Category Archives: Vietnam War

Books for the Vietnam War reader

If you want to write about the Vietnam War, you need to read about it.

But there’s so much material out there, where do you start?

Go right to Vietnam: A History by former Time, Life and Washington Post Southeast Asia correspondent Stanley Karnow. Published in 1983 as a companion to the PBS series “Vietnam: A Television History,” it’s a sweeping narrative of American involvement in Vietnam.

A close second is A Bright Shining Lie: John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam by Neil Sheehan, a Vietnam War correspondent for UPI and The New York Times. The Pulitzer Prize-winner from 1988 tells the story of an Army lieutenant colonel who at first challenged, then embraced, how America was fighting the war. This book will help you see why we lost it.

Two books made up my early reading of the Vietnam War: Ron Kovics’ Born on the Fourth of July, from 1976 (later made into a movie), and Michael Herr’s Dispatches, from 1977. I was a year out of college when my dad recommended Dispatches, saying it was powerful enough to give him nightmares.

Waiting for medivac helicopter, Long Khanh Province, 1966

Waiting for helicopter to evacuate a fallen soldier, Long Khanh Province, 1966

To understand infantry combat in Vietnam, read We Were Soldiers Once … and Young, by Lt. Gen. Harold G. Moore (retired) and Joseph L. Galloway. This 1992 book, also made into a movie, is the story about the men of the 7th Cavalry who in 1965 fought the North Vietnamese in the Ia Drang Valley.

A must book for writers is Stolen Valor: How the Vietnam Generation was Robbed of its Heroes and its History by B.G. Burkett and Glenna Whitley, published in 1998. Burkett, a Vietnam veteran, and Whitley expose phony heroes and show how Vietnam vets have been unfairly demonized. The book gives a valuable lesson in getting military documents under the Freedom of Information Act.

I also recommend Dear America: Letters Home from Vietnam, originally published in 1985 by The New York Vietnam Veterans Memorial Commission. Kurt Vonnegut called this collection of letters and poems “the sad and beautiful countermelody of truth.”

In fiction, there’s Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, first published in 1990. Interestingly for me, O’Brien served with the Army’s Americal Division, the more common name of the 23rd Infantry Division, in Vietnam in 1969. My cousin Nicky Venditti, an Army helicopter pilot who is the subject of my book, Quiet Man Rising: A Soldier’s Life and Death in Vietnam, was also assigned to the Americal Division and was also in Vietnam in 1969. Nicky, however, only survived eleven days.

Two books that deal with the Americal Division helped me with my story about Nicky. One is Maj. Gen. Lloyd B. Ramsey, U.S. Army Retired: A Memoir, from 2006. Ramsey was the commander of the Americal Division at the time Nicky was on the Americal’s base at Chu Lai. My wife, Mary, and I visited the general at his home in McLean, Virginia, in 1998, and I have had numerous phone interviews with him.

Sharon Lane, Army nurse killed by enemy fire, 1969

1st Lt. Sharon Lane

The other book is Hostile Fire: The Life and Death of First Lieutenant Sharon Lane, written by Philip Bigler and published in 1996. Sharon Lane was a nurse at the evac hospital at Chu Lai. She was killed in a North Vietnamese rocket attack in June 1969 and was to be the only American servicewoman killed by enemy fire in the war.

Sharon’s replacement at the evac hospital was the subject of my last blog, Lynn O’Malley Bedics, who in July 1969 tended to Nicky as he lay dying after an Army instructor unwittingly detonated a grenade.

Reading these books about the Vietnam era has helped me connect the people I meet who were there with the events that dominated the headlines. Talking with Gen. Ramsey and Lynn O’Malley Bedics and reading of their experiences gave me the material I needed to fill out Nicky’s story.

Making an Improbable Connection

Researching veterans’ stories is always rewarding, but sometimes you’ll come across information that will knock your socks off.

Consider this: The Army nurse who tended to my cousin Nicky as he lay dying in an evacuation hospital in Vietnam four decades ago lives in my neighborhood. I found out about her one day when my project to write a book about Nicky and my work on veterans stories for The Morning Call collided.

Nicky Venditti at home, June 1969

Nicky Venditti at home, June 1969

It happened in 1998, after I had begun researching Nicky’s life and death as an Army helicopter pilot in the Vietnam War. That year, the success of Steven Spielberg’s film Saving Private Ryan spurred aging veterans to talk about their experiences, many for the first time. We at The Call in Allentown, Pennsylvania, planned a special section for Veterans Day 1998 called War Stories, and I was the editor.

One reporter was to write 10 short articles based on interviews with veterans of World War II and the Korean and Vietnam wars. I told the reporter, Ron Devlin, to include a woman who had been a front-line nurse.

“I got a great nurse,” Ron got back to me. “Here in town.”

She had served in Vietnam, he said. Immediately I asked him where and when.

“Chu Lai,” Ron said, “1969.”

The time and place were a match for Nicky, who died July 15, 1969, five days after an Army instructor unwittingly detonated a grenade in a class for new arrivals.

