During Vietnam War, how the press handled one soldier’s death

Evening Bulletin story on Nicky Venditti's death

The Evening Bulletin of Philadelphia’s story on Warrant Officer Nicholas L. Venditti’s death in Vietnam.

In my book Tragedy at Chu Lai, about my cousin Nicky’s death in Vietnam under unusual circumstances, I wrote that the local newspaper somehow got the story wrong.

Nicky’s hometown was Malvern, on Philadelphia’s Main Line. The local paper was the Daily Local News in West Chester, the Chester County seat. Its story ran July 21, 1969, six days after Nicky died of wounds from a training accident at Chu Lai, along Vietnam’s central coast south of Da Nang.

Under the one-column headline “Malvern G.I. dies of wounds in Vietnam,” with a boot camp photo of Nicky, the story reads: “A 20-year-old Malvern soldier died in Vietnam last week as the result of wounds suffered in action about a week after he arrived in the war zone.”

The misleading words are “suffered in action,” which tell the reader he was wounded in combat, in some kind of contact with the enemy.

The 6-inch-long article doesn’t give the circumstances that led to the death of Warrant Officer Nicholas L. Venditti, only that he was wounded July 10, “just a few days after his arrival in Vietnam.” It goes on to say he was a 1966 graduate of Great Valley High School, that his parents were Sally Pusey and Louis Venditti, that he used to work at Plastomatic in Malvern, and that he had been trained as a helicopter pilot and commissioned as a warrant officer at Fort Rucker, Ala.

No one in the family was quoted in the story, which has no byline. The announcement of Nicky’s death was attributed to the Defense Department, in which case it was the Pentagon that apparently passed on inaccurate information that the newspaper picked up and didn’t, or couldn’t, verify with the family. In my 40 years as a newspaper writer and editor, I saw things like that happen many times.

Whoever wrote the story included a line that “The soldier’s body is en route home and funeral arrangements will be scheduled at a later date,” which might have come from a family member. There’s a paragraph that names the survivors: Nicky’s younger brother, Harold, known as L.B.; stepbrothers Johnny Pusey and Joe Gray; stepsister Bonnie Pusey and half-sister Lorraine Pusey; and his paternal grandfather, Nicola Venditta. (It omits Nicky’s stepfather, John Pusey, and stepmother, Bert Venditti.) That survivor information would not have come from the Defense Department.

My parents cut out the clipping and kept it in a photo album. It reinforced the impression I had that Nicky’s death came as a result of hostile action. The story in my immediate family was that he and other new arrivals were waiting for a transport of some kind when an enemy rocket hit, the scenario I held onto for 25 years. I later found out Nicky’s parents knew from the start what really happened. An Army telegram dated July 12, 1969, informed them that he was in a training session when a grenade went off by accident and there was “cause for concern” about whether he would live.

I discovered the truth in 1994, when a group called the Friends of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial unveiled a database that had casualty information on each of the 58,000 Americans killed in Vietnam. In the ensuing years, I learned that the rocket-attack account wasn’t the only version that circulated among Nicky’s friends and extended family in Malvern. One of our cousins said he thought Nicky and some other guys were playing cards when someone tossed a grenade into their barracks. A Vietnam veteran who grew up with Nicky told me that he heard Nicky stepped on a mine after getting out of a Huey helicopter.

Yet a major newspaper did have the story right, 10 days after Nicky’s death. I found that out during my first visit with Nicky’s mom, Sally, in 1996. She had the July 25, 1969, article that appeared in The Evening Bulletin of Philadelphia with a photo of Nicky. The headline is “Malvern Copter Pilot Killed in Accidental Grenade Blast.” A reporter had interviewed Sally’s husband, John, who knew the facts because Sally had received the same Army telegram as Nicky’s dad, Louie.

The Evening Bulletin story, which Sally had on a plaque under the words “Memorial Obituary: Entered into Eternal Rest Tuesday, July 15, 1969,” has no more information on what it calls, in the first sentence, “an accidental grenade explosion.” It does not say, for example, that the explosion happened during a training session, which was noted in the telegram.

But Nicky’s stepfather was quoted in the story. “Nicky had always wanted to be a helicopter pilot in the Army,” John said. “He was a crack shot, too. Nicky and our police chief here in town used to go out to the police rifle range quite a bit to shoot and talk about flying. … The first thing he wanted to do when he came home was to rent a copter and fly us both into the back country to do some hunting.”

