Nicholas J. Cutinha – Medal of Honor

(Honoring the best of us/Patty Brant) LaBelle residents have the opportunity to contribute to a lasting monument to a local hero, Nicholas Cutinha, who earned his country’s highest honor, a Congressional Medal of Honor, for his unselfish devotion to duty and his fellow Marines in 1968. The effort was kicked off Saturday, January 18, at McDonalds. Veterans, including Dan McKinney who was seriously wounded in the attack at Gia Dinh, Viet Nam, where Sp4c Cutinha was killed. Front row from left: John McGlynchey, Steve Nisbet, Sr., Steve Nisbet Jr., Amanda Nisbet and Dan McKinney. Back row: Tommy Vaughan, Charlie Davis and Dave Randant.

Some things cannot be forgotten.

Some things should never be forgotten.

Those two realities come together in the story of a young man who lived in LaBelle for a time as a boy, and did more in his short life than can truly be comprehended.

Nicholas J. Cutinha was just one of a generation of young people who followed their consciences into the crosshairs of history, a journey that would end for him with the posthumous presentation of the Medal of Honor.

Nicholas’ story starts much the same as so many of this country’s heroes. As a young man he left his home and family, committed himself to a higher standard and paid the full price for America’s freedom in a land far from home.

Today, LaBelle residents have the opportunity to help ensure that Nicholas’ and his buddies’ story remains a vital piece of American history.

It’s been almost 52 years since Nicholas and his comrades paid for our freedom – again – as our young men and women continue to do today. It seems there is no end to the “installments.”

On March 2, 1968, at a place near Saigon, Nicholas and his buddies stepped up to their calling. It was just another day for these comrades in a brutal war, routinely putting their all in jeopardy.

Sp4c Cutinha, also known as “Nickie” or “Porky,” was a machine gunner in the US Army’s 4th Battalion 9th Regiment 25th Infantry Division, known as the “Manchus.”

Already a seasoned combat veteran, Nickie understood the dangers he and his buddies faced. That day, he took on his final test near a place called Gia Dinh, Viet Nam.

With him were many young men who had been in that situation before and some, like Dan McKinney, a new replacement, just in-country. It didn’t take long for Dan to be indelibly impressed by this young man who accepted “newbies” like him into the brotherhood of the Manchus. Almost immediately, Nickie was a kind of “John Wayne” hero to him and the others, Dan said. This was a man with experience and compassion, who built a sense of trust with his men in a world where trust in each other was more important than it ever would be again.

Dan recalls that day so long ago.

They were with a force of about 100 men on a search-and-destroy mission near Saigon when they walked into a well-laid trap. Ahead of the Manchus, North Vietnamese regulars had set themselves up in a horseshoe pattern. When the Americans were well across one of many bridges in the area, they began taking heavy fire from small arms, automatic weapons, grenades and snipers from dug-in enemy forces about twice their strength.

In a short while, the Americans lost communications and their top officers. Seeing that their position was not sustainable, with the enemy at the front and a bridge causing a bottleneck in the rear, Nickie took it upon himself to move forward and lay down cover fire so his fellow soldiers could try to pull back and evacuate the wounded. Taking heavy fire on himself, he would crawl to an operable machine gun after his was destroyed, to continue covering the withdrawal of his men.

They were pinned down for six hours, Dan said, before the position was finally overrun and the enemy continued to pick off the wounded who could not make it back across the bridge. Nickie had provided his men a way to their future as he continued to take fire, taking hit after hit until he finally had no more to give.

The ambush at Gia Dinh was one of the top ten single-day loss of life days of the Viet Nam War, Dan said, claiming 49 killed (one of whom died the following day) and 27 wounded, with only 18 walking away unhurt.

It was just Dan’s fifth day of combat and he suffered massive injuries – seven wounds – six shrapnel in his feet, hands, legs and the side of his head and a bullet to the back.

Dan recalls another special hero from that day. Medic Ron Slane, a conscientious objector who would not kill but had the strength and bravery to save lives on the battlefield. His last act was to administer morphine to Dan before being killed himself. That morphine allowed Dan to be still as bullets continued to rain in and then remain still as, after the battle, the enemy shot any American survivors they found.

As with all our heroes, those at home also pay the price. Dan’s wife, Linda, was living at home in Illinois with her parents. The battle at Gia Dinh occurred on a Saturday. The following Monday she read a description of the massacre in her local newspaper that cited the unit involved – her husband’s unit. Because of a mix up with the Red Cross, she was not notified of her husband’s fate. It was not until the following Saturday that Dan was able to call her from Japan. He was beginning a long recovery, but he was alive.

Dan, and many others, have been able to live their lives because of what Nickie did that day.

There are far too many stories like Nickie’s and Ron’s and Dan’s, from over 200 years of our country’s conflicts. The tally rises even today, with no end in sight. We still ask the unthinkable of our young men and women and they still amaze us with their strength and honor.

Over 50 years after their ordeal, Dan and some of the other Manchus return to LaBelle regularly to share memories, to visit the site of Nickie’s grave in Fort Denaud Cemetery and his Medal of Honor, which was donated to American Legion Post 130 to be cared for and displayed, and to remember the man who would not leave them to their enemy.

Fellow Viet Nam vet and former Marine Charlie Davis is orchestrating an honor for Nicholas. Charlie, along with DAV Chapter 144 and fellow area veterans, are spearheading a project to put up a statue in LaBelle Veteran Park depicting an American machine gunner in Viet Nam. The likeness will be a reminder of all the young veterans of that era who put aside their personal needs to take on the burden for