Even today, his reflection in the polished black granite in front of Panel 1E, Row 78 of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. still brings a chill.

He’s been to The Wall, visited the place on Hon Ba Mountain southwest of Nha Trang, Vietnam, where his father was killed, visited with members of his father’s old command, and tried to follow the journey of Green Beret Capt. Harry Griffith Cramer Jr., the first American to die in the Vietnam War (1957), as best he could.

Now Hank Cramer, who is not only the captain’s son, but also served with his father’s Special Forces unit in Asia three decades later, is ready to tell that story with his book “FIRST IN: US Green Berets in Vietnam, 1957.”

Hank Cramer, a former U.S. Army officer, historian, author and recipient of the prestigious Humanities Washington Award, delivered his presentation to an near capacity audience Wednesday night at the Kittitas County Historical Museum on the eve prior to the 75th anniversary of Allied troops storming the beaches of Normandy for the D-Day assault.

There won’t be an anniversary or remembrance celebrations to the Vietnam Era battles, but Hank, who’s a traveling folksinger and historian based in Winthrop, has a unique perspective on his father’s story.

“It all started as a way to get my father’s name on the wall,” he said. “Everybody thinks Kennedy was the first to send advisers into Vietnam (in 1961), but Eisenhower sent Special Forces in in 1957 to train Vietnamese troops. Dad’s mission was highly classified at the time and that’s why his name didn’t appear on the wall when it was first built. We had to work hard to get that changed.”

The Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO) was formed in 1955 to prevent Communist expansion. President Eisenhower sent some 700 military personnel as well military and economic aid to the government of South Vietnam. This effort was foundering when John F. Kennedy became president. Kennedy later authorized sending an additional 500 Special Forces troops and military advisers in May of 1961 to assist the pro-Western government of South Vietnam.

Hank Cramer’s book addresses that 1957 Special Forces mission through information he’s discovered through the Freedom of Information Act and the declassification of sensitive material released in recent years.

“The purpose of the book is to tell the untold story of the early days, five years before Vietnam was even on the radar,” said Cramer, whose father has a street at Fort Lewis named in his honor. “One other note worth mentioning is that it also addresses what might have happened if Eisenhower would have remained in command.

“It couldn’t get any worse I suppose, but Eisenhower had different ideals on how things should be handled.”

In 1957, Capt. Harry Cramer led the first team of Special Forces (Green Beret) advisers to South Vietnam to assist the development of the Vietnamese Army. This mission was highly classified at the time. The situation in Vietnam in the 1950s was much different from that of the 1960s, and Dwight Eisenhower’s strategy for dealing with it differed sharply from that of John Kennedy or Lyndon Johnson.

Capt. Cramer was killed in October 1957, becoming the first U.S. Army soldier to die in the war. Interestingly enough, Capt. Cramer’s Special Forces team included Command Sgt. Maj. Francis Ruddy, who would later remove the beret from his head and place it at President Kennedy’s gravesite in the late afternoon of Monday, Nov. 25, 1963.

“He gave us the beret,” Ruddy was later quoted to say, “and we thought it fitting to give one back to him.”

Capt. Cramer’s team also included Everett C. White (heavy weapons); Donald E. Stetson (senior radio operator); Bobby A. Newman (light weapons); Fred R. Williamson (communications chief); Henry S. Furst (operations/intelligence); Raymond E. LaBombard (guerrilla chief); Donald M. Reynolds (parachute rigger); and Chalmers Archer (medic).

“The book is about 60 percent complete,” said Hank, who served from 1996 to 2004 at posts ranging from the Philippines and Korea to Honduras and Panama, then finally Afghanistan. “I would say my military background helps in the research. I’ve talked with family members of Dad’s team. Some said I knew more about their father or husband than they did because they never talked about operations or Vietnam.”

While Americans give thanks to the memory of the fallen and the combined bravery of Allied troops 75 years after the D-Day assault, one man pushes forward to recognize and honor his father and those who served in southeast Asia in a war that saw 58,220 U.S. troops die before it was over.

When it was said and done, Hank and a Special Forces radio man from Ellensburg went to The Palace for a beer, cold beer and not that hot 33 beer they drank back in the day.


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