Memorial Day feature: Vietnam War’s last combat casualty, Col. William Nolde

by Peter Jakey–
Managing Editor

Memorial Day is a time to pay tribute to Americans who paid the ultimate sacrifice serving our country. 

Col. William Benedict Nolde was a career military man, who was killed-in-action 50 years ago in Vietnam.

Nolde was killed by shell fire at An Loc 11 hours before the cessation of all hostilities in accordance with the Paris Peace Accords. He was the last official American combat casualty of the war. It was January 27, 1973, 11 hours before the truce went into effect and was the 45,941st American serviceman to be killed in action in Indochina.

Nolde, who was an Onaway resident at the time of his death, was buried Feb. 5, 1973 in Section 3 of Arlington National Cemetery (ANC). His widow Joyce (Fusee) was buried beside him in 2005. 

As the last official combat casualty, his funeral was broadcast on television and was attended by former President Richard Nixon. 

There is a photo of William in his dress blues, standing straight up, that can be found in the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum in Yorba Linda, California. He is memorialized as the last man killed in Vietnam with a plaque underneath. 

Five decades later, the memories remain strong for William and Joyce’s oldest son, Byron, a 1977 Onaway High School graduate. He said the family was excited that the war was coming to an end and that his father would be coming home.

Byron, who was 13 when his dad was killed, was skiing in Gaylord with friends when news filtered around the globe.

“The family was not together,” said Byron. “I remember getting quiet and laying down on a couch. Someone asked, ‘what’s wrong?’ I said ‘nothing is wrong.’ My uncle and aunt knocked on our door, and when I saw them, I knew it, and I started crying.”

When he got to his mother, “I was told, ‘you got to stop crying and be strong for mom.’ I remember that as clear as day, and I will never forget it.”

What Byron and the rest of the family learned is that Joyce was a strong woman. 

“I wonder to this day how she handled it. The press at her door was unbelievable,” said Byron. “Because I went through it, when you talk about Memorial Day, it’s not just about the ones we’ve lost, but the families that were left behind. It affects them for the rest of their lives.”

There was a large funeral service at Sacred Heart Church in Mt. Pleasant and a second memorial service at the Onaway United Methodist Church, and the press continued to follow the family.

Joyce and her five children, Blair William Nolde, Brent Aaron Nolde, Kimberle Anne Nolde, Bart David Nolde and Byron, were flown to Washington, D.C. on Air Force One by President Nixon, for the final service at ANC.

Nolde’s flag-draped casket was carried on a horse-drawn caisson from the chapel to a hilltop grave in ANC. The cortege included Black Jack, the ceremonial riderless horse.

Lt. Gen. Robert E. Coffin handed the folded American Flag that covered the casket to the widow, who placed a single red rose atop the casket. The flag is now in a Frankenmuth museum.

Nixon expressed his personal condolences to the family, and invited them to the White House after the burial.

“The thing I remember the most was when we went into Nixon’s office, one of his aides said to him, ‘Mr. President, you have 15 minutes and then you have another appointment.’ He looked at the aide and said, ‘You will not interrupt me. When I’m done, I’ll be done.’ We were there for an hour in his office.”

At Central Michigan University the William B. Nolde Scholarship was established in memory for the colonel by students, family and friends. Additionally, the William B. Nolde Lecture Series takes place every two years and invited various politicians, professors and military leaders to lecture on the importance of leadership.

In 2006, Onaway Area Community Schools dedicated the Veterans Day parade and ceremony in honor of the Nolde family.

William, as well as countless others, will be honored Monday during Memorial Day services across the county.

Posen: 9 a.m. Memorial Day Mass

at St. Casimir Catholic Church, followed by a service in the cemetery.

Metz: military tributes at St. Dominic Cemetery to follow service in the St. Casimir Cemetery and St. Peter Lutheran Church Cemetery at 11 a.m.

Rogers City:  Service at the Presque Isle County Courthouse, 10 a.m. and then march to Memorial Park Cemetery where the Rev. Dr. Greg Zurakowski will speak. There will be military tributes at Mount Calvary Cemetery and Peace Lutheran Church Cemetery

Millersburg: reading of the names at Riverside Cemetery, 11 a.m.

Onaway: A parade at noon will march from Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 5857 to the Onaway Historical Courthouse Building war memorial where