At the end of its article, The Evening Bulletin listed other Pennsylvania casualties from mid-July 1969 – John G. Gertsch of Pittsburgh, who would be posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor, and William D. Lounsbury of Warren, Warren County. Their names apparently were culled from a Pentagon press release.

Aunt Sally had a clipping from another newspaper that was unidentified but clearly smaller than the Daily Local News. The story, 6 inches long and riddled with typos, and with no photo of Nicky, is headlined “Pilot Dies in Vietnam” and was based on an interview with Sally. It incorrectly states the Army telegram described Nicky as having been “wounded in action,” and goes on to quote Sally as saying her son had always wanted to be a pilot and he enjoyed hunting and was an expert marksman.

In the weeks ahead, Nicky’s parents would learn disturbing details of a training session gone bad. That additional information came in an Aug. 14, 1969, letter bearing the name of an Americal Division commander in Vietnam, Lt. Col. Robert C. Bacon. It says:

“On the morning of July 10, 1969, Nicholas was attending a class on the use of grenades at the Americal Division Combat Center located at the Division’s base camp at Chu Lai, Republic of South Vietnam. At 10:15 a.m., the class instructor removed the safety pin from a hand grenade that was thought to have been disarmed for instructional purposes. However, the grenade detonated when he threw it to the floor of the classroom.”

Newspaper readers at the time could not have known that two other soldiers died with Nicky — Warrant Officer Wilbur J. Vachon III of Portland, Maine, and Specialist Timothy T. Williams of Toledo, Ohio. Their deaths were reported separately. There was no overarching story from a wire service or a national newspaper like The New York Times saying three Americal Division soldiers who had just arrived at Chu Lai had died because an Army instructor unwittingly tossed a live grenade. A story like that might have drawn wider coverage. In 1967, a training accident that killed 13 Marines near Da Nang made front pages across the U.S.

Ultimately, though, the reported details of Nicky’s death didn’t matter to his parents. It only mattered that he was gone.

An old army trick by a Yank in the RCAF

Warren Neubauer with his mother, Eva, in Allentown during World War II.

Warren Neubauer with his mother, Eva, in Allentown during World War II.

It was the fall of 1940, a year before the U.S. entered World War II. A teenager from Pennsylvania ran off to join the Royal Canadian Air Force. He wanted to come home for Christmas, but apparently because of the urgent need for pilots to take up the fight against Germany, the trainees had to remain at the base in Canada. He wrote to a friend back home in Allentown, asking him to play a trick that might allow the budding flier to see his family and friends over the holidays.

Did they pull it off?

I’ve written before about Bob Riedy. The 1938 Allentown High School graduate studied aircraft maintenance at the Curtiss-Wright trade school near Los Angeles and worked as an engineer at the company’s plant in Buffalo, New York, before signing up with the RCAF. This year, Ernie Neubauer of Barnesville, Georgia, saw my February 2011 post and wrote to me that his father and Riedy were best friends in high school. Neubauer’s father, Warren Neubauer, died in 1999, and his mother, Dora, died last March in Neenah, Wisconsin.

“As we were going through her things,” Neubauer wrote, “we found two letters that Bob had written my father while he was in basic training in Canada. My father was never much on keeping things, but he did keep these. They were just letters from one friend to another but are interesting.”

I asked Neubauer to send me the letters. The first one, on RCAF stationery, was dated Nov. 27, 1940.

Dear Warren,
… You should see the classy uniform they’ve given me. It’s much more attractive than that Boy Scout uniform which I once wore. The darn trouble is that there are several thousand more like it right here in Toronto; so, I haven’t been able to make much of an impression. I am working for a commission (so are several hundred other gentlemen here) which would be awarded at the completion of my course. If I don’t get that they will give me a sarg. [sergeant]-pilot’s stripes. Right now they have us drilling, marching, kicking a rifle around and on rare occasions shooting it on the range. We’ve also been given bayonet drills. At the rate we have been going, they must be giving the army flying lessons. We will be doing this for several weeks yet after which we go to initial training school. There we are put in a decompression chamber and given another stiff physical exam. We’ve had two already. If that physical is passed, OK, I’ll be on my way. There isn’t much likelihood of the latter though….”

Saying “Now to get away from myself,” Riedy goes on to ask about a mutual friend. “How is Iacocca (How does my spelling compare with his?) making out? Tell him to give my affectionate regards to Hollywood Boulevard.” He closes with “Yours till the cows come home. — Bob”

Riedy spelled the name correctly, but Neubauer wrote it’s not clear whom exactly Riedy is referring to. Neubauer said his dad knew Lee Iacocca but was a few years older than the future Chrysler Corporation chairman and didn’t hang around with him.

