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Captain Harry Griffith Cramer, Jr. (born May 24, 1926, Johnstown, Pennsylvania, died October 21, 1957, near Nha Trang, Vietnam) was an American soldier who served in Korea and Vietnam. For over a decade he was thought to be the first U.S. casualty in Vietnam. He is the first U.S. Special Forces casualty of the conflict. A street at Fort Lewis is named in his honor. He is buried at the US Military Academy, West Point, New York.

Childhood[edit | edit source]

Cramer came from a military family. His grandfather had been a First Sergeant in the Army and his father (Harry "Coach"Cramer) had served as a lieutenant in the Army during World War One. His father was the football coach at Johnstown High School and young Harry played on the football squad.

West Point[edit | edit source]

Cramer graduated from Johnstown High School in 1942 at the age of 16. He applied for West Point, but was underage to attend, so he went to the Carson Long Military Institute in Harrisburg for a year. He entered West Point in 1943 at the age of 17, joining the Class of 1946.

He initially was on the Army football squad. He had to drop it due to academic problems – despite pressures from the coaches and other cadets.

Post War[edit | edit source]

After graduation he went through Infantry Basic Course and Airborne School at Fort Benning. While there, he and classmate Frank "Taffy" Tucker owned a used Taylorcraft light plane. They used to fly cross-country to New Orleans[1] or Savannah[2] on the weekends, barely getting back before Monday classes – earning him the nickname of "Hairsbreadth Harry".

He then served as a Heavy Mortar unit commander with Company B, 1st Battalion of the famous African-American 24th Infantry Regiment, 25th Infantry Division at Camp Majestic, Gifu, during the Occupation of Japan. He was later transferred stateside to the XVIII Airborne Corps, headquartered at Fort Dix, New Jersey, where he served as a Recruiting and Induction Officer from June, 1950 to February, 1951.

Korean War[edit | edit source]

When the Korean War broke out in 1950, he requested a combat command. He got a transfer back to his old outfit – the 24th Infantry – as the mortar platoon commander in Company B in March 1951. On March 28, 1951, during the Han River crossing his company was involved in attacking a strongly-held enemy position near Haeryong. The attack stalled due to heavy fire and his unit was pinned behind a ridge. Cramer personally led a bayonet charge that drove the enemy from their trenches, allowing the unit to advance, but was wounded by machinegun fire. For his actions, he was later presented with the Purple Heart and the Silver Star for gallantry in action[3] by the 25th Division's commander, Brig. Gen. Joseph Sladen Bradley and was promoted to captain. After three months' recuperation in Japan, he returned to the front to serve as the commander of Company D (Heavy Weapons), 1st battalion, 24th Infantry. He was then wounded again by mortar shell fragments to his shoulder and back, earning the Bronze Oakleaf Cluster to his Purple Heart. He later found out that at the same time his best friend Frank Tucker had died in combat on a nearby hill. In October 1951 the 24th Infantry was finally disbanded under desegregation.

From October 1951 to April 1952 he served with the 2nd Battalion, 14th Infantry Regiment, 25th Division. He realized the war would be a stalemate until a truce or peace treaty was signed, so he transferred to work as an aerial observer in an artillery spotter plane. (Although a capable civilian pilot, he was never trained as a military aviator). The Artillery Corps believed an experienced infantry officer would have an eye for the terrain and be able to find enemy "hiding spots" an artillery spotter might miss.

In 1952 he was rotated stateside. He was reassigned to the G-2 staff of the Headquarters and Headquarters Company (HHC) of the 82nd Airborne Division. After completing the Infantry Advanced Course at Fort Benning, he attended and passed the Special Forces selection course at Fort Bragg, North Carolina - the first West Point graduate to do so.[4] After graduating, he was assigned to the 77th Special Forces Group. From 1955 to 1956 he was assigned as an Operational Detachment commander.

Vietnam Service[edit | edit source]

Captain Cramer was assigned to the Mobile Training Team, 14th Special Forces Operational Detachment (Area), MAAGV. The sixteen-man 14th SFOD, under the cover of the "8251st Army Service Unit", was transferred to Fort Shafter, Hawaii in June 1956 and shortly thereafter to Korea, the Philippines, Taiwan, Thailand, and Vietnam. The Mobile Training Team's job was to train local Special Forces teams in various military skills. The 14th SFOD was later placed under the newly formed 1st Special Forces Group at Fort Buckner, Okinawa, Japan on 24 June 1957.

The Mobile Training team was commanded by Captain Cramer and was composed of MSgt. Henry S. Furst, MSgt. Francis J. "Fran" Ruddy, MSgt. Everett White, MSgt. Fred Williamson, SFC Chalmers Archer (Medic), SFC Ray Labombard (Light Weapons Leader), SFC Bobby Newman, SFC Don Williams, and SSgt. Robert Stetson.[5] The men under Cramer's command were either highly decorated combat veterans like himself with service going back to Korea or World War Two or were highly motivated and accomplished. In September, 1956 they set up airborne, jumpmaster and Ranger training for the Royal Thai Ranger Battalion. While there Cramer earned Royal Thai Army parachute wings.

From June to November 1957 they began training Vietnamese Special Forces in raiding operations and related skills. The realistic exercises involved small scale ambushes and raids. An ARVN division in the field near Nha Trang was used as the opposing force.

The class was undergoing a series of confidence-building exercises before their graduation in late October when Cramer was involved in a training accident on October 21, 1957. During an ambush drill, a Vietnamese soldier near Cramer was readying to throw a lit block of TNT when it prematurely detonated. The TNT was later determined to have deteriorated in storage and was unstable. Cramer died instantly and other members of the team and their students were wounded [6][7]

Vietnam Veteran's Memorial[edit | edit source]

Cramer's name was added to "The Wall" in November, 1983. This was after successful efforts by Captain Cramer's son, Lt. Col. Harry G. Cramer III USAR, then an active duty Army officer, to get the Department of Defense to acknowledge his father's death. Capt. Cramer's son asked that his father's name simply be added to the center (1E) stone, out of sequence, but it is still clearly listed in the chronological book at "The Wall" as 1957, not 1959.) In October 2007, The Army conducted an official ceremony at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, from which Capt. Cramer had graduated, to mark the 50th Anniversary of the first Vietnam casualty.[8]

"First Casualty In Vietnam"[edit | edit source]

He had been earlier reckoned the first casualty in Vietnam when his name was added to the Vietnam Memorial in 1983. Previously it had been declared as Spec/4 James T. Davis, who died (along with nine South Vietnamese soldiers) in a Viet Cong ambush on 22 December 1961. Cramer was replaced in 1999 as the first casualty by murdered Air Force Technical Sergeant Richard B. Fitzgibbon, Jr. Fitzgibbon was shot after a dispute with a drunken fellow airman and died of his wounds on June 8, 1956.[9]

He is still considered the first Special Forces casualty in Vietnam, as well as the first casualty of the newly formed 1st Special Forces Group. To honor him, the men of the 1st SFG wore black armbands for 30 days after his death. Later, when the 1st Special Forces Group moved into its new facilities at Fort Lewis in 1987, they named a street (Cramer Avenue) after him.[10]

Family[edit | edit source]

Harry married Anne Supple at the Catholic Chapel at West Point on 25 June 1947. Lt. Frank Tucker was his best man.
They had three children (two daughters and one son):

  • Kainan Kelly "Kai" Cramer (1949–Present) - president of Cramer & Sirras, a legal recruiting firm.[11]
  • Anne Quinn Cramer () -
  • Harry Griffith Cramer III (1953–Present) – Served in the US Army with the 1st Special Forces Group, US Special Forces, later rising to the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel.

Decorations[edit | edit source]

Cramer received the following decorations:[12][13]

American Awards and Badges[edit | edit source]

Unit Citations[edit | edit source]

Foreign Awards and Badges[edit | edit source]

References[edit | edit source]

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