It was his eleventh day in the country. He hadn’t even set foot in a Huey helicopter, which he had learned to fly, and it wasn’t the enemy that killed him. It was a training accident. A sergeant teaching a class on grenade safety for new arrivals set off a live grenade by mistake. Nicky was badly cut up in the explosion and lost a leg below the knee. He hung on at first, but died in an evacuation hospital five days later, on July 15, 1969.
I went to Vietnam in 1998 and connected with Nicky at the former U.S. base at Chu Lai, along the South China Sea. Under the sun, in awful heat and haunting silence, I stood first where the orientation building had been, on a landing zone called Bayonet, and then at the hospital site on a bluff by the sea. It was part of my twenty-year effort to re-create Nicky’s life and learn the details of what happened to him – work that resulted in my book Tragedy at Chu Lai.When I started the project in the mid-1990s, I visited Nicky’s grave at Philadelphia Memorial Park in Frazer. “I know what happened to you,” I said. “Now I want to get to know you.” He was twenty when he went to Vietnam as an Army helicopter pilot, and I was fifteen, a big gulf when you’re a kid. We came from a large Italian family, lived in different towns and saw each other only on special occasions. I remember he once smiled and said “Hi” to me at a family picnic. The only other time I recall seeing him was at a party at his parents’ home in Malvern, Pennsylvania, held to send him off to boot camp.
Last Monday, July 15, for the first time in years, I went to Nicky’s grave again, this time with roses to lay there. I sat on the grass in the shade of magnolia trees and spoke to him, some of it mere chit-chat. But I was solemn as well. How sad and unfair it was, I said, that he had missed out on fifty years of living. I wanted him to know that his family and friends remember him, mourn him and wish he were still here with us.
I like to think that somehow Nicky knew I was there and got the message.
Dear David,So sorry for your loss, you worked so hard to tell Nick’s story and we worked very hard to save his life, while caring for him. May he rest in peace.Barbara C.
Hi Barbara, so nice to hear from you! You’ve touched my heart yet again. I’ll always be grateful to you nurses — and the doctors — for doing all you could for Nicky.
What a tragic loss of a young life
Thanks for writing Nicky’s story. My sincere sympathy to you . Lynn B
Lynn, you were close to him in his last days, tried to save him and gave him comfort. Thank you.
I was an Army nurse at the 91st Evac hospital from October 69 to October . I worked first on wards 5 and 8, then in the R&E (emergency room). Published a memoir titled “Vietnam Nurse: Mending and Remembering” in 2015. Lynn O’Malley was at the 91st when I arrived in 1969.
Lou (Graul) Eisenbrandt
Hi Lou. Always good to hear from someone who worked at the hospital and knew Lynn. I’ll look up your memoir. Thank you for writing.
I was in Chu lai Hospital (may be it was ward 3 of 91st evac – civilian ward), in the frame time of Aug 1969 to Feb 1970. I was took care by the nurses / doctors. The nurses / doctors were very kind to me. They were the Angel.
Thank you All.