There are, unfortunately, lots of candidates for “the first American to die in Vietnam.” Each historian of the conflict has a different name, usually from the early 1960s and some that go back to the 1950s.
Historian Frederik Logevall, in his Pulitzer Prizing winning Embers of War, takes readers all the way back to 1945 for his first American killed in Vietnam, and the person he identifies was unusually accomplished.
He is Lieutenant Colonel Peter Dewey, a member of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the forerunner of the CIA. Dewey was the son of a Republican congressman and a graduate of Yale University, and his was record was unusually vivid. He had been a reporter for the Chicago Daily News in its Paris bureau and was in France during the German invasion in May 1940.
He left the newspaper and joined a contingent of the Polish Army fighting in France as an ambulance driver. With the French defeat, he escaped to Portugal.
Four years later, he parachuted into France behind enemy lines, leading a 10-man team for the OSS. He spent six weeks directly French underground operations of intelligence gathering and sabotage. During all of this time, he authored two books, one on the defeat of France by German forces. Dewey won several medals for his work in France.
In August 1945, he was assigned to lead an OSS unit into Indochina to help repatriate Allied POWs. The French were at the time trying to reestablish control over Vietnam and essentially at war with the nationalist Vietnamese, who were represented by Ho Chi Min and the Viet Minh. Dewey, to the consternation of the French and the British who were supporting the French in restoring their empire, had made contact with Ho and was beginning to work with him.
Dewey complained to the British commander about the harsh treatment the French were doling out to the Vietnamese — a complaint that fell on less than sympathetic ears. In fact, the British commander invited Dewey and the Americans to leave.
Dewey complied and on September 26, 1945 left to meet a plane that was coming from Thailand take him out. The plane was late, so Dewey decided to return to his headquarters for lunch. On the way, he saw some Vietnamese hiding in a ditch, and he yelled at them in French. Mistaking him for a French officer, they opened fire, and Dewey was struck in the head and killed instantly.
Ho Chi Minh reportedly sent a letter of condolence to U.S. President Harry Truman and ordered a search for his body, but the body was never recovered.
Dewey’s name was left off of the Vietnam Memorial Monument in Washington, D.C., because of a Pentagon ruling that the American part of the war began in 1955.
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