“I assume it was Lee’s cousin or brother. I do know my dad worked at Yocco’s Hot Dogs while he was in high school.” (Yocco’s was an Iacocca family enterprise. Theodore Iacocca, Lee’s uncle, founded the Allentown eatery in 1922.)

In the second letter Warren Neubauer kept, Riedy hatches the plot for a Christmas getaway. It’s dated Dec. 8, 1940, again on RCAF stationery, with a return address of No. 1 Manning Depot, Toronto.

Dear Warren,

It’s not often that I write before receiving a reply from you, but in this case it is different. I want you to do a favor for me.

Here is the story. All Christmas leaves in the RCAF have been cancelled for aircrew members – that is pilots and observors. Why I don’t know, for the weather is too bloomin bloody lousy to fly in anyhow. Well yours truly figures on spending Christmas Day at home as long as I am stationed in Toronto. Now you’re going to help me play the old army trick. On the Sunday morning just preceding Christmas please send me the following telegram:

Dear Bob,
Mother needs you. It is imperative that you try to come home immediately.
Dad

Please be sure that you include the above in its entirety. I shall reimburse you for all expenses incurred, I promise you. It is also very important that you mention this to no one. If I can possibly make it, I want to surprise my parents. If I can’t, I don’t want them to be disappointed. There are so many things that can go wrong that it is not too likely that I can make it: I may be transferred, I may have difficulty getting across the border, etc. But in any case, I’m going to try my darndest.

I wish you’d acknowledge receipt of this letter as soon as you receive it; so, I’ll know whether or not to expect your telegram.

Thank you my dear sir
Your pal,
Bob

Ernie Neubauer found this letter “hilarious.” After Riedy sent it, according to his RCAF personnel file, he was transferred Dec. 17 from Toronto to Debert, Nova Scotia, site of a training camp and staging area for Canadian troops bound for the European Theater.

It isn’t clear whether Neubauer’s father followed through on the ruse, but Riedy did get home to Allentown that Christmas. A photo in the Dec. 24, 1940, issue of the Allentown Call-Chronicle shows Riedy with a former Allentown High classmate, Martin Schulte, both with big smiles. They’re in uniforms, but Schulte’s is that of the U.S. Army Air Forces. The caption reads in part, “Today the two school pals, who haven’t seen each other in a year, were chumming around Allentown on their Christmas leaves.” According to the newspaper, Riedy arrived in Allentown from Nova Scotia on Dec. 23 via United Airlines and Canadian Colonial Airways.

On Dec. 30, the Call-Chronicle reported that Riedy, 19 years old, would be flying that day back to Debert.

Maybe the RCAF changed its mind and allowed aircrew trainees to go home for the holidays. Or maybe Warren Neubauer did as his friend asked, and they got away with using “the old army trick” to spring Riedy for a one-week interlude.

Sgt. Bob Riedy of the Royal Canadian Air Force in England a few weeks before his death.

Sgt. Bob Riedy of the Royal Canadian Air Force in England a few weeks before his death.

Whatever it was, Riedy did not have much time left. He completed his training in Canada less than a year later, ferried an American-built bomber to England and was assigned to No. 15 Operational Training Unit. On Feb. 12 and 13, 1942, he might have participated in a large Royal Air Force effort to stop two German battleships as they dashed across the English Channel for home. Riedy appears with five other grinning fliers in a Times of London photo under the headline, “They swept into battle against the Scharnhorst and the Gneisenau.” But it’s not clear whether Riedy was actually in on the chase.

The next month, Sgt. Robert Harvey Riedy of the Royal Canadian Air Force was killed in a training accident. It happened March 18, 1942, at the RAF’s Mount Farm airfield in Oxfordshire, near Oxford. The 20-year-old pilot was in the cockpit of a twin-engine Wellington bomber. Another sergeant was in the pilot’s seat, and there was a gunner on board. Roaring down the runway for takeoff at 1:25 p.m., the Wellington clipped a twin-engine Hudson bomber parked on the edge of the fire track. The Wellington rose vertically to 200 feet, then plummeted to the ground. It crashed and burned. Riedy and the pilot died instantly; the gunner was seriously injured.

Riedy was memorialized as the first Allentown serviceman to die in Europe during the war. He was buried in Brookwood Military Cemetery at Surrey, U.K.

Neubauer’s father, Warren, who was a tire re-capper after graduating from Allentown High School, grieved over the loss of his friend.

