The day was the 2nd of March in the year 1968. It was in the wake of the Tet Offensive, marking the first time Northern Vietnamese Armed Forces had crossed the border into Southern Vietnam, where the Viet Cong launched surprise attacks all throughout the country causing widespread death and destruction. The United States Armed Forces had assigned Companies to be posted throughout the rural areas and villages to keep a watchful eye for any Viet Cong activity outside of Saigon.
At about nine o’clock on this Saturday morning, ninety-two soldiers of Company C, of the 4th Battalion, 9th Regiment, 25th Army Division (commonly known as the Manchu Warriors) headed out on a search and destroy mission. They were searching for Cong that had been operating an initiative in the area of Hoc Mon firing missiles towards American airplanes.
As the Manchu Warriors headed down that road into the Hoc Mon village on that morning there was no way for them to know the events would lay before them.
I recently had a talk with Matthew Kindermann, with the America Legion Post 130 in LaBelle, who led me through a tale that has made its mark on American history as one of the bloodiest eight minutes of the Vietnam War.
“It was a little ominous; as the Manchus traveled down this dirt road into the village, the villagers began to walk away. And then, they began to quickly walk away. Leaving the village empty and eerily silent,” says Kindermann. “The Cong launched their ambush with machine gun fire at the front of the platoon column first,” he continues.
With this surprise attack, and with the loss of men upon the initial outbreak of fire, the soldiers of the Manchu Warriors followed the protocol of their training. “They dove into the ditches to take cover and return fire,” Matt explains. “But, the Viet Cong had planted explosives all along the ditches the night before. When the Manchus took cover in the ditches the explosives killed many men. From 9:02 a.m. til 9:10 a.m., forty-nine of the ninety-two soldiers lost their lives,” he adds before a long pause, and then, “Can you imagine being there and having your entire world blow up before your eyes?”
Among the ninety-two American Soldiers present that day was a young soldier named Nicholas Cutinha. Cutinha had grown up on a farm in Alva, which at that time was zoned as a part of Western Hendry County. Cutinha, who had affectionately been nick-named “Porky” by his fellow soldiers on account of his stature and beer belly, was a machine gun operator for the Manchu Warriors. As the Viet Cong launched their surprise attack that morning, Nicholas proceeded to suppress the fire of the Vietnamese in order to slow them down. Matthew explains, “He moved from position to position which is unusual because you’re trained to find a concealed position to shoot from. He would shoot and then move and find another position from which to fire, exposing himself on at least three occasions (based on eye witness recollections) to enemy fire. During that eight minutes he was shot four times. At one time, he actually had his machine gun shot out of his hands, at which point he crawled to an un-used machine gun, picked it up and began shooting once again. After the battle, and upon an in depth investigation, Cutinha was credited for taking down fifteen enemy soldiers before being shot a fifth and final time which ended up taking his life. During the eight minutes of his bravery in action, other survivors were able to get nine wounded men to safe cover on the other side of the canal where they were able to return fire from a safer location. Nicholas Cutinha has been recognized for saving the lives of nine of the wounded soldiers.”
In 1969, President Nixon awarded Nicholas Cutinha (presented to his mother) a medal of honor for his actions on that devastating day. The medal of honor is currently on loan to the American Legion Post 130 in LaBelle where it is displayed. “Every year the survivors get together at the beginning of March and come out to pay a visit to Nicky’s grave at the Fort Denaud Cemetery, and then they come to the American Legion, have dinner, reminisce on that day, and give their respects to Cutinha,” said Kindermann.
This year on March 2, marks the 50th anniversary of what is considered one of the most organized ambushes that the Viet Cong ever launched. “You don’t have 50th anniversaries like this ever, and so it’s a big deal,” Matt told me. “These guys should have died that day, and so, it’s amazing that they are even alive today. To commemorate the event we want to do something special for them, to thank them for their service, and host them for a ‘Welcome Home’ this year. Because the Vietnam War was so unpopular, a lot of these men didn’t even come home in uniform because they were getting spit on and things thrown at them. It’s an injustice of history that we now have the chance to make right. And so, we want to take this opportunity to celebrate them and offer them a ‘Welcome Home’, and we would love to get the entire community behind us.”
Matthew Kindermann, himself a veteran, was movingly passionate as he told me this story and of his plans for the celebration that they have for this first weekend of March. “The event we have planned is about remembering that day and remembering what happened and it’s about giving these men the ‘Welcome Home’ that they didn’t get in 1968,” Matthew said.
The Welcome Home Celebration will be from Friday, March 2, to Sunday, March 4.
On Friday March 2 from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. the American Legion Post 130 of LaBelle will host a dinner (public welcome).
From 7 p.m.-9 p.m. there will be a Main Street Dedication to the Manchu Warriors by the LaBelle Downtown Revitalization Committee.
On Saturday March 3 from 9 a.m. to 11 a.m. there will be a “Welcome Home Celebration and Ceremony” at the Fort Denaud Cemetery. There will be a guest speaker, Larry James, the author of “Unfortunate Sons: A True Story of Young Men and War” and music by the Firehouse Singers. The public is highly encouraged to come to the ceremony and bring “Welcome Home” signs to show support for the soldiers on this very memorable day.
On Saturday evening from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. there will be another dinner at the American Legion Post 130 in LaBelle, followed by Live Music by the Lester Beleau Band (no cover from 7pm to closing time and public is welcome).
Sunday, March 4, from 9 a.m. to 11 a.m. there will be a breakfast buffet (public welcome) followed by KSU, POW/MIA 50/50 Ride to Avon Park at 11 a. m.
The American Legion Post 130 would greatly appreciate the support of anyone in the community that would like to come out and welcome these soldiers home on the fiftieth anniversary of the battle that they all served in. Everyone is welcome to come to any and all of the events that have been planned to commemorate this day.