Tragedy at Chu Lai
Reconstructing a Deadly Grenade Accident in a US Army Classroom in Vietnam, July 10, 1969
McFarland, Jefferson, North Carolina, 2016, 212 pages
Book Review published on: June 9, 2017
Over five thousand helicopters were lost during the Vietnam War. A pilot’s life expectancy was tenuous at best, and based on statistics, pilots faced death every 4.2 weeks during their tour. Based on these statistics, a pilot would never dream of losing their life to a training accident less than two weeks after arriving in the theater. That is exactly what happened to Nicky Venditti, a U.S. Army helicopter pilot, who went to Vietnam in 1969 and was dead in eleven days; kill by an American Division grenade-training explosion at Chu Lai.
Initially told the death of his cousin was a result of a rocket attack, David Venditta found evidence in a one-page printout obtained from the Vietnam Veterans Memorial that noted the casualty type: non-hostile, died illness, injury; cause: accident. The new information was earth-shattering to the author, and he chronicled this story in Tragedy at Chu Lai. In the book, Venditta recounts the story of his decades-long effort to find out exactly what happened, what the Army did about it, and who was responsible. The book also documents the effect this tragedy had on Nicky Venditta’s family and friends, as well as the two other young soldiers who died with him and, more importantly, the men at the center of the incident.
The book is a well written, well researched, and compelling story. Initially, the book was a little slow because of the background of Nicky as a youth through manhood. All the background information allows you to understand the man killed in Vietnam, but it still made the book a little cumbersome at the beginning. Once the discussion of the incident began, the book picked up considerably and became a well-documented compilation of interviews, material obtained through Freedom of Information Act requests, and various reports gathered by the author to lay out the facts surrounding the incident. David Venditta did a wonderful job of interviewing hundreds of witnesses and senior leaders in the theater in an attempt to find out exactly what happened to his cousin. Not until the author found the noncommissioned officer (NCO) in charge of the class and made a personal visit to his home in California did the truth become known. The guilt expressed by the training NCO and senior leaders was numbing to the author and showed how truly devastating any death is in combat.
The most significant takeaway from the book was the lack of recall of the incident by senior leaders in the Americal Division and the confusion on whether there was an investigation and the outcome or findings from the incident. With today’s aversion to every incident resulting in a formal AR 15-6 investigation, it is truly amazing to read there was no formal investigation from an incident that killed three soldiers and wounded scores of others.
I highly recommend this book for a historian of the Vietnam conflict. Every soldier understands that tragedies and accidents occur in combat but the circumstances surrounding this particular incident and the lack of information for over forty years makes it a compelling story, one that is well told by David Venditta to honor the memory of his fallen cousin, Chief Warrant Officer Nicky Venditta.
Book Review written by: Col. James L. Davis, U.S. Army, Retired, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas