The First American Lost To The Vietnam War Was Betrayed By Another American Soldier

Photo Credits: Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund

The official start date of the Vietnam War varies depending on how you define the “start.” You may consider 1887 as the start of the Vietnam War when France colonized Vietnam and renamed it French Indochina, or 1946 when Ho Chi Minh began guerrilla warfare against the French. 1950 could also be the start to some when the US announced its assistance to the French. However, the US has long considered 1961 as the official date to count the war’s casualties.

For this reason, USAF Technical Sergeant Richard B. Fitzgibbon Jr., who was killed in Vietnam in 1956, was not counted as a casualty of the Vietnam War for decades. After his family lobbied for his death to be included in Vietnam’s death toll, the US agreed, moving the start date to November 1, 1955. This instantly made Fitzgibbon the first American to be killed in the Vietnam War.

Richard B. Fitzgibbon Jr.

Richard Fitzgibbons Jr
Photo Credit: Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund

Fitzgibbon was born on June 21 1920 in Massachusetts. He was a veteran of the Second World War, where he served with the US Navy. He left the Navy and joined the US Air Force, eventually becoming a Technical Sergeant.

Fitzgibbon was part of the Military Assistance Advisory Group in Vietnam, which was tasked with training South Vietnamese airmen.

On June 8 1956 Fitzgibbon was the crew chief onboard an aircraft when it came under fire. During this tense moment, Fitzgibbon ensured the aircraft’s shaky radio operator was doing his job properly, resulting in him giving the radio operator a reprimanding.

The radio operator was Staff Sergeant Edward C. Clarke. Later that evening Clarke, still disgruntled from the earlier incident, headed into Saigon for some drinks. Instead of relaxing him, the alcohol exacerbated his anger.

A heavily drunken Clarke saw Fitzgibbon in Saigon, giving out sweets to local children. Still enraged, he approached Fitzgibbon, pulled out his sidearm, and shot him. After he murdered Fitzgibbon, Clarke was involved in a shootout with Vietnamese police before attempting to escape. It was during this escape that Clarke, intentionally or not, fell to his death from a second-story balcony.

Despite being killed in Vietnam during hostilities, Fitzgibbon’s death was not counted as part of the conflict.

Classing Fitzgibbon as a Vietnam War casualty.

Fitzgibbon Shot In Vietnam - First Casualty of Vietnam War
Photo Credit: Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund

Fitzgibbon’s family was hit hard by his death, so much so that his son, Richard B. Fitzgibbon III, joined 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 Fitzgibbon Jr. and Fitzgibbon III were one of only three occasions where both a father and son were killed in the Vietnam War.

In 1988, Richard DelRossi, a relative of the Fitzgibbons, visited the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington D.C. He found the younger Fitzgibbon III on the wall containing the names of those killed in the war but was unable to find Fitzgibbon Jr.

This was because the wall only contained the names of those killed after 1961, the date considered the start of the war by the Department of Defense (DoD). After returning home and informing his family, including his mother, Fitzgibbon’s sister, they immediately began petitioning to have his name placed on the wall.

They tried for almost a decade without any success. But in 1997, the family happened to meet U.S. Representative Ed Markey while visiting the traveling scale replica of the wall. Markey, now a Senator, heard their story and believed they had been treated unfairly.

After investigating and also hitting bureaucratic obstacles, Markey finally achieved what the family had fought so desperately to achieve. The DoD changed its official start date of the Vietnam War to November 1, 1955.

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On Memorial Day in 1999, Fitzgibbon’s engraved name was unveiled in front of his family.

Since then, the names of Air Force Sgt. Richard Fitzgibbon Jr. and his son, Marine Lance Cpl. Richard Fitzgibbon III has been immortalized on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial wall.

Jesse Beckett

Jesse Beckett is one of the authors writing for WAR HISTORY ONLINE