By Rose L. Thayer
Killeen Daily Herald
In 1959, South Vietnam was a young democracy. President Dwight D. Eisenhower was hoping to keep the country stable and secure from communist North Vietnam by sending over American advisers, much like U.S. troops are doing today in Iraq.
Master Sgt. Chester "Chet" Ovnand, a 44-year-old resident of Copperas Cove, left the Army as a captain, then rejoined to help with efforts in Vietnam. On Oct. 26, 1958, he deployed to Bien Hoa, a small town 20 miles north of Saigon as part of an eight-man U.S. Military Assistance Advisory Group.
His wife, Mildred, director of the Service Club on Killeen Base, told People Magazine in 1984 that her husband was terribly homesick and wrote her every day. At the end of each letter, he would count down the days left until he would be back home.
On July 8, 1959, with 115 days left in his deployment, Ovnand mailed his last letter to his wife, dropping it in the mess hall mailbox before setting up the movie reel to watch Jeanne Crain in "The Tattered Dress."
As the first reel ended, Ovnand got up to change it. When he flipped on the lights, the men were ambushed by North Vietnamese machine gunners.
Ovnand and Maj. Dale Buis of Imperial Beach, Calif., who had arrived in Bien Hoa only two days before, were killed instantly. Two South Vietnamese soldiers also were killed and another American wounded.
Time Magazine wrote the headline, "Death at Intermission Time," over a story describing what were the first two American deaths of the more than 58,000 that were to follow in America's longest war.
The Ovnands had no children. Mildred lived out the rest of her life quietly in Copperas Cove. She worked at the Service Club until her eyesight went bad in 1968.
"I miss him every day," she told People Magazine. "I just regret the whole damn war. I hated every minute of it."
After Mildred died in 1987, the Ovnands' estate went to her cousin's son, John Sheridan, their last living relative in Denver.
Sheridan has held on to Ovnand's dogtags and Purple Heart, along with photos and newspaper clippings about him - all of which he has offered to donate to the proposed Education Center of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund in Washington, D.C., and is even willing to pay to have them restored.
The Education Center is designed to complement the wall memorial and to share knowledge about the Americans who died during Vietnam and are commemorated on the wall.
The nonprofit organization is collecting not only donations, but also information and photos of the names on the wall by reaching out to family, friends and anyone else who can help.
"It's a great idea," said Sheridan, who feels it's his duty to share Ovnand's history. "It's a way to allow people to talk about their relatives and let people know what happened. It's so important because we can learn from mistakes and try to prevent 58,000 soldiers' loss again."
While there are so many like Ovnand who have relatives willing and available to share information, there are even more men and women out there about whom nothing is known.
Of the 3,416 Texans who lost their lives during Vietnam, the fund has photos of only 875.
Pfc. Charles Pierce Sparks is one of those unknown men. He was 26 years old when he died in a plane crash over Vietnam in 1964. Sparks' home of record was Killeen, but there is no other information known about him at the fund. There are no photos or personal messages for Sparks on the online virtual wall - just those from strangers saying "thank you."
Information from Texas
Jay Kimbrough, volunteer state coordinator with the Education Center project, said they have been gathering information in Texas for about a year now, and the sheer size of the state is part of the challenge.
He works with Crosswind Communication to alert communities when the anniversary of one of their fallen soldiers is approaching, hoping people will see the name and spark a memory.
"We've had good response; of course, we'd like to be even better," Kimbrough said.
The fund also is working to raise money for the education center. It received approval from Congress to build the center in 2003, but members don't want to start until they have reached their fundraising goal of $85 million. About $20 million already has been collected. Until that time comes, they will continue to hunt for information.
"They're more than a name on the wall," Kimbrough said. "Every one of them had a life and a family and God knows what they might have been one day if they made it back, but they were willing to make the ultimate sacrifice."
One challenge in gathering information was brought about by the way the Army deployed soldiers during the Vietnam War. Richard Powell, historian for III Corps and Fort Hood, said that instead of deploying units together as is done for Iraq and Afghanistan, soldiers were trained and sent overseas as individual replacements were needed.
Fort Hood during the Vietnam War era
During the Vietnam War era, Fort Hood was used primarily for training and deploying soldiers. It had 37 units and detachments and sent 40,000 individual replacements for units in Vietnam.
"They would come here and get mobilized, and then they would link up with a unit once they got in country," Powell said.
For this reason, many soldiers served together for only days at a time, getting to know only nicknames and snippets of each other's lives.
Kimbrough said that many Vietnam War veterans who survived also find it important to honor their fallen comrades and make a connection with them.
"A lot of us wonder a lot of times why did we make it back, why us?" he said. "I think that's part of it to honor their memory forever and their families."
Kimbrough was himself wounded in Vietnam in 1967.
"I'm one of the lucky ones. I wouldn't have made it back if my platoon leader hadn't rescued me. But for the grace of God and the Marine who rescued me, my name would be on the wall. So I've got work to do for the names that are on the wall."
Thanks to the Internet, and the a virtual wall online, the fund has been able to round up many more information submissions.
"With today's technology, we can do so much more that we could, so now is the time to preserve their memory forever," Kimbrough said.
Through the virtual wall, online visitors can upload photos and leave messages. Many people leave memories of their friends or family. Others use it to seek out more information, and many family members even use it as a way to reach out to someone they lost many years ago.
The son of Capt. Charles David Allen Jr., who was from Killeen wrote: "Another year has passed without you being here to receive the traditional 'tie' or 'cologne' on Father's Day. ... All I have ever given you are flowers and flags."
To reach out to the Vietnam Veteran's Memorial Fund with information about service members who lost their lives during the Vietnam War, go to www.vvmf.org.
The Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund is looking for information about each of these men who lost their lives during the Vietnam War. All the information and photographs gathered will be on display at the Education Center the fund is working to build in Washington D.C. near the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.
Staff Sgt. Albert E. Sombelon (1930-66)
Staff Sgt. Arthur C. Aguirre (1928-67)
Capt. Charles D. Allen Jr. (1947-61)
Pfc. Charles P. Sparks (1938-64)
Maj. Floyd B. Spencer Jr. (1936-68)
Spc. 4 Jerry E. Maurer (1945-67)
Cpl. Lamar H. Temple (9146-67)
Staff Sgt. Norman C. Williams, Air Force (1931-65)
Sgt. Robert O. Wells (1949-69)
Spc. 4 Roy R. Booth (1947-67)
Spc. 4 Thomas G. Bernardy (1948-68)
From Fort Hood
1st Lt. James C. Tarkenton III (1941-67)
Staff Sgt. Albert C. Smith (9142-70)
Sgt. Billy R. Brown (1947-68)
Pfc. Carroll W. Perry (1947-67)
Pfc. James D. Wardlow, Marine Corps. (1946-68)
1st Lt. Thomas B. Sharp (1942-67)
Spc. 4 William W. Pierce (1944-66)
Spc. 4 Billy G. Insall (1946-68)
Pfc. Charles R. Labounty (1948-71)
Maj. Doyd D. O'Neal (1930-64)
Pfc. John C. Roberts (1943-68)
Staff Sgt. Robert B. Green, Air Force (1940-66)
From Copperas Cove
Capt. Anton W. Boroski (1930-69)
Master Sgt. Chester M. Ovnand (1914-69)
Sgt. 1st Class Herbert Koliba (1934-68)
Spc. 6 Paul B. Mckinley (1939-67)
Cpl. Sazin D. Fabacher (1949-70)
Contact Rose L. Thayer at firstname.lastname@example.org or (254) 501-7463. Follow her on Twitter on KDHreporter.