Tending the Wounded, 1969, Chu Lai

Tending the Wounded, 1969, Chu Lai

In the three years I had been following Nicky’s path, I had never spoken with any nurses who worked in the evac hospital where he died. Had this one been there?

Her name was Lynn Bedics, and she was the nurse manager at the Allentown Veterans Affairs Outpatient Clinic. Within minutes, I called her and she said yes, she was in the intensive care unit at the 312th/91st Evac Hospital in July 1969, but she didn’t remember Nicky’s name, Venditti. Still, the ICU only had about 15 patients at any given time, so she had probably seen him.

Lynn agreed to meet with me.

I didn’t know at the time that I already had files linking Lynn to Nicky. I had asked the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis to send me copies of any paperwork pertaining to Nicky’s care at the 27th Surgical Hospital, where his left leg was amputated below the knee, and the 312th/91st Evac, where he hung on to life for a few days. In response, I got nearly 50 pages of clinical records from both Chu Lai hospitals and studied them.

Now I scoured the records again for nurses’ names and saw two blood transfusion forms with the signature “L. O’Malley, 2LT ANC.” That was 2nd Lt. Lynn O’Malley of the Army Nurse Corps. O’Malley was Lynn’s maiden name, something I knew because Ron included it in his story about her, which noted she was 22 and single in 1969. The records show Lynn gave Nicky 500 milliliters of whole blood at 4 a.m. on July 14. She “hung” an additional 500 milliliters for him at 6:15 a.m.

Nicky died the next day.

army nurse, vietnam

Lynn Bedics, Vietnam, 1969

When I met with Lynn in April 1999, I showed her the forms proving she had ministered to Nicky. It was a bonding moment for both of us, even though she still didn’t remember Nicky and didn’t recognize him from pictures.

Today Lynn is retired from the government. She still lives a five-minute walk from my home in west Allentown. We’ve had lunch together, we see each other at the Farmers Market and exchange e-mail and phone calls. She knows many of the vets I’ve interviewed for my Morning Call series War Stories: In Their Own Words, and even steered me to one. And she looks forward to publication of my book about Nicky, Quiet Man Rising: A Soldier’s Life and Death in Vietnam.

Lynn’s connection to both Nicky in Vietnam and me in Allentown was improbable but didn’t happen on its own. The pieces had to be put together. In the end, it was a lesson in the importance of listening closely, examining the right documents and paying attention to detail.

News from the front: How do we know what’s going on?



Afghanistan & American soldiers in Tora Bora

It galls my friend Bob Faro, a veterans advocate in the Lehigh Valley, that local newspapers publish little on the Iraq and Afghanistan wars “unless it is reactive, as in a local service member’s death.”

His son Joey, a 19-year-old Marine, was seriously wounded by a roadside bomb in Afghanistan a few weeks ago and is being treated at the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Md. “I ask just as I have with every known service member being injured,” he said in an e-mail to me and others, “why no reporting?”

I don’t think it’s deliberate.

Mainly, there is no central, authoritative clearinghouse for information on wounded soldiers, sailors and Marines. In the case of deaths, the Department of Defense makes it easy: It posts name, rank, hometown, branch of service, unit and cause of death on its website for all to see. Newspapers and other media take it from there.


Things were different not so very long ago, during World War II.

The paper I work for, The Morning Call in Allentown, Pennsylvania, has clip files in its newsroom library that prove it.

In the old days, a paper’s employees cut out stories about people and put them in small brown envelopes. The cutouts are called clips. The envelopes were filed in alphabetical order in a metal cabinet in a room that used to be called a “morgue.” One file might have clips covering a person’s life from birth to death.

The veteran I interviewed for my story marking the 66th anniversary of D-Day, E. Duncan Cameron, was a 1940 graduate of Allentown High School. He hit Omaha Beach on D-Day, June 6, 1944. Sure enough, The Call has a clip file on him. It’s similar to Morning Call files I’ve seen on other World War II vets. Not only is there a story about his getting wounded, but an update on his recovery.

45th Division roadblock, Battle of the Bulge, 1944

45th Division roadblock, Battle of the Bulge, 1944

There is a clip on what happened to him three months after D-Day: “E. Duncan Cameron Wounded in Germany.” The paper got the news from his parents, who had gotten a letter from Duncan and showed it to the newspaper. “Was hit in the left arm by shrapnel from a mortar shell, the shrapnel penetrating the arm just above the wrist,” Duncan wrote.

The story ran with a photo his parents had previously given the paper. The picture was used first with a June 23, 1944, story headlined: “Pfc. E.D. Cameron Jr. Sends Letter Home From Invasion Front.”

Another clip, dated March 6, 1945, reported that Duncan was home on furlough from the hospital in Tennessee where doctors had grafted a bone to his wrist. Again, the story ran with a photo.

It was a different time. The community that a newspaper served was closer-knit than it is today.


That intimacy was gone just a generation later, when the sons of World War II vets were fighting in Vietnam.

