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North Dakota's first Vietnam War fatality died helping others, and a national magazine took notice

Virgil Greaney was killed by a Viet Cong terrorist while helping a village install a water supply. Years later, his family struggled to understand what happened

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Maj. Virgil Greaney was the first North Dakotan to die in the Vietnam war.
Forum archives
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Editor’s note: On Sunday, Sept.11, for the first time in the history of the Veterans Honor Flight of ND/MN, the majority of the veterans going on the trip to Washington, D.C., are those who served during the Vietnam era. Forum reporter Tracy Briggs is flying with the group. Find her reports on InForum Sept. 11-13.  The Forum is taking a closer look at the first soldiers from Minnesota and North Dakota killed in the war. Today, we bring you a story about Major Virgil Greaney, North Dakota’s first fatality. 

RUGBY, N.D. — If you make a special trip to Rugby or are just passing through, you can't miss it — the town's claim to fame. It's right there emblazoned on the 21-foot-high, 6-foot-wide monument set on a heart-shaped foundation. 

"Geographic Center of North America - Rugby, ND"

It's a popular tourist spot for those looking to experience what it feels like to be dead center between Canada, the U.S., and Mexico.

But sadly, Rugby holds another distinction — one of its hometown boys was the first North Dakotan to be killed in the Vietnam War.

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When I did my research and found out about Rugby native Major Virgil R. Greaney's death by a Viet Cong terrorist on Sept. 25, 1964, I set out to write a story about him because he was the first of 199 North Dakotans to die in the war. I did a similar story for t he first Minnesotan who was killed in the war, Bob Larson of Moorhead.

But upon my research in the Forum archives, I found another reporter, almost 50 years ago, beat me to the punch. In the spring of 1966, Forum writer and photographer Cal Olson was sent to Vietnam to cover the war. He set out to learn more about the growing conflict and maybe even find some "big answers" about the fight.

He left Fargo right after the infamous blizzard of ‘66 to spend four weeks in a hot, humid war zone half a world away.

He interviewed local troops to see what life was like for them in places like Nha Trang and Bien Hoa and he wanted to introduce Upper Midwesterners to the people and culture of Vietnam, one newspaper page at a time.

The stories I read were riveting, but also as a journalist who has spent my career working with all of the modern conveniences of satellites, cellphones and the internet, I marveled at how Olson had to get his stories from Saigon back to downtown Fargo — via airmail to New York, dictating over the telephone lines or sending photos through special long-distance Associated Press wire photo lines. But he did it.

Olson returned safely to Fargo in late April of 1966, admittedly tired and frustrated that he had not come up with any “big answers” about Vietnam. But he wrote, instead, that he was hopeful he answered a few of the little questions.

By 1973, when the war was nearly wrapped up, Olson and others at The Forum put together another special report. It was in this report I found Olson’s story about Greaney. I planned to read it, perhaps pick a few quotes out of it, then do more original reporting.

But you know what they say, “Why reinvent the wheel?” And I would add “especially when that wheel is nearly perfect?” What is printed below is Olson’s original story about Greaney including a visit with his still grieving parents nearly 10 years after his death. I think it perfectly summarizes the feeling many rural North Dakotans felt at the loss of their sons in a war some struggled to understand.

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Forum reporter Cal Olson rests while covering stories with the U.S. 25th Infantry in Cu Chi, South Vietnam, March, 1966.
Forum archives

Story by Cal Olson, The Sunday Forum, Jan. 28, 1973

North Dakota Major Virgil R. Greaney was the first North Dakotan to die in the Vietnamese fighting. His death came so long ago that the scars of his passing are now almost invisible.

Major Greaney was killed Sept. 25, 1964 by a Viet Cong terrorist. He died unarmed in a village where he had gone with an American civilian expert to help install a water supply. He was the 238th American to die in the Vietnamese conflict.

Today, Maj. Greaney's widow and three children live in Washington. His parents, the Raymond Greaneys, still live in a fieldstone house on the south edge of Rugby. They have lived almost eight-and-a-half years with the stark reality of Virgil's death. Their mementos include a couple of pictures of him in Army uniform, a telegram, two newspaper clippings, an Officer’s Candidate School yearbook, and a copy of the March 1966 Reader's Digest.

If “uneventful” can be applied to anyone's early life, it can be applied to Virgil Greaney. Born in Rugby Nov. 26, 1930, he was graduated from high school here 18 years later, attended the University of Minnesota, and entered the Army in 1951. While in the Army, he received his BA degree from the University of Nebraska.

Virgil made a tour of duty in Korea and in 1956 he was married in Seattle, Wash. His wife, Loyal June and the children followed Greaney on assignment, including a three-year stint in Ethiopia.

Read other stories by Tracy Briggs
As Minnesota State University Moorhead celebrates more than 50 years of The Advocate, a look back at its predecessor that ruffled more than a few feathers.

Virgil departed for Vietnam on Aug. 25, 1964, leaving his family in Rugby. A month later, his wife received a telegram: “The Secretary of the Army has asked me to express his deep regret that your husband died in Vietnam 25 September 1964. Cause unknown. Information available indicates that he was in a jeep into which fragmentation grenades were thrown. When additional information is received, will advise.”

However, the details of Virgil's death were slow in coming. Some parts of the story filtered home in a newspaper clipping forwarded from Salem, Ore. by a former Rugby man. The clipping was an interview of a Salem native, Chester A Richardson, who had served in Vietnam as a civilian expert with the U.S. Agency for International Development (AID). Richardson told how he and Virgil had driven to the village of Dong Nhi, five miles north of Saigon, where they were to examine a civilian assistance project planned by AID. As they entered the village, they came under attack by a “black-clad youth” – a guerrilla terrorist– who tossed a grenade into their vehicle. The grenade killed Virgil and dazed Richardson, who fled into the village as the terrorist threw three more grenades at them.

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Not too long ago, Virgil's parents talked with a visitor about their son's death, Mrs. Greaney brought out a dog-eared copy of Reader's Digest, dated March 1966.

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Virgil Greaney's family learned more about the circumstances surrounding his death after stumbling upon an article in the March 1966 issue of Reader's Digest, where the civilian expert working on the water project with Greaney in 1964 detailed surviving the attack from a Viet Cong terrorist.
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“I was reading this magazine one day and came on a story about Richardson,” Mrs. Greaney said.

Although the story didn't name Virgil, it gave corroborated details of their son's death, in most points, confirming their earlier information.

Virgil's body lies in a military cemetery at Fort Lawton, Wash.

Not long ago, as the fighting drew to a close in Vietnam, Virgil's parents talked about the war over coffee in their neat and homey dwelling. Raymond, who drove a bulk oil truck for Farmer’s Union, is retired now. He's a “rock hound.” Samples of his hobby decorate one wall and a coffee table.

The Greaneys are a quiet couple. They offered no opinions on the conduct of the Vietnam War until their visitor asked them.

They considered the question soberly.

Mrs. Greaney replied first: “It’s an unpopular war, now. But you still have to protect your country.”

He: "Virgil thought it was a thing to do. He volunteered. 'Twouldn’t do for everyone to run off to Canada."

She: “Or else we might as well all move to Canada.”

A pause.

Virgil's father picked up on the thread: “Perhaps we shouldn't have fought.”

She: “But when we make treaties we have to live up to them. We got into these troubles and somebody has to…has to…”

Another pause.

Raymond Greaney stared at his coffee cup, and Virgil's mother gazed downward at the tablecloth.

She spoke again: “The only thing… a person wouldn't think it would last that long.”

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Tracy Briggs, "Back Then with Tracy Briggs" columnist.
The Forum

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