducked under their chairs, seeking protection from random bullets. Not Major Buis. He ran to the window to evaluate the situation. Was this a small scale sniper attack, or was it a full scale battle? He ordered the other soldiers to rush upstairs to gather their weapons. Major Buis had no idea a time bomb had been planted near the rec room window, just a few feet from where he now stood. Perhaps one of the insurgents had snuck into the camp the previous night to position the bomb. Maybe one of the South Vietnamese guards was actually a Communist sympathizer, or a nationalist fueled with rage at the foreigners in his midst. No one knows who planted the bomb. When it exploded, Major Buis was still there, and it took off most of his head, killing him instantly.
Major Dale R. Buis died on July 8, 1959, exactly 49 years ago. He was 37 years old. His is the first name on the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington D.C. Panel 1, number 1. There are 58, 177 names after his.
Vietnam Wall Panel coords 01E 001