It really never occurred to Austin Nicholl that he would write a book. After obtaining his degree in economics from Loyola University, he had worked at the Chicago Board of Trade and in various sales and marketing positions before becoming, at the age of 35, a North Riverside firefighter in 1997.
That was before he learned the story of Tim Fitzmaurice, a Marine lance corporal from Chicago who was killed by friendly fire during a desperate battle against an overwhelming force of North Vietnamese and Viet Cong soldiers on a hill northwest of Da Nang on May 9, 1968.
After more than two years of research on the battle, interviewing Fitzmaurice’s family members and fellow Marines, and then writing the story, Nicholl published Smile on Your Brother: A Family Still Hears the Echoes of Vietnam in November 2013.
While the 340-page self-published book recounts Fitzmaurice’s days growing up in Chicago’s Mayfair neighborhood and the events that led to his death, more than half the book focuses on the impact Fitzmaurice’s death had — and continues to have — on his family.
“The vast majority of the book is that the family has to live on without him,” Nicholl said. “For me, it’s a compelling part of the book, their struggle with grief, loss and sadness.”
Nicholl, still a North Riverside firefighter at the age of 52, grew up in the Rogers Park neighborhood of Chicago. He came to know Fitzmaurice’s story through his brother-in-law, Bryan Dillon, who was Fitzmaurice’s best friend, a fellow high school classmate at DePaul Academy in Lincoln Park who also joined the Marines and served a 13-month tour in Vietnam. Fitzmaurice’s siblings considered Dillon another brother. Dillon left for boot camp the morning a Marine in a dress-blue uniform showed up at the Fitzmaurice house to deliver the bad news.
Fitzmaurice, who’d requested a transfer from a cushy assignment at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to serve in Vietnam had been in the country a little more than a month when he was killed.
And it wasn’t until 40 years after Fitzmaurice’s death, in 2008, that his family began confronting their grief openly.
“They hadn’t talked about it,” Nicholl said. “They hadn’t had too much of an opportunity to explain their feelings throughout the years.”
Fitzmaurice’s youngest sister, Maureen, gathered mementos of her brother’s service — letters to family members, letters of condolence from President Lyndon Johnson and Mayor Richard J. Daley, his Purple Heart citation and the telegram that confirmed Tim’s death to his family.
Dillon was given a copy of the scrapbook, and in 2010 after a “Salute to American Heroes Day” event in Fitzmaurice’s old neighborhood, he showed it to Nicholl.
“It laid out the book for me,” Nicholl said.
Nicholl also interviewed Marines who had been at Fitzmaurice’s side during the battle, which was sparked when an advance patrol from the Mike Company of the 5th Marine Regiment stumbled into a North Vietnamese Army base camp as they topped a hill.
The company ended up being surrounded and was forced to call in artillery support all around its perimeter to hold off the superior force facing them. Shrapnel from one of those artillery rounds killed Fitzmaurice.
Nicholl interviewed Jerry Lomax, in whose arms Fitzmaurice died, and Jim Quinn, who placed Fitzmaurice in a body bag.
“As Jim was talking to me inside a Starbucks in LaGrange,” said Nicholl, “his hands were shaking.”
At first, Nicholl said he was afraid family members and veterans wouldn’t welcome him delving into such a personal, deeply emotional subject. What he found were people who wanted to tell the story, to make it available for their children and grandchildren.
“The worry for me was always, ‘Who am I to ask the questions, and why would they want to talk with me?'” Nicholl said. “Each interview was unfailingly emotional. I was surprised with the effect it had on me. The interviews were not always easy.”
Nicholl published 300 copies of the book initially and sold out, prompting him to order another 500. He still has a few dozen left, which are available on Amazon. He also has a Facebook page dedicated to the book.