“When he was initially drafted,” Ernie Neubauer said of his dad, “he failed his physical because he was legally blind in one eye. Bob Riedy’s death affected him so much that he tried to enlist in the army again and passed his physical by memorizing the eye chart. He passed his infantry basic training but was transferred to the Medical Corps and served in the Pacific Theater with the 31st Station Hospital in New Caledonia, Okinawa and Korea.”

Ernie Neubauer said that after the war, his father used the GI Bill to get a college education and had a successful career of over 35 years with Kimberly-Clark Corp., working in the U.S., Europe and Africa for the maker of health and hygiene products. Warren and Dora had four children — Ernie, Kristina, Frederick and Cynthia. Warren’s brother, Glenn, was a Lutheran pastor for 40 years, the last 35 in the Lehigh Valley at the Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Good Shepherd in Wilson. He died in 2015 at age 97.

Warren Neubauer did not forget his friend’s sacrifice in the war. To honor Riedy’s memory, he gave Ernie the middle name Harvey – the same as Riedy’s.

Hueys and my Vietnam War book

Mary took this photo of me Aug. 4 in front of a UH-1 Huey helicopter at the Naval Air Station Wildwood Aviation Museum in Rio Grande, N.J.

Mary took this photo of me Aug. 4 in front of a UH-1 Huey helicopter at the Naval Air Station Wildwood Aviation Museum in Rio Grande, N.J.

In 1998 when I was working on the story about my cousin Nicky’s death in Vietnam, I arranged to see a Huey helicopter up close at the Willow Grove Naval Air Station near Philadelphia. That was the kind of aircraft Nicky learned to fly in the spring of 1969 at Fort Rucker, Ala., but which he didn’t live long enough to fly in a combat zone. At Willow Grove, I was escorted to the tarmac where the Huey was parked. I put my hands on the sleek body, felt the smooth metal, examined the interior and took many pictures.

This June 9, my book Tragedy at Chu Lai was published by McFarland & Co., 21 years after I started the writing and research. My wife, Mary, and I followed that milestone this month with a three-day vacation to Cape May, N.J., on the last day touring the Naval Air Station Wildwood Aviation Museum. Among the more than two dozen aircraft on display in a World War II hangar were two Hueys, one of which had been flown in Vietnam. We took photos of ourselves posing in front of the iconic symbols of the war.

It seemed fitting that up-close encounters with the Bell UH-1 Iroquois had opened and closed the work on my book about Nicky. A 20-year-old pilot, he was undergoing Americal Division orientation at Chu Lai in July 1969, hoping to be assigned to the 176th Assault Helicopter Company. But he and his friend Billy Vachon and another soldier, Tim Williams, were cut down when an Army instructor teaching grenade safety unwittingly tossed a live grenade into their midst.

I invite you to join me at 1 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 10 at the Lehigh Valley Heritage Museum in Allentown, where I’ll be talking about the story and my long search for the details of how this deadly training accident happened. It will be a Q&A format, with my editor Ardith Hilliard asking questions. Copies of Tragedy at Chu Lai will be available for purchase, and I’ll be signing them. The book is available online at http://amzn.to/2bSNVe0 and from the publisher at http://bit.ly/1SLp0Ia. Visit my website at http://www.tragedyatchulai.com. For more about the Huey, go to the U.S. Army Heritage & Education Center website at http://www.carlisle.army.mil/ahec/trail/Huey/.

How war veterans have touched my life

Judy Greenhalgh, me and Dick Musselman

Judy Greenhalgh, me and Dick Musselman of the Lehigh Valley Chapter of the Veterans of the Battle of the Bulge at the group’s July 19 meeting in the Best Western outside Bethlehem. My wife, Mary, took the photo.

In 17 years of interviewing war veterans, I got back much more than I gave.

It was an honor and a privilege to meet with men and women who put on a uniform when the country called and did their duty, sometimes at risk of life and limb. I met with more than a hundred of them and considered all of them my friends. They taught me the meaning of courage and sacrifice. It hurts when I see the names and faces of the many who have since died.

I was grateful that veterans welcomed me into their homes and put their trust in me – a confidence that allowed some to reveal dangers they faced that they had never even told their own families about. Sometimes our conversations coaxed long-suppressed memories to the surface. During two interviews, I looked on dumbly as the old men fell from composure to shoulder-heaving sobs in a split second. It was post-traumatic stress flaring up after more than a half-century, exposing raw emotional wounds. The one veteran had just told me about bayoneting a German officer to death. The other was flatly describing the “canyon of death” that kamikazes created on his aircraft carrier.

