Austin J. Nicholl, a North Riverside firefighter by trade, didn’t grow up intending to write the great American novel.
But he did write a book about a Chicago family’s reaction to their personal loss and one that was felt by so many other Americans.
Nicholl, 56, of Chicago is the author of “Smile On Your Brother: A Family Still Hears the Echoes of Vietnam.”
The book is about the Fitzmaurice family’s reaction through the years after losing a son and brother in the Vietnam War a half-century ago.
Nicholl got the idea after many conversations with his brother-in-law, Bryan Dillon, whose good friend, Tim Fitzmaurice, died on May 9, 1968, in a fierce battle in Vietnam in the Battle of Hill 1192.
“It was always a story that was going around in the family. … I was always hesitant about asking about it, it brought back some traumatic memories about losing his friend,” Nicholl said.
He realized the family had a story to tell, to eventually share, and one that could help others cope with such a devastating loss of life.
Dillon put Nicholl in touch with Fitzmaurice’s sisters.
“It took a little bit of coaxing and convincing in [our] first meeting,” Nicholl said. “The book is about Tim Fitzmaurice and his two sisters. They were very tight. Most of the story is about their experiences after learning of their brother’ death and coming to grips with the reality of him being gone.”
Throughout 18 months of research for the book, Nicholl met and became friends with Jim Quinn, 75, of La Grange, who served in the same unit as Fitzmaurice and fought in the same battle.
“There were probably 80 of us up there,” Quinn said. “I didn’t know Tim. I think we lost 17 guys … and a lot were wounded. I think there were 20 of us walking off that hill.”
The Marines, to their surprise, had walked into a North Vietnamese camp.
Fitzmaurice died from injuries he suffered as the result of “friendly fire,” incoming artillery from U.S. forces designed to help the Marines in their fight on the ground, Nicholl said.
Quinn’s input was valuable because Nicholl wanted the eyewitness account of what it was like up on that hill.
“Jim, who’s also a Bronze Star recipient from his actions during that battle, obviously, knew,” Nicholl said.
On page 148, we learn Quinn was the Marine who placed the corpse of Tim Fitzmaurice into a body bag.
Quinn tells of being overwhelmed with grief at the sight of so many fallen comrades.
“I began to cry, to really weep, and I couldn’t stop for over half an hour,” he said.
His thoughts often turn to Vietnam on the anniversary of the battle and with Memorial Day drawing near.
Nicholl said the interviews for his book “were very emotional,” adding “people are still grappling with happened all those years ago, the memories of the war, the disrespect they received about people not caring about their brother’s sacrifice over there.”
The family learned of Tim’s death on May 16, 1968, when a Marine, in his crisp dress uniform, knocked on the door of their North Side home with the crushing and heartbreaking news. A family was forever changed.
Fitzmaurice’s sisters had given Nicholl a copy of a memorial book, put together for the family and one for Dillon on the 40th anniversary of his death, “and it laid out the whole book for me.”
“[The family’s book] had heartbreaking letters from Tim’s mother to him in Vietnam. She didn’t know he had died until a week after. … She still sent cookies and sweets over there and Kool-Aid, the guys used to mix Kool-Aid with their water,” Nicholl said.
Dredging up old memories in talks with Nicholl for the book proved “a bit emotional” for Quinn.
“It can get a bit overwhelming for me, but I was just so glad someone was doing this. There’s a story behind every name on the wall,” Quinn said, referring to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C.
Unlike some war veterans who were spat on by protesters when they returned to America, Quinn, who had been injured in August 1968, had an uneventful return a few months later “on a medical transport.”
“I didn’t have to face the crowds in my uniform at the airport or a train station,” he said.
He and Nicholl have made numerous speaking engagements, often at schools and with veterans groups, over the years to discuss the book.
“It’s not going to make you forget about Hemingway, believe me. But it’s the subject matter that brings the emotion to it. I hope people think I capture it well,” Nicholl said.
For information about the book, visit https://www.facebook.com/Smile-On-Your-Brother-A-Family-Still-Hears-the-Echoes-of-Vietnam-1389316777976401/
You can also find it on Amazon at https://www.amazon.com/Smile-Your-Brother-Family-Vietnam/dp/0989647404