The official start of the Vietnam War varies. Some view 1887 as the start, when France colonized Vietnam and renamed it French Indochina, or 1946, when Ho Chi Minh began his guerrilla warfare against the French. The US announced it’d be aiding France in 1950, which could also be viewed as the beginning. However, 1961 had long been the official start date, in terms of counting casualties. For this reason, Richard Fitzgibbon Jr., killed in 1956, wasn’t counted as a casualty of the war for decades.
After his family lobbied for his death to be included in the official death total, the US government agreed, moving the start date of the Vietnam War to November 1, 1955.
Richard Fitzgibbon Jr.’s untimely death
Richard Fitzgibbon Jr. was born on June 21, 1920 in Stoneham, Massachusetts. He was a veteran of World War II, serving with the US Navy. He subsequently left the service and joined the Air Force, becoming a technical sergeant. Not long after, he was sent to Vietnam with part of the Military Assistance Advisory Group (MAAG), tasked with training South Vietnamese airmen.
On June 8, 1956 Fitzgibbon Jr. was the crew chief onboard an aircraft that came under fire. During the tense moment, the airman ensured the radio operator continued to do his job, resulting in him giving the crew member a reprimanding. The radio operator was Staff Sgt. Edward C. Clarke.
Later that evening, Clarke, still disgruntled from what occurred in the air, traveled to Saigon for some drinks. Instead of relaxing him, the alcohol exacerbated his anger. Heavily intoxicated, he saw Fitzgibbon Jr. giving out sweets to local children. Still angry, he approached the airman, pulled out his sidearm and shot him.
After murdering Fitzgibbon Jr., Clarke was involved in a shootout with Vietnamese police, before attempting to escape. It was during this that Clarke, intentionally or not, fell to his death from a second-storey balcony.
Not classified as a casualty of the Vietnam War
Despite being killed in Vietnam during hostilities, Richard Fitzgibbon Jr.’s death wasn’t counted as part of the Vietnam War. His family was hit hard by the airman’s death, so much so that his son, Richard Fitzgibbon III, enlisted in the US Marine Corps and joined the fight in Vietnam. Tragically, he, too, was killed in 1965, after stepping onto a landmine.
The deaths of Richard Fitzgibbon Jr. and his son were one of only three occasions where both a father and their offspring were killed during the Vietnam War.
In 1988, Richard DelRossi, a relative of the Fitzgibbons, visited the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, DC. He found the younger man’s name on the wall listing those killed who had been killed in the war, but was unable to find Fitzgibbon Jr. This was because the memorial only contained the names of those killed after 1961, the date considered to be the start of the conflict by the Department of Defense.
Richard Fitzgibbon Jr.’s family advocates for a change
After returning home and informing his family, Richard DelRossi and his relatives began petitioning to have Richard Fitzgibbon Jr.’s name added to the wall. They tried for almost a decade, without any success. However, in 1997, the family happened to meet US Representative Ed Markey (D-MA) while visiting the traveling scale replica of the wall.
Markey, now a US Senator, heard their story and believed the family had been treated unfairly. After investigating and also hitting bureaucratic obstacles, he finally achieved what Fitzgibbon Jr.’s relatives had fought so desperately to achieve: the DoD changed the official start date of the Vietnam War to November 1, 1955, to reflect the date the MAAG was created.
On Memorial Day 1999, Tech. Sgt. Richard Fitzgibbon Jr.’s engraved name was unveiled, with his family in attendance.