Some found that talking about their experiences upset them. Joe Poster yelled at me once when I showed up at his door, saying I was causing old horrors to haunt him in the night. He had endured the Bataan Death March and three years as a prisoner of the Japanese.

When the stories made it into print and onto The Morning Call’s website, I had the satisfaction of seeing the veterans receive the attention and recognition they deserved, and of knowing their families were filled with pride. The night before publication of every story, I would ask God to be with my subject. One veteran, Poster, had told me he was anxious about his account being seen by perhaps tens of thousands of readers. He worried that people wouldn’t believe the fear and suffering he had known in the war. But weeks after his story ran, he told me excitedly, “Since that story was in, I can do no wrong!”

It was also rewarding to have a role in bringing long-ago foes together. One of my storytellers was Eddie Sakasitz, who had served in an anti-tank unit of the German army on the Eastern Front and in Italy, where he was machine-gunned in the legs. After his story ran, the Lehigh Valley Veterans of the Battle of the Bulge invited him to attend its monthly luncheon meetings. Almost until the end of his life, he did, bringing along his wife, Catherine. He liked to repeat a joke he and his Wehrmacht buddies used to tell: “We lost the First World War. We’ll win this one, too.” German soldiers, he explained, risked harsh punishment if officers heard them sounding defeatist. At one meeting, I saw Eddie sitting and chatting amiably with Ray Christman, another of my subjects. Captured by the Germans during the Bulge, Ray almost died in a POW camp.

Over the years, I had gone to meetings of veterans groups like the “I Was Shot At” club and the Lehigh Valley unit of the U.S. Submarine Veterans of World War II, both of which met at the City View Diner in Whitehall. But no group I spent time with was more active than the Bulge veterans, VBOB for short. I became an associate member about 20 years ago, when they were meeting at the Terrace restaurant in Walnutport, and interviewed many of its members, including longtime president Morris Metz. They now meet at the Best Western outside Bethlehem, still on the third Tuesday of each month.

Some interviews led to opportunities to present war stories at public events. While Don Burdick was telling me about his experience at Bastogne, he showed me something he had kept under wraps – gruesome photos he’d taken during the liberation of the Dachau concentration camp. That led me to write a follow-up story about Don and his collection of images. After that, the Jewish Federation of the Lehigh Valley invited me to do an on-stage interview with Don to mark Holocaust Remembrance Day. Several hundred people at the Jewish Community Center in Allentown heard Don articulately convey his horror over what he’d seen at the Nazi camp.

For this past Memorial Day, ArtsQuest invited me to do a program at the SteelStacks campus in south Bethlehem. I had three World War II veterans on stage, all men in their 90s whose stories I’ve written: Joseph E. Motil, who hit Utah Beach on D-Day; Carl A. Schroeter, who was captured by the Germans in the opening days of the Battle of the Bulge; and Bob Holden, a crewman aboard the USS Finback when the submarine rescued downed flier George W. Bush.

Such accounts exist beyond The Morning Call’s website, where they are permanently posted at http://www.mcall.com/warstories. The WWII stories also go to the archives at the National World War II Museum in New Orleans.

My work has always been about informing people of what servicemen and women have seen and accomplished, and preserving their remembrances for future generations. I don’t like the limelight; I’d much rather labor in the trenches. But after I retired from The Morning Call on July 1, VBOB turned the tables by saluting me, a non-veteran. My wife, Mary, and I were treated to lunch at the July 19 meeting and heard kind words from Dick Musselman, Lionel Adda, Judy Greenhalgh and others.

The VBOB group also presented gifts. They included a large, framed certificate showing the patches of all the major units that participated in the Battle of the Bulge, with a personal message thanking me for my “passion and perseverance in giving a voice to local veterans whose stories would have otherwise been lost to posterity, for bringing to light the personal accounts of bravery, courage and suffering of the local men and women who served in defense of our country’s values and freedoms.” I received an album of pictures showing many friends I’d made through my work, and a Case knife gift set commemorating V-E Day. I also got a written message from a great friend and admirer of the veterans, who congratulated me on my “contributions to the LV Chapter Veterans of the Battle of the Bulge.” The signer: Mario Andretti.

For many years, my reward has been in meeting veterans, spending time with them and getting their stories into the newspaper. This tribute from VBOB was icing on the cake, one of the nicest things that has happened to me.

The veterans I’ve known have given my life added meaning. I will always cherish their friendship.

