David Venditta’s Tragedy at Chu Lai: Reconstructing a Deadly Grenade Accident in a U.S. Army Classroom in Vietnam, July 10, 1969 (McFarland, 212 pp., $29.95, paper; $17.99, Kindle) is the story of the author’s hunt to find out exactly what caused the death of his cousin, U.S. Army Warrant Officer Nicky Venditti.
David Venditta, a retired journalist, conducted a twenty-one-year investigation, wading through official misinformation and uncovering hitherto unknown facts. The two men were cousins, but the spelling of their last names differs because part of the family reverted to the original spelling—Venditti—that officials at Ellis Island had altered two generations earlier.
In 1969, The Daily Local News of West Chester, Pennsylvania, attributed Nicky Venditti’s death to “wounds suffered in action about a week after he arrived in the war zone.” The assumption was that “a rocket got him,” David Venditta says. In 1994, curiosity led him to contact the newly organized Friends of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and ask about his cousin’s death. The Friends told him the death was listed as a “non-hostile” casualty. That motivated David Venditta to try to find out exactly what happened.
The book’s first half recreates Nicky Venditti’s life through childhood, elementary and high school, military training as a helicopter pilot, and arrival in Vietnam. The last half reveals his cousin’s extensive research into the matter from the time he contacted the Friends in 1994 until he wrote the book in 2015.
The author learned that an “instructor unknowingly discharged a live grenade” during classroom instruction and that was what killed Nicky and two other soldiers. Slowly but methodically, David Venditta looked through paperwork from virtually every available government source and interviewed one hundred thirty people from all levels of command, as well as friends of those who died.
Most significantly, the author learned that no meaningful investigation or conclusive report had resulted from the incident. Repeatedly finding the Army remiss in its approach to the three deaths, David Venditta tried to find a guilty party worthy of punishment. Eventually he found and interviewed the instructor who had detonated the grenade. His confrontation and conversations with the man constitute the climax of the book.
Guilt for what happened is never clearly established. The possibility of sabotage existed. David’s relations with the instructor provide an excellent psychological study about the acceptance of responsibilities related to war. “What if?” and “Stuff Happens” influenced the thinking of both men.
When I finished reading the book, I had mixed feelings about David’s investigation and his conclusions.
I intend to pass the book on to my brother-in-law, who (like David Venditti and unlike myself) did not serve in the military. I look forward to hearing his opinion. To me, many of the author’s questions are unanswerable—perhaps even unnecessary. But I’m still thinking about them.
David Venditta’s encounters with military personnel and military procedures steered him toward another project, interviewing more than a hundred veterans of both World Wars, the Cold War, and the Korean and Vietnam Wars. He published accounts of these men in another book, War Stories: In Their Own Words.