Nicky Vendetta home in Malvern, Pennsylvania, 1969

Nicky Venditti home in Malvern, 1969

My cousin Nicky Venditti came from little Malvern, Pennsylvania. The local paper was in the neighboring town, West Chester. Nicky joined the Army, became a helicopter pilot, arrived in Vietnam on the Fourth of July 1969 and was gravely wounded in a grenade explosion six days later. There was nothing in the paper about it.

Nicky, the subject of my book, Quiet Man Rising: A Soldier’s Life and Death in Vietnam, hung on to life for almost a week at an evacuation hospital in Vietnam.

The Daily Local News of West Chester did not have a story until July 21, seven days after his death. “The Defense Department reported only that Warrant Officer Nicholas L. Venditti died in a military hospital [in Vietnam] on July 15,” the paper said. There was nothing from his family in the story, and no indication the paper tried to contact them.

It wasn’t necessary.

Within hours after his parents got the telegram saying Nicky had been hit and there was “cause for concern,” everyone who cared about him knew it.

They knew it by the oldest means of passing on information – a method that still hasn’t lost its potency.

Word of mouth.

The power of letters home from Vietnam

When I got involved in researching my cousin Nicky’s death in Vietnam, I spoke with family, friends, his fiancee and Army buddies. Their remembrances – and the way they still feel about him – touched me deeply. Nothing affected me more intensely than the letters he wrote home.

Nicky Venditti at home in Malvern, PA, 1969

Nicky Venditti at home in Malvern, PA, 1969

Nicky Venditti’s tour of duty lasted only eleven days. He was an American soldier ready to fight for his country for only a week before his grievous accident. His final  five days were spent unconscious in an Army hospital. Arriving in South Vietnam on the Fourth of July, 1969, he wrote to his parents first thing, like many GIs who had reached their destination. Both of his parents had remarried after their divorce, so he sent two sets of letters, one to his mother and stepfather, the other to his father and stepmother.

Twenty years after Nicky’s tragic death, all four of his parents raided their musty attics to pull out his old letters from cigar and shoe boxes. They’d never gotten rid of them;they even kept the air mail envelopes with their red, white and blue borders.

In what might have been a last letting-go in their old age, they turned their son’s letters over to me. Not copies, but the originals, all on lined composition paper six by eight-and-a-half inches. I’m looking at them as I write this, for perhaps the hundredth time, and fighting back tears.

There is something immediate, timeless and unforgettably intimate about handwritten letters. When I look at Nicky’s, they’re as fresh as if he had dashed them off today. I can see him writing them in his barracks, the Army helicopter pilot eager to get his hands on the controls of a Huey, to do his job and go home in a year to the girl he plans to marry.

It’s the beginning of July 1969 again. Nicky is alive and well.

His first letter home is tinged with irony.

“Well I arrived in this wonderful place called Viet Nam yesterday at three,” he wrote to his dad and stepmother on July 5. “I still can’t believe I’m here. But when I look around I get more assured I am!!…Oh, I’m at Cam Rahn Bay Replacement Center right now. It’s about 150 miles from Saigon. It’s probably the safest place in Viet Nam. Too bad I can’t get stationed here.”

Nicky wrote three more letters to his parents before July 10, when an Army instructor’s grenade slashed him with metal fragments, almost tearing off his left leg, in a classroom just off the Americal Division base at Chu Lai. All of his letters look as if he’d scribed them with the same blue ballpoint pen. He must have had it handy.

“I’m sorry this is a little sloppy, Dad, but it’s hotter than hell here…Well I’ll let you in on the situation. It’s not too good. There used to be only companies of V.C. around here, but now there are regiments and divisions of them. The lieutenant who briefed us said they expect an offensive, but do not know when…That’s all I can let you know for now. Besides I wouldn’t tell you anymore anyway, because you’ll worry your head off.”

The next day, July 7, he wrote to his mom: “This place is lousy. I can’t even see why we are here because Viet Nam isn’t worth a nickel.”

Nicky sent other letters before he was wounded. They were to his teenage fiancee, Terri, but I never saw them. After his death, she had her best friend burn them because it hurt her too much to read them – and she didn’t want to be the one to destroy them.

When Nicky’s belongings were sent home to his parents, they included an unopened letter to Terri. Nicky hadn’t had a chance to mail it, and Terri never read it or even knew that it existed. Nicky’s stepmother promptly had it burned in the back yard, still in the sealed envelope. She felt it would only have intensified Terri’s grief, and wanted to spare her.

As part of my research for my book on Nicky, Quiet Man Rising: A Soldier’s Life and Death in Vietnam, I read Dear America: Letters Home from Vietnam, edited by Vietnam veteran Bernard Edelman. It cut to my heart.

The purpose of Dear America, the book’s jacket says, is to “evoke reconciliation and an awareness of the enduring human values which are reflected in the conflicting experiences of the Vietnam war.”

Nicky’s letters home would have fit in nicely.

Home Is Where You Dig It

Marine Writing a Letter, Vietnam, 1968