Start Date of the Vietnam War

According to a footnote on Wikipedia, "In 1998 ... the start date of the Vietnam War according to the US government was officially changed to 1 November 1955" – this being the date on which the Vietnam Military Assistance Advisory Group (MAAG) was created.

This decision was taken after a high–level review by the Department of Defense and through the efforts of the family of Technical Sergeant Richard Bernard Fitzgibbon Jr., USAF (June 21, 1920 – June 8, 1956).

Fitzgibbon was the first American to lose his life in the conflict that would later be known as the Vietnam War. He was not killed in action, but was murdered by another American airman: Staff Sergeant Edward C. Clarke. On the day he was shot, Fitzgibbon had apparently reprimanded Clarke for an incident on a flight that day. When Clarke went off duty, he began drinking heavily in a club at the base. As he left the club, he saw Fitzgibbon across the street playing with some local children and giving out candy. Clarke drew his sidearm and shot Fitzgibbon several times. Clarke fled the scene and was chased by Vietnamese policemen, with whom he exchanged fire. During the pursuit, Clarke jumped or fell to his death from a second–storey balcony.

President Lyndon B. Johnson once named Army Security Agency technician James T. Davis, who died in a Viet Cong ambush near the village of Cau Xang on 22 December 1961, as "the first American killed in the resistance to aggression in Vietnam." Consequently the DoD department that handled the Vietnam Veterans Memorial originally started its database at 1 January 1961, and for 43 years the US government regarded Richard Fitzgibbon's death as too early to be classified as a Vietnam War casualty.

Fitzgibbon's family lobbied to have the date changed, and their cause was taken up by US Representative Ed Markey of Malden, Massachusetts. This led to the review referred to above, and the changing of the start date to 1 November 1955. Fitzgibbon's name was added to the Vietnam Memorial Wall in 1999.

The Memorial Wall, which was completed in 1982, stands near to the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC. It lists the names of the fallen in chronological order; the first two names are those of Major Dale R. Buis and Master Sergeant Chester M. Ovnand, who were killed on 8 July 1959 at Bien Hoa, 20 miles northeast of Saigon, when a detachment of Vietcong guerillas attacked the mess hall where they were watching a movie.

Richard Fitzgibbon is chronologically the first fatality to be recorded on the wall, but the first American fatality in Vietnam was actually Lt–Col Albert Peter Dewey. He was mistakenly shot during an ambush by Viet Minh troops on 26 September 26 1945, in the early aftermath of World War II.

Richard Fitzgibbon's son, Marine Lance Corporal Richard B. Fitzgibbon III, was also killed in the Vietnam War, on 7 September 1965. He was 21 years old.

© Haydn Thompson 2020