Edges of The Wall

By Tim Trask

The date "1959" is engraved on the upper left hand corner of the first panel on the east side of The Wall. At the lower right corner of the first panel of the west side, we find the date "1975." When the memorial was finished, in 1982, some people expressed surprise at those dates. The Vietnam War, they thought, started in either 1964 or 1965 and ended in 1973 with the withdrawal of troops following the Paris Peace agreement that resulted in Nobel prizes for Henry Kissinger and Le Duc Tho. Thanks to the efforts of our own historians, nearly everyone on VWAR-L knows that the origins of the conflict go back much earlier in the century. The truth is, however, that 1959 and 1975 do not even begin to encompass the years of grief brought to American families by deaths in the Vietnam War.

On line 1 of the first panel on the east side of The Wall, two of the names are indeed those of soldiers killed in 1959. They are Chester N. Ovnard (MSGT, Army, from El Reno, Oklahoma) and Dale R. Buis (Major, Army, from Pender, Nebraska). Both of them were killed on July 8, 1959. But they weren't the first Americans killed in Viet Nam.

Harry G. Cramer was killed nearly two years before Ovnard and Buis, on October 21, 1957. His name doesn't appear on line 1 of the first panel, however; it appears on line 78. Cramer was a Captain in the Army from Johnstown, Pennsylvania. Johnstown's losses began in 1957 and didn't end until 1973, with the death of Kenneth Doyle Scaife on January 3rd. Scaife was an E2 in the Navy. Between 1957 and 1973, Johnstown lost 24 of its sons to the war. In 1970, the population of Johnstown was a bit over 42,000. The experiences of a couple of other cities will serve as a point of comparison. Haverhill, Massachusetts, the city I lived in during my junior-high and high-school years, is about the same size as Johnstown. Haverhill lost 8 sons. Brockton, Massachusetts, the city I live in now, had a population of 89,000 in 1970 and lost 15 soldiers, sailors, and Marines. Johnstown, in other words, lost people at about three times the normal rate.

The last death from the Vietnam War is more difficult to determine. Eleven hours before the ceasefire deadline, on January 27, 1973, Lieutenant Colonal William B. Nolde was listed as the last U.S. "combat death," but American military personnel continued to be killed in Viet Nam. More than two years after the peace agreement of 1973 went into effect, on April 30, 1975, the temporary president of South Viet Nam, General Duong Van "Big" Minh, turned the government over to the Communists. The remaining Americans had fled the day before, but American losses continued. On May 13, 1975, 25 Air Force lives were lost, and on May 15, 1975, another 18 Americans (14 Marines, 2 Navy, and 2 Air Force) were killed. At least one more soldier died in 1975: Jon O. Nacy, an Army PFC from Detroit who died on November 8, and he wasn't the last. On November 15, 1981, Major Eddie B. Story (Army) of Jonesboro, Tennessee was added to the list. And the names continue to be added to The Wall. There are those who will continue to die as a direct or indirect result of their war experience whose names are not yet listed and may never be. And there is the continuing pain of the families for whom the war has meant irrevocable grief and suffering that will continue.

When Harry Cramer was killed in 1957, Danny Marshall of Waverly, West Virginia had already been born, but he was just 7 months old--a baby who probably couldn't walk or talk. Danny may have been the last-born American killed in the Viet Nam War. When he died, along with the other 13 Marines on May 15, 1975, Captain Cramer had been dead for nearly 18 years. No American who was killed in Viet Nam was born after Harry Cramer was killed, but Danny came close.

How long does a war last? It lasts a lot longer than the dates that are usually assigned to it by the historians. When Harry Cramer was born, in 1926, Washington Carver Mable of Brenham, Texas was 22 years old. Yet Mable lived another ten years after Cramer was killed. Mable was killed in Viet Nam, also--in 1967. He was 63 years old. He'd lived through WWI, WWII, and Korea. His rank was PFC E-3. But even Mable wasn't the oldest soldier to die in Viet Nam, though he was very likely the oldest PFC. As far as I can tell, the honor of being the oldest soldier to die in Viet Nam goes to Master Sergeant Jimmie Ray Harrison, of DeKalb, IL, who was born on November 13, 1903 and died in Viet Nam on March 14, 1968. He was approaching 65 years of age--an old soldier who didn't seem content just to fade away. He was nearly 14 when my father was born, and my father was a college graduate before he was drafted in 1940--about a year before the U.S. had joined WWII. When Pearl Harbor was bombed, Jimmie Ray Harrison was 38 years old. He died in a war zone 27 years after the "date that will live in infamy." It's conceivable that Jimmie Ray could have been Danny Marshall's great grandfather (he was 54 when Danny was born), and while they couldn't have served at the same time, Danny and Jimmie Ray were killed in the same war.

Then there's the soldier whose age is not recorded. He's listed in at least one database as having been born on January 1, 1900. No one seems to know where he came from, either. His hometown is listed as "not known," and the closest information on him available is that he came from California. We know his service number, his branch, and his rank, but not much else. He's almost an unknown soldier. Oh yeah. We know one more thing about him--his name: Robert M. Bennet. And we know that he was killed in Viet Nam.

These names and numbers suggest some of the edges of the Vietnam conflict, but those edges are not nearly as distinct as the edges of other wars. Was it a real war? Who was responsible? When did it begin? The answer to that last question seems to depend on what you mean by "begin." When did it end? Again, the answer is not easy, but the addition of names since 1982 suggests that The Wall is still a work in progress. The better question seems to be "When will it end?"

Tim Trask
Veterans' Day, 1995

NOTE: Most of the information above was gleaned by my brother and me from two databases and not from an actual examination of The Vietnam Veterans Memorial; it is therefore subject to correction. Also, it doesn't include any mention of the women killed in the war, any of the American civilians, or the losses of Vietnamese lives on both sides of the conflict. These omissions do not mean that any of those lives do not count.