A 17-year tally of war stories that had to be told

My last night of work at The Morning Call

My last night of work at The Morning Call in Allentown, after cleaning out my desk. My co-worker Frank Warner took the picture at shift’s end.

With my retirement from The Morning Call on July 1 after 32 years, I left behind a trove of stories about war veterans. I did an accounting in my last days at the newspaper and found that of 102 veterans I interviewed for my “War Stories: In Their Own Words” series that started in 1999 — most of them from World War II — 63 have since died.

Here again is the sad reality: Sixty-two percent of the war veterans I’ve interviewed over the past 17 years have died.

It points to the importance of getting these stories told before they are lost to the ages. I’m glad I wrote them. Not only will these accounts live for future generations, but there was a personal reward in seeing the veterans’ pride over the recognition they received when their stories were published. It was meaningful work.

(I got a big thank you July 19 at the monthly meeting of the Lehigh Valley Chapter, Veterans of the Battle of the Bulge. I’ll tell you about that later.)

My “In Their Own Words” series had a total of 112 stories. In five that I handled, the subject was deceased and his written remembrance appeared with the help of his family. Another five were written by other members of The Morning Call staff. Under the format, the veteran – not the writer – told his or her story, culled from recorded interviews and fashioned into a narrative. Sometimes the interviews extended over weeks or months and took countless hours.

The series had one veteran from the World War I era, Olaf Marthinson, who was 102 when reporter Ron Devlin and I interviewed him in 1999 about his role in the 1916 hunt for Mexican rebel leader Pancho Villa. There was one story from the Cold War, on Berlin Airlift pilot Harry D. Yoder; six Korean War stories; six Vietnam War stories; and one Iraq War story, on decorated helicopter pilot Michael B. Hultquist. The rest were all from World War II, including two who served in the German army.

You can read the “In Their Own Words” stories at http://www.mcall.com/news/local/warstories/ In 2011, The Morning Call published a collection of my interviews in the book War Stories in Their Own Words, available online at http://store.mcall.com/war-stories.html

I wrote a dozen other war stories that were not in the “in their own words” format. These included an interview with reclusive World War II Medal of Honor recipient Alton W. Knappenberger that is posted on the Arlington National Cemetery website http://arlingtoncemetery.net/awkappenberger.htm, interviews with Pearl Harbor radar men Joseph L. Lockard, Robert D. McKenney and Richard G. Schimmel, and a feature about Werner E. Schmiedel of Lehigh County, leader of the Lane Gang who was executed by the U.S. Army in 1945 for a violent crime spree that included his murder of an Italian civilian.

For the record, here is a list of the people I wrote about and the people whose stories appeared in the “In Their Own Words” series:

Olaf Marthinson (deceased), Willard “Bill” Haas (deceased), John Feninez Jr. (deceased), McRae A. Lilly (deceased), Dick Acker, Robert A. Carl (deceased), Oliver L. Cleaver (deceased), Frank J. Cudzil (deceased), John B. Dorsey (deceased), Lamar J.T. Farrel, Elizabeth Granger (deceased), Robert Holden, Marian Arner Jones (deceased), Earl “Lee” Leaser (deceased), Rothacker C. Smith Jr., Charles A. Yenser (deceased), James W. Murdy, Wilbur “Will” R. Weaver (deceased), John B. Desrosiers Jr. (deceased), John H. Minnich (deceased), Joseph T. Poster (deceased), Robert E. Serafin (deceased), Edward A. Goldschmidt (deceased), Ernest E. “Whitey” Eschbach (deceased), Paul R. Moyer (deceased), Julius Barkis (deceased), Earl R. Metz (deceased), Earl R. Schantzenbach (deceased), Rev. Edward W. McElduff, John C. Umlauf (deceased), Frank E. Speer (deceased), Robert F. Kauffman (deceased), Alton W. Knappenberger (deceased), Andrew V. Cisar (deceased), Ernest P. Leh (deceased), Benson B. Hartney Jr. (deceased), Joseph P. Anfuso, James A. Creech, James J. Ahern (deceased), Rolland J. “Joe” Correll, Harold E. Saylor (deceased), Jared S. “Jerry” Webre (deceased), Aleck H. Jensen (deceased), Joseph B. Moore (deceased), Florence B. Michaels (deceased), Charles J. Toth (deceased), Howard W. “Bench” Hartman (deceased), Evangeline R. Coeyman, Daniel Hasenecz (deceased), Clifford Ryerson (deceased), Jack Davis (deceased), Edward Sakasitz (deceased), Horace F. Rehrig (deceased), Joseph E. Motil, Charles Kowalchuk (deceased), Richard G. Schimmel, Bohdan T. Pacala (deceased), Robert J. Hutchings, William J. Walker (deceased), Raymond J. Christman Jr., Dr. John J. Hoch, Chris R. Showalter, Warren “Jake” Fegely (deceased), Warren G.H. “Pete” Peters (deceased), Donald W. Burdick, Joseph L. Szczepanski (deceased), Daniel L. Curatola, Nathan Kline, Graydon “Woody” Woods (deceased), Alfred R. Taglang (deceased), Louis H. Vargo, Hank Kudzik, Dick Richards (deceased), E. Duncan Cameron (deceased), Donald F. Mack (deceased), Samuel F. Shireman (deceased), Stanley A. Parks (deceased), Burdell S. Hontz, John A. Caponigro (deceased), John “Reds” Urban (deceased), Jerome Y. Neff (deceased), Ralph H. Mann (deceased), Donald E. Miller, Joseph L. Lockard (deceased), Robert D. McKenney (deceased), Bert Winzer, Robert H. Gangewere, William R. Munsch (deceased), Gloria Mitchell, Robert L. Kroner (deceased), Walter Kuchinos, Dick Schermerhorn, Bill Fritz, Clifford A. Hahn (deceased), Raymond F. Davis, Walter A.L. King (deceased), Pauline Haydt Minnich, Carl A. Schroeter, Charles L. Gubish, Carl J. Manone (deceased), Morris D. Metz, William E. D’Huyvetters, Werner E. Schmiedel (executed by U.S. Army), Leonard V. Siegfried, Garrett S. Runey, Charles F. Remington (deceased), Walter Warda, Harold G. “Gordon” Higgins, Harry D. Yoder (deceased), Francis Phillips (deceased), Randolph Rabenold, Robert W. Reichard, Cecelia Ann Sulkowski (deceased), Gene Salay (deceased), Jim W. Snyder Jr. (deceased), Victor L. Doddy (killed in Vietnam), Bernard J. Dugan, Juan Jimenez (deceased), Levi “Chip” Borger Jr., Clifford J. Treese, Eric R. Shimer, Michael B. Hultquist.

‘We were all in our skivvies, running around like mad’

Jerry Winslow in The Daily Record of Coatesville, Pa., 1991

Pearl Harbor survivor Jerry Winslow in the Dec. 3, 1991, edition of The Daily Record of Coatesville, Pa.

Imagine it’s 8 a.m. Dec. 7, 1941, and you’re trying to wake up the hung-over guys in your Army barracks on Oahu because the Japanese are attacking. Your “buddies” respond by blasting you with obscenities and everything they can get their hands on without moving from their cots.

Wait, I need to back up here.

Over the holidays, my aunt Hilda Tarlecky handed me a newspaper that had a story marking the 50th anniversary of the Pearl Harbor attack. She thought I’d be interested in talking to the man whose picture was at the top of Page 1, a longtime friend of hers named Jerry Winslow.

An attack survivor, Jerry had been interviewed by The Daily Record of Coatesville in southeastern Pennsylvania. The story, under the headline “The Day Still Lives in Infamy: Pearl Harbor Remembered,” ran Dec. 3, 1991. At the time, Jerry lived in neighboring Downingtown, my hometown.

Aunt Hilda, who is my mom’s older sister, and Jerry’s wife, Lorraine, were in the Women’s Club together and loved to sew, their hands turning out fine needlework and quilting. They lived only about a half-mile apart and liked to trade cooking recipes. Lorraine died in 2010.

My aunt was a week shy of 92 when she gave me Jerry’s story during a family party just before Christmas. In my many years of interviewing veterans for The Morning Call in Allentown, I’d done stories on 13 Pearl Harbor survivors, or just 12 percent of all the war stories I’d written.

I was intrigued, so last week I called Jerry, who is 99 years old and now lives in Kennett Square. He sounded pleased to hear from me and was eager to talk. He had grown up in Chicago, attended a Catholic high school and was drafted. The Army sent him to Hawaii, where he was a private with the 41st Coast Artillery at Fort Kamehameha.

The base had coastal gun batteries for the defense of Pearl Harbor. Jerry’s job was to help load 8-inch guns. He wasn’t thrilled to be there.

“I had no use for the Army,” he said. “I didn’t give a darn.”

Early Sunday, Dec. 7, Jerry went to church and then ate pancakes at the mess hall. Only three or four other guys were there. The others were sleeping off a long night of drinking and carousing.

Suddenly, there was noise outside. Jerry and the others with him in the mess hall ran to the door and opened it.

“Down the main drag of the island, these planes were coming down, almost touching the ground. I didn’t know they were Japanese planes, didn’t have the faintest idea. I had watched the Navy go out the day before and thought it was a war game, so I was waving at these Japanese planes. One guy flew close to me, and he turned his head. Did he wave back at me? I’ve often wondered when I look back. I know he turned to look. I think he was bewildered, trying to see what was waving at him.

“Somebody grabbed me and said hey, you stupid so and so, the Japanese are attacking us!”

Jerry ran to the barracks to alert the other soldiers.

“They were all dead drunk, a bunch of bums. I’m yelling at them: ‘We’re being attacked, we’re being attacked!’ And all of a sudden all these things began to be thrown at me, pillows, shoes, I never saw so much stuff going through the air – and the language!

“But then, one of the planes came over and strafed the barracks. I’ll never forget it for as long as I live – det-det-det-det. I looked up and saw these holes in the corrugated tin roof. And these guys who were yelling and screaming at me, everybody looked up and realized within a hundredth of a second that it was true.”

A sergeant smashed the barracks locker that held their Springfield rifles. They went outside and fired at the Zero fighters.

“We were all in our skivvies, running around like mad. The Japanese kept strafing. We fired at them with our Springfields. They were old-fashioned rifles, but they were good, they were accurate. I fired mine so much, the barrel got hot.”

As the battle raged, Jerry saw something that still disturbs him. A few enemy planes were shot down, one near the mess hall, and he watched as Americans pounced on the injured pilot.

“Guys were pulling the pilot out of the plane and doing bad things to him. To pull them out of the planes and take them apart while they were still alive!

“I remember that night we were settling down, getting a little chow. I couldn’t eat because I remembered what they did. [But] I had no love for the Japanese. They were destroying my life; they were destroying my buddies.”

Jerry and others from his base were trucked to the northern part of the island and put up barbed wire on the beaches, anticipating an invasion that never came. Jerry was surprised by that.

“The Japanese could have walked onto that island, took it right over.”

Later, Jerry was sent back to the States to Officer Candidate School and spent the rest of the war as a lieutenant in the Philippines and elsewhere in the Pacific islands. He went home to Chicago, worked in a Sinclair Oil Corp. research lab and got married. He and Lorraine had four daughters and moved to Pennsylvania.

Looking back on the Pearl Harbor attack, Jerry tried to find the words to describe the confusion and terror.

“Your brain doesn’t work right,” he said. “You try to analyze what’s happening, but you can’t pull things apart. You’re upset, I guess. All I could think was: I’m not going home. There’s a war on.”

A long time coming: my Vietnam story

My story about what happened to my cousin in Vietnam

Cover of my book, to be published this spring or summer

In 1994, when I learned how my cousin Nicky Venditti was killed in the Vietnam War, I set out to write about him. We had hardly known each other. He was five years older, and we grew up in different towns near Philly.

But we had a big Italian family in common. Our dads were among a dozen children of an immigrant from central Italy. (Two of Grandpop’s sons, including Nicky’s dad, spelled our surname differently, with an “i” on the end instead of an “a.” I’ll tell you the story behind that another time.)

Nicky was a 20-year-old Army helicopter pilot when he went to Vietnam in the summer of 1969. He was dead in 11 days. The truth about what happened to him shocked me. The Americal Division told his parents he was mortally wounded when a grenade accidentally went off during an orientation class at LZ Bayonet, just outside the big Army base at Chu Lai. He died five days later, on July 15, at the 312th Evacuation Hospital on the base.

I’d always thought he was killed by the enemy.

One part of writing about Nicky was to re-create his life and follow his path to Vietnam. I could do that through interviews with friends and family. But finding out exactly what happened in that Army classroom on July 10, 1969, was not so easy. It took me many years, because no record of an investigation exists. The military had mishandled its response to the incident, doing a disservice to Nicky’s family and the families of two other young soldiers who died with him, Billy Vachon and Tim Williams.

Twenty-one years have passed since the reality of Nicky’s fate caught my eye. Soon you will be able to read the story I put together over those two decades. It will be published this spring or summer by McFarland & Co. under the title Tragedy at Chu Lai. Information about it is on McFarland’s online catalog at http://bit.ly/1SLp0Ia, where you can pre-order it, if you like.

This is more than a war story. It’s also a life-affirming reconstruction of family, friendship, loyalty and small-town life in 1960s America, the small town being Malvern, Pa., where Nicky grew up.