Tragedy at Chu Lai by David Venditta

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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.

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The author, a pic of his cousin, and his pilot helmet

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.

—Henry Zeybel

Tin Can Treason by Terry Nardone

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Terry Nardone’s Tin Can Treason: Recollections from a Combat Tour of Vietnam (CreateSpace, 159 pp. $12.99, paper; $4.99, Kindle) is a tell-all memoir about life aboard a United States Navy destroyer and the dynamics of the relations between crewmen. Worried about the draft and an infantry assignment, Nardone enlisted in the Navy the day after his eighteenth birthday in 1971. Despite getting his dream sheet fulfilled, he ended up on a ship that went to war.

“Are we men or boys?” Nardone asks several times while thinking through his Vietnam War experience aboard the USS Bordelon (DD881). As part of his treatment for PTSD and guided by “a diary of events,” he writes about his shipboard life in the voice of his younger self in a quest to understand the trauma he still feels nearly fifty years later.

Fear and depression played significant roles in the lives of men on the Bordelon during her round trip from Charleston, South Carolina, to the South China Sea between October 1972 and April 1973. Nardone describes attempts to sabotage the ship as proof that the crew hated the war and wanted no part of it.

Off the coast of Vietnam, the Bordelon primarily provided gunfire support for ground forces and took part in Operation Linebacker. Except for one engagement when he went topside, Nardone spent his combat time below deck setting fuses and moving artillery shells.

His contempt for the war peaked when the Bordelon bombarded and “killed about eighteen [friendly] Marines,” he says. He felt an equally tragic loss when he saw a close friend “cut right in half by the steam” from a ruptured 600-PSI line. In combat, tasks that stressed the ship’s structure made “the old beast feel like she [was] going to disintegrate,” Nardone writes, and the crew twice retreated to Subic Bay for repairs.

Nardone talks about the boredom of sailing long distances and says a few crewmen likened it to a prison sentence. He seemingly holds back nothing in describing stops that developed into orgies of drinking booze, smoking dope, and finding whores or girlfriends in port after port. A confessed self-abuser, Nardone nevertheless questioned his behavior, wondering if he “would still have nightmares and problems if [he] did not get stoned.” Frequently in trouble with the ship’s captain, Nardone once spent three days in the brig on bread and water.

The book’s title is deceptive: “Treason” is not clearly defined and might be viewed from multiple perspectives. Suspected of the most flagrant crimes, the ship’s captain was relieved of his command, confined to quarters, and arrested upon returning to the United States.

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Terry Nardone

You could call this a coming-of-age story except that Nardone was a world-wise young man who exerted significant influence on his shipmates. He makes an airtight case for the strength of friendships and confidences that develop among workers in physically restricted surroundings, such as the hundred men on a destroyer.

Reviewing something like a memoir a week for “Books in Review II” for the past year and a half, I have read few accounts of the Vietnam War written by sailors. Until now, the most memorable book I’ve read about the Navy was Brown Water Runs Red by Bob Andretta, which mainly covers action on South Vietnamese rivers.

Tin Can Treason differs by telling more about people and the ship rather than the action. Yet Terry Nardone clearly spells out the impact that the war had on everyone and everything.

He closes his book with a history of the Bordelon from its 1945 commissioning to its 1977 sinking as a target.

—Henry Zeybel

ARVN Soldiers’ Poetry edited by Nguyễn Ngọc Bích

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Nguyễn Hữu Thời, who translated the poems in  Tho Linh Chien Mien Nam: ARVN Soldiers’ Poetry (CreateSpace, 416 pp., $20, paper), tells us that this poetry collection “is a product of soldiers. Not the ‘ghost soldiers’ or the decorative ones, nor the desk bound or office soldiers, but real soldiers, fighting ones in a difficult war, facing hardened and tricky warriors who give us very little breathing space: it’s either you or he, there was no other choice.”

Nguyễn Hữu Thời himself  “has gone through thick and thin in real battles, [and] can therefore empathize with the ‘powerful feelings’ of these poets, his valiant comrades in arms.”

There are no poems in this anthology by noncombatants. The translator hopes he’s represented the ideas of men who spent twenty years of their lives “defending the peace and security of some twenty million South Vietnamese, a quarter million ARVN soldiers died, hundreds of thousands were left handicapped for life and 300,000 went to concentration camps.”

These translated poems—which are presented side by side with the original Vietnamese ones— are often about that experience and represent a bleak picture of both the war and the post-war period. The language is often harsher than the language of poems Americans have written about their experiences in the Vietnam War. These poems also more than match the bitterness found in American Vietnam War veterans’ poems, which express the notion that they were sold down the river by political interests.

Here’s one example, “The Meal on the Battlefield” by Tran Dza Lu, who served as an officer in Kien Hoa province:

Four or five boys look helpless

In their ragged clothes

Eating besides the bodies

They pick their rice, holding the rifles

 

My heart’s with Mom in the Western Paradise

My mind’s with sister in the refugee camp

Villages and hamlets are inconsolably sad

The world is more deserted

 

After the meal, we scoop from the field

Some water we drink to get by

At home, do you know it?

The war dooms us the soldiers

 

It’s still lucky I can eat

Sometimes for two or three days

Having neither meal nor drink

I lie beside the plants and trees

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This is one of the book’s shorter and milder poems. My favorites are by Tran Dac Thang. Each one begins with the word “fuck.” Such as: “Fuck! Why sleep in the jungle again?/All night, the mosquitoes bite and bum one’s back.”

I highly recommend this book to American veterans who have complained about ARVN soldiers. They may not have been the paragons of virtue that we were, but they certainly suffered and died in very large numbers. I think they deserve respect for that.

Read this book and weep.  I did.

—David Willson