During Vietnam War, how the press handled one soldier’s death

Evening Bulletin story on Nicky Venditti's death

The Evening Bulletin of Philadelphia’s story on Warrant Officer Nicholas L. Venditti’s death in Vietnam.

In my book Tragedy at Chu Lai, about my cousin Nicky’s death in Vietnam under unusual circumstances, I wrote that the local newspaper somehow got the story wrong.

Nicky’s hometown was Malvern, on Philadelphia’s Main Line. The local paper was the Daily Local News in West Chester, the Chester County seat. Its story ran July 21, 1969, six days after Nicky died of wounds from a training accident at Chu Lai, along Vietnam’s central coast south of Da Nang.

Under the one-column headline “Malvern G.I. dies of wounds in Vietnam,” with a boot camp photo of Nicky, the story reads: “A 20-year-old Malvern soldier died in Vietnam last week as the result of wounds suffered in action about a week after he arrived in the war zone.”

The misleading words are “suffered in action,” which tell the reader he was wounded in combat, in some kind of contact with the enemy.

The 6-inch-long article doesn’t give the circumstances that led to the death of Warrant Officer Nicholas L. Venditti, only that he was wounded July 10, “just a few days after his arrival in Vietnam.” It goes on to say he was a 1966 graduate of Great Valley High School, that his parents were Sally Pusey and Louis Venditti, that he used to work at Plastomatic in Malvern, and that he had been trained as a helicopter pilot and commissioned as a warrant officer at Fort Rucker, Ala.

No one in the family was quoted in the story, which has no byline. The announcement of Nicky’s death was attributed to the Defense Department, in which case it was the Pentagon that apparently passed on inaccurate information that the newspaper picked up and didn’t, or couldn’t, verify with the family. In my 40 years as a newspaper writer and editor, I saw things like that happen many times.

Whoever wrote the story included a line that “The soldier’s body is en route home and funeral arrangements will be scheduled at a later date,” which might have come from a family member. There’s a paragraph that names the survivors: Nicky’s younger brother, Harold, known as L.B.; stepbrothers Johnny Pusey and Joe Gray; stepsister Bonnie Pusey and half-sister Lorraine Pusey; and his paternal grandfather, Nicola Venditta. (It omits Nicky’s stepfather, John Pusey, and stepmother, Bert Venditti.) That survivor information would not have come from the Defense Department.

My parents cut out the clipping and kept it in a photo album. It reinforced the impression I had that Nicky’s death came as a result of hostile action. The story in my immediate family was that he and other new arrivals were waiting for a transport of some kind when an enemy rocket hit, the scenario I held onto for 25 years. I later found out Nicky’s parents knew from the start what really happened. An Army telegram dated July 12, 1969, informed them that he was in a training session when a grenade went off by accident and there was “cause for concern” about whether he would live.

I discovered the truth in 1994, when a group called the Friends of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial unveiled a database that had casualty information on each of the 58,000 Americans killed in Vietnam. In the ensuing years, I learned that the rocket-attack account wasn’t the only version that circulated among Nicky’s friends and extended family in Malvern. One of our cousins said he thought Nicky and some other guys were playing cards when someone tossed a grenade into their barracks. A Vietnam veteran who grew up with Nicky told me that he heard Nicky stepped on a mine after getting out of a Huey helicopter.

Yet a major newspaper did have the story right, 10 days after Nicky’s death. I found that out during my first visit with Nicky’s mom, Sally, in 1996. She had the July 25, 1969, article that appeared in The Evening Bulletin of Philadelphia with a photo of Nicky. The headline is “Malvern Copter Pilot Killed in Accidental Grenade Blast.” A reporter had interviewed Sally’s husband, John, who knew the facts because Sally had received the same Army telegram as Nicky’s dad, Louie.

The Evening Bulletin story, which Sally had on a plaque under the words “Memorial Obituary: Entered into Eternal Rest Tuesday, July 15, 1969,” has no more information on what it calls, in the first sentence, “an accidental grenade explosion.” It does not say, for example, that the explosion happened during a training session, which was noted in the telegram.

But Nicky’s stepfather was quoted in the story. “Nicky had always wanted to be a helicopter pilot in the Army,” John said. “He was a crack shot, too. Nicky and our police chief here in town used to go out to the police rifle range quite a bit to shoot and talk about flying. … The first thing he wanted to do when he came home was to rent a copter and fly us both into the back country to do some hunting.”

At the end of its article, The Evening Bulletin listed other Pennsylvania casualties from mid-July 1969 – John G. Gertsch of Pittsburgh, who would be posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor, and William D. Lounsbury of Warren, Warren County. Their names apparently were culled from a Pentagon press release.

Aunt Sally had a clipping from another newspaper that was unidentified but clearly smaller than the Daily Local News. The story, 6 inches long and riddled with typos, and with no photo of Nicky, is headlined “Pilot Dies in Vietnam” and was based on an interview with Sally. It incorrectly states the Army telegram described Nicky as having been “wounded in action,” and goes on to quote Sally as saying her son had always wanted to be a pilot and he enjoyed hunting and was an expert marksman.

In the weeks ahead, Nicky’s parents would learn disturbing details of a training session gone bad. That additional information came in an Aug. 14, 1969, letter bearing the name of an Americal Division commander in Vietnam, Lt. Col. Robert C. Bacon. It says:

“On the morning of July 10, 1969, Nicholas was attending a class on the use of grenades at the Americal Division Combat Center located at the Division’s base camp at Chu Lai, Republic of South Vietnam. At 10:15 a.m., the class instructor removed the safety pin from a hand grenade that was thought to have been disarmed for instructional purposes. However, the grenade detonated when he threw it to the floor of the classroom.”

Newspaper readers at the time could not have known that two other soldiers died with Nicky — Warrant Officer Wilbur J. Vachon III of Portland, Maine, and Specialist Timothy T. Williams of Toledo, Ohio. Their deaths were reported separately. There was no overarching story from a wire service or a national newspaper like The New York Times saying three Americal Division soldiers who had just arrived at Chu Lai had died because an Army instructor unwittingly tossed a live grenade. A story like that might have drawn wider coverage. In 1967, a training accident that killed 13 Marines near Da Nang made front pages across the U.S.

Ultimately, though, the reported details of Nicky’s death didn’t matter to his parents. It only mattered that he was gone.

One response to “During Vietnam War, how the press handled one soldier’s death

  1. I read “During Vietnam War, how the press handled one soldiers death”. It talks about how the newspapers got the wrong information about a soldiers death. I am sorry for the author and his family’s loss. Rest in peace, Nicholas L. Venditti, and thank you for your service.

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