Tag Archives: Chu Lai

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.

Lessons I Learned from Pat Tillman’s Story

After reading Jon Krakauer’s Where Men Win Glory: The Odyssey of Pat Tillman, I couldn’t help but compare the story of the NFL player killed by friendly fire in Afghanistan to what happened to my cousin Nicky Venditti in Vietnam 35 years earlier.

– Tillman was a famous athlete. Nicky was athletic, too, but hardly known outside his hometown of Malvern, Pennsylvania. Still, they both felt a duty to serve their country in wartime, and both enlisted in the Army – Tillman to be an elite Ranger, Nicky to become a helicopter pilot.

– The military clearly knew how Tillman died in 2004; the evidence all pointed to gunfire coming from his own platoon, near the Pakistan border.

In Nicky’s case, the Army couldn’t determine how an instructor at the Americal Division base at Chu Lai happened to toss a live grenade in his classroom. For lack of evidence, the brass ended up calling the 1969 explosion that killed Nicky, Billy Vachon and Tim Williams an accident. But it might not have been friendly fire. It might have been the work of a Viet Cong saboteur, as the instructor himself now suggests. We will never know.

– There were cries of cover-up in both cases. Ranger leaders stupidly withheld the details of Tillman’s death, leading his family and the American public to believe he was gunned down by the enemy.

After the deaths of Nicky, Billy and Tim at Chu Lai, some soldiers complained that the truth of what happened wouldn’t come out. There was an investigation, but in years of searching I’ve never been able to find any paperwork on it. In the immediate aftermath, the families were told little more than that a grenade had gone off by accident in a classroom.

– A big difference between the two incidents was how Tillman’s family responded to the news of his death. They would not rest until they learned the details surrounding his fatal shooting. Ultimately, after pressing the government relentlessly to come clean, they got some satisfaction.

Nicky’s parents and those of Billy Vachon and Tim Williams did not seek the details of what happened to their boys or question the Army at all about it. They accepted the word that was handed down to them.

Perhaps that has something to do with who they were: the generation that fought World War II — and still did not doubt the military, even during the unpopular war in Vietnam.

But it was something else, too, that was more basic: To Nicky’s parents, it didn’t matter how he died, only that he was gone.

What happened to Tillman and Nicky didn’t diminish their sacrifice, no matter how you classify their deaths. They both stood up for their country in its time of need, and died for it.