Daniel Weiss, president of Lafayette College, told a riveting story last week when the Lehigh Valley’s Battle of the Bulge veterans met outside Bethlehem. It reminded me of my own years-long journey to get at the truth of what happened to my cousin Nicky in the Vietnam War.
While vacationing with his wife back in the mid-1990s, Weiss said, they went to a museum in France and he became struck by a large reproduction of a powerful, disturbing World War II image. The photo shows the Nazis’ public hangings of a teenage boy and girl in the Soviet city of Minsk on Oct. 26, 1941. The pair belonged to the anti-fascist resistance. The caption said the boy was Volodia Shcherbatsevich, but the girl was listed as unknown.
Weiss committed himself to giving the 17-year-old girl the recognition she deserved, and teamed up with Holocaust survivor and scholar Nechama Tec. He told how their work met with harsh resistance from the Russians but ultimately led to justice for the girl, Masha Bruskina. Two Russian journalists had proved her identity in 1968, but their work was suppressed, they were viciously hounded and their careers ruined. It turned out the Russians didn’t want Masha celebrated as a hero because she was Jewish.
In 1994, I had a moment similar to what Weiss experienced when he saw the gruesome picture on the museum wall. But the shock I received didn’t come from a photo; it came from a data sheet I got from the Friends of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.
The now-defunct Friends had come up with a database that had information on each of the 58,000 Americans killed in the war. I hadn’t given Nicky much thought over the years. He was a 20-year-old Army helicopter pilot when he went to Vietnam in 1969 and was dead in 11 days. But I’d hardly known him – he said hi to me once at a picnic when I was a little kid.
The story that had always gone around about how Nicky died was that he was standing with a bunch of other guys waiting for a transport when an enemy rocket hit. He lost a leg, lingered for several days and died on the base in Vietnam.
But the data sheet had something that stunned me. It said Nicky’s death was non-hostile, an accident.
What? What kind of accident?
The Army casualty office, and my own research over the years, filled in the blanks. When Nicky arrived in Vietnam, at the Americal Division base at Chu Lai, his first week was orientation. As part of that, he attended a classroom lecture on grenade safety. The instructor told the guys in the class that when the grenade’s released, you have five seconds. What are you going to do? And then he deliberately fumbled the grenade onto the floor.
On every other day, the grenade was inert and nothing happened. It was a stunt to see how the replacements would react. But this grenade, for reasons that the Army never determined, was live. It rolled under the table up front where Nicky sat with three other warrant officers and detonated. Nicky lost his left leg below the knee and died five days later at the evac hospital on the Chu Lai base.
My search to learn as much as I could about what happened to Nicky took me to Vietnam to follow his path, to guys who had survived the blast, and ultimately brought me face to face with the instructor who tossed the grenade. He believes the explosion was not an accident but sabotage. Someone, he says, switched his grenades. We will never know for sure.
In his presentation to the Veterans of the Battle of the Bulge, Weiss said he learned of an amazing link to Masha Bruskina right in his own backyard, the Easton campus he runs: A student at Lafayette was a direct descendant of Masha’s schoolteacher in Minsk.
I can identify with that kind of thrilling, extraordinary coincidence: The Army nurse who tended to Nicky as he lay dying lives in my neighborhood here in Allentown. She’s the former nurse manager of the VA Outpatient Clinic, Lynn Bedics.