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Remembering Richard Roesler

US Navy Petty Officer Second Class HM2 Richard Roesler
US Navy Petty Officer Second Class HM2 Richard Roesler

Fifty-one years ago, the United States left Vietnam on March 29th, 1973, after 8 years of fighting. The conflict left a lasting impact on our country, including the Northwoods, where it forever changed the lives of the service members involved and their families. This is one of those stories.

Richard Roesler was born at St. Mary’s Hospital in Rhinelander, Wisconsin, on September 3rd, 1946. He grew up on Randall Avenue in the Pioneer Park neighborhood of Rhinelander, where he would play and ice skate with his friends. He enjoyed visiting his family’s cabin and canoeing down the Pelican River with his buddies. He was known as a courteous and smart young man.

US Navy Petty Officer Second Class HM2 Richard Roesler
US Navy Petty Officer Second Class HM2 Richard Roesler

He graduated in June of 1964 from Rhinelander Union High School and enlisted in the Navy that following December. Dick received training as a Naval Corpsman and had aspirations of becoming a pharmacist when he left the service. The Roesler family was one of honor and duty and were proud of their son.

He was eventually stationed at a naval base in Vietnam for a tour of duty in 1967. By the spring of 1968, the war was heating up with the Tet offensive. Time Magazine listed ’68 as the most intense year of fighting during the conflict. Richard had his tour of duty involuntarily extended, despite assistance from Wisconsin congressman Alvin E O'Konski to have it shortened. Dick was reassigned as a combat corpsman or medic, attached to the 1st Marine Division, 1st Battalion, 7th Marines.

The 7th Marines had just begun Operation Mamluk Thrust in the province of Quang Nam, in an area southwest of Danang known as Happy Valley. For the Marines fighting in the valley, there was nothing happy about the escalating war.

At home in Rhinelander, the Roesler family was preparing to leave for Richard’s younger brother Bills graduation ceremony, when a car pulled into the driveway. Two officers got out and gave them the horrible news that Richard had been tragically killed in action. He was only 21 years old.

The official citation read that on June 4th, 1968, Richard had been killed by enemy small arms fire during Operation Mamluk Thrust. It was found out afterward that on the day he died, O’Konski had secured discharge orders for Richard to return home in October.

When his body was brought back to Rhinelander, he was met with a hero’s welcome. People lined the streets for the procession to St. Mary’s Cemetery in Rhinelander, where he was buried with full military rites. Two of his friends had been called back from active duty service, to serve as pallbearers in the funeral. That following Veterans Day, a flagpole was placed at St. Mary’s school in his honor, demonstrating the effect the war was having on the entire community.

More than three decades after Richard Roesler was laid to rest, his sister Rita added his name and photo to an online memorial wall for Vietnam veterans. In a matter of days, one of Richard’s former service friends contacted the Roesler family with new information about Richard’s death.

US Navy Petty Officer Second Class HM2 Richard Roesler
US Navy Petty Officer Second Class HM2 Richard Roesler

According to him, he had been bearing this story for decades and finally felt at liberty to explain the truth about Richard’s passing. The man was a fellow corpsman and had been with Richard when he died.

During the early days of Operation Mamluk Thrust, Richard’s company was set on retaking a hill they thought had already cleared. As they moved forward, they were ambushed, and one of the platoon commanders was shot, he began crying out for a medic. Richard and his fellow corpsman headed the call, and quickly moved across the battlefield to the wounded marine. Upon approaching the wounded commander turned and fired at the corpsman by mistake, killing Richard Roesler instantly, and shooting the other man through the hips, paralyzing him for life.

The official report stated Richard had been killed by enemy fire. The truth it seems was that he had been killed by friendly fire. These are the nuances and truths of war that often come out decades later. War is scary, chaotic, and the reality isn’t always reflected on the official reports.

Of course, this information didn’t change the fact that Richard had died serving his country and did so honorably. But for his fellow corpsman, who had witnessed his friend’s death, and held the truth of it inside for all those years, it was cathartic to finally let Richard’s family know what had really happened in that far off place, thousands of miles from Rhinelander. After all those years, it helped him heal the deep wounds that many of the men and women that returned from Vietnam came home with and were unable to address.

On March 29th, 2024, our country observed Vietnam Veterans Remembrance Day. A day to honor and remember the 58,320 names currently listed on the polished black granite of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial wall in Washington D.C., including that of a young man from Rhinelander, Wisconsin, Petty Officer, Hospital Corpsman Second Class, Richard Roesler: KIA, Vietnam.

US Navy Petty Officer Second Class HM2 Richard Roesler is Honored on pan 60W, line 12, of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall in Washington D.C.

This article was written in honor of all Vietnam veterans, and their families.

Sources: Newspaper articles, 1946, 1964-1969, Interviews with Roesler Family Members.

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Kerry Bloedorn joined WXPR in 2022 as the host of A Northwoods Moment in History. A local historian, Director of Pioneer Park Historical Complex for the City of Rhinelander and writer for The New North Magazine, he loves digging into the past and sharing his passion for history with the Northwoods community.
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