But we had a big Italian family in common. Our dads were among a dozen children of an immigrant from central Italy. (Two of Grandpop’s sons, including Nicky’s dad, spelled our surname differently, with an “i” on the end instead of an “a.” I’ll tell you the story behind that another time.)
Nicky was a 20-year-old Army helicopter pilot when he went to Vietnam in the summer of 1969. He was dead in 11 days. The truth about what happened to him shocked me. The Americal Division told his parents he was mortally wounded when a grenade accidentally went off during an orientation class at LZ Bayonet, just outside the big Army base at Chu Lai. He died five days later, on July 15, at the 312th Evacuation Hospital on the base.
I’d always thought he was killed by the enemy.
One part of writing about Nicky was to re-create his life and follow his path to Vietnam. I could do that through interviews with friends and family. But finding out exactly what happened in that Army classroom on July 10, 1969, was not so easy. It took me many years, because no record of an investigation exists. The military had mishandled its response to the incident, doing a disservice to Nicky’s family and the families of two other young soldiers who died with him, Billy Vachon and Tim Williams.
Twenty-one years have passed since the reality of Nicky’s fate caught my eye. Soon you will be able to read the story I put together over those two decades. It will be published this spring or summer by McFarland & Co. under the title Tragedy at Chu Lai. Information about it is on McFarland’s online catalog at http://bit.ly/1SLp0Ia, where you can pre-order it, if you like.
This is more than a war story. It’s also a life-affirming reconstruction of family, friendship, loyalty and small-town life in 1960s America, the small town being Malvern, Pa., where Nicky grew up.