|Volume No. 1 Issue No. 25 - Monday, July 29, 2002
||A Country Boy Returned Home
Final Tour of Duty in Vietnam
by: Dr. Emanuel Finn
Cuthbert Hurtault was a twenty-four (24) year old young man from the small agricultural community of La Plaine who was killed in the Vietnam war while serving as a member of the U.S. army's elite 101st Airborne Division.
His tour of duty in Vietnam began on April 2, 1969 and ended three months later on June 14 on a battlefield in the coastal lowlands of Thua Thien province, South Vietnam. The official report lists Corporal Hurtault as a hostile ground casualty from artillery, rocket and /or mortar fire. He was buried with full military honors in a private grave next to the village cricket field among those who knew and loved him.
While many in America have not given up on the pain of the Vietnam War, those of us who knew and identified with Cuthbert have long gone on with our lives. Once I left La Plaine and Dominica, I too thought that Cuthbert's death was behind me completely.
As a freshman college student in Washington DC in 1981, my paths with this savage war crossed again as it did as a youth growing up in the safe haven of La Plaine in the early 70s. I visited the Vietnam War Monument (the wall), a black granite wall in downtown Washington DC not too far from the White House. It contains the names of 58,178 persons killed in action (KIA), and missing in action (MIA) of America's most unpopular war.
One can come to the wall almost anytime of the day or night, anytime of the year and find someone seeking a name, maybe leaving something personal for their dead love one. People leave notes and come and say prayers for their dead ones.
I left a note for Cuthbert at this year's War Memorial Day in May where his name is etched on the wall at panel 22W- line 47. The note said "Good night mate and safe trip home...you gave us courage to move beyond that mountain village and pursue the world and it opportunities.....Unknowing to you.... You told us to fear nothing and give the competition our best ...we will always remember you.... Sweet rest my dear friend".
Some say that there is only one other wall like the Vietnam War monument wall. It is in Jerusalem, the so-called Wailing Wall, and the retaining west wall of Herod's temple. It is a place of immense religious, emotional and historical significance. It is a living monument where people pray and often leave messages.
The Vietnam wall in Washington DC is similar. My first trip to this wall did not prepare me for all the grief and sorrow which I saw on the faces of many families. Mothers, fathers, wives, husbands, children, girlfriends and boyfriends, sisters, brothers, cousins and friends who had lost love ones due to the war.
The experience was harrowing and at times it left me out of breath. In fact it left almost everybody out of breath. Visiting the wall is confronting the war's physical, emotional and spiritual wounds.
How was Cuthbert killed? Was his platoon wiped out by incoming Vietcong's artillery fire from higher ground? Did he get hit with a single deadly bullet from a sharp shooter? Was he a victim of friendly fire? Did he volunteer or was he picked to be the lead man of a very risky raid or for a search, rescue or a recovery mission deep behind enemy lines? La Plaine folks desperately wanted to know back in 1969.
More than a month passed before corporal Hurtault's body was returned to La Plaine after his death in battle. News about his death saddened villagers. We remembered Cuthbert as the young man from those hills across the Sari-Sari river who dared to dream.
On his last visit home after leaving Fort Campbell, Kentucky, (the home base of the feared and famed Screaming Eagles of the army's 101st Airborne Division) he talked about returning to St. Thomas, USVI, (where he had migrated to before joining the army) and Dominica after his tour of duty in the jungles of Vietnam was over and set up business ventures.
While on vacation before his deployment to Vietnam, he wore his battle fatigues while driving or strolling through the village visiting and saying farewell to folks. My friends and I were thrilled at Cuthbert's towering, confident and impressive figure.
We asked him all sorts of questions about war and what it takes to be a brave soldier. Whatever answers he gave sufficed. After all, he was one of us and was our undisputed hero. We were very proud of him.
After he departed for the front lines in Vietnam, he was the subject of many conversations in the school and church yards, village square, rum shops, homes, river banks, cricket field and at the "Koudmen" sessions in the village heights ('horte').
One night I overheard my grand mother saying a prayer (in patois) for him. She asked god to watch over him and remove him from harms way. This young man from this small eastern rural output who had found himself half a world away in Southeast Asia fighting a war had a whole village praying for his survival and safe return.
There was now a direct connection between Vietnam and La Plaine. It seemed that the distance between La Plaine and the South Vietnamese capital of Saigon was much closer than that between La Plaine and Roseau.
Why were we so apprehensive that the chances of Cuthbert returning home alive were slim? My grandparents felt that there was a real possibility that he would be killed in battle. Everyday my grandfather listened to the BBC World Service and Voice of America News bulletins on his small battery powered transistor radio for updates on the war.
The older folks in the village were very sensitive to war and armed conflict. My grand parents related with pride about the La Plaine riots in April 1893 and the participation and of their parents in that confrontation.
The colonial governor of the island, Hayes Smith sent heavily armed British troops to La Plaine to enforce a land tax. As peasants from one of the porrest districts, the villages protested the unfair and exorbitant land taxes. A confrontation ensued and four villagers (close relatives of my great grand parents) were shot by the soldiers.
Countess others were injured and others escaped into the woods. Of course, peasants were no match for the modern well-trained and equipped British soldiers. The British government launched an inquiry into the incident, which resulted in the changing of the manner in which it imposed and collected taxes on residents of the colonies.
My grandparents talked about the endless loss of life during World Wars 1 and 11. In 1968, I remembered the newspaper pictures that my grandfather had on his wooden bedroom walls of Allied Troops in France in 1944.
The newspaper pictures had a brownish colour due to oxidation and exposure it acquired through out the decades. Papa 'Borton' always talked about the savagery and inhumane nature of war. His instincts and knowledge taught him to be pessimistic about Cuthbert surviving the war no matter how well trained he was.
My grandfather often said to me that war is nothing but hell on earth. That piece of historical reality did not escape La Plaine. It was revisited in a very real and somber way.
If corporal Hautalt had survived the war, would he be experiencing the debilitating posttraumatic stress syndrome, which many Vietnam Veterans are experiencing? The 101st Airborne Division was engaged in a lot of heavy and fierce battles during the war.
It was the last combat division to leave Vietnam after arriving in 1965. While being hit by incoming fire during his last breaths and dying moments, did he have time to see his family and the beautiful rolling hills between the Sari-Sari and Laronde rivers where it all began for him?
We all hoped and prayed that luck would be on his side and that the good lord would protect him. We had little choice but to think and believe that he would return home healthy and alive. We refused to see it any other way.
Unfortunately, our worst fears were realized. He died three months after he marched into Vietnam. The news of his death sent the village into a tailspin. The mortar rounds which "took him down" also pieced our hearts.
For a moment it seemed that La Plaine had lost its vigour and vitality. However, we understood that he had to climb other mountains of progress. For an ambitious country boy, a small agricultural village and Dominica held few choices in the 60s.
Before his body was returned home, we drew up many scenarios of how he was killed in battle. Suddenly we all were military strategists and experts analyzing and dissecting why and how our man went down.
At La Plaine school we began playing war games; U.S. army versus Vietcong. Few kids wanted to play Vietnamese soldiers. Why? Wasnt it the North Vietnamese Army (Vietcong) who killed our hero?
The U.S. army always won our play battles. We had no idea what the war was about or who the communist Vietcong were. All we knew were that America and Vietnam were at war and we supported the side that one of our own was fighting with.
At the height of the war in 1968/1969, the U.S. Military High Command in Vietnam was spreading an effective propaganda campaign to Congress, the media and the American people in order to fund the war efforts.
The reports pointed out that American forces were wining most of their battles and were suffering few casualties. Congress had determined that many of these reports were not accurate. We in the rural outpost with no electricity and pipe-borne running water had no choice but to believe these well-orchestrated reports.
These reports lifted our spirits for it meant that with fewer American casualties, Cuthbert had a better chance of surviving. The U.S army lost 16,589 soldiers in 1968 and 11,614 in 1969 the year our man was cut down.
These numbers represent the highest amount of U.S. army causalities in any given year during the Vietnam War. According to public publish reports, the policy of misinformation by the military top brass cost Lyndon Johnson the U.S presidency.
The jungles, deltas, mosquito-infested swamps and valleys of Vietnam probably had a striking resemblance to the tropical rain forests of La Plaine. The enemy in these Monsoon rain forests and jungles of Vietnam were real and deadly.
They were Vietcong snipers, sudden ambush, suicide missions, the feel of imminent dealth, fear human carnage and ravages of war. They were not the real or perceived enemies ('Lougawau, Lajabless and Socouyant') of the near by forests of La Plaine.
Cuthbert's body was transported to La Plaine in a U.S draped casket escorted by twelve soldiers from a U.S army detachment in Puerto Rico. The viewing of the body was at his mother's home in Case- O-Gowrie, up the ridge from the Sari-Sari river where the rolling hills meet the base of Morne Gouvernear.
Mourners came from all over the island to pay their last respect to a fallen local hero. One of the noticeable mourners was the first native Police Commissioner, the late Damase Philbert, who also hailed from those same La Plaine hills as Cuthbert.
In the late morning hours of the day of the funeral, the La Plaine skies were filled with dark, cumbersome and gloomy clouds. There were also intermittent showers of rain. The omen was that the heavens and skies over La Plaine were also weeping at the fall of this local hero.
Just before the playing of Taps by the soldier bugler, the sun emerged through the clouds. It too seemed to want to say. Farewell my son, I am sorry it didn't work out as you planned it." It then disappeared behind the clouds. After a gun salute, Cuthbert was laid to eternal rest amidst tears, weeping, sad, disappointed and dejected faces.
Almost immediately after the burial ceremony, the rains came down again for a very short moment. Soon after, a beautiful rainbow was spotted in the skies at the intersection of the rolling hills and the tropical rain forests.
This was interpreted as a silver lining. The rainbow was also trying to say to Corporal Hurtault, "welcome home son, you have set the standards and tone for kids from La Plaine to head out to the big city far from these hills and compete with the best and brightest in other arenas than the one you choose.
The Vietnam war started on August 8th 1965 in Da Nang, and ended in August 1975 when Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh city) fell to Vietcong forces. For a brave country boy from a small mountain village deep in rural Dominica, the war ended in June 1969. His tour of duty was instantly over, and it was now time to return home to those foothills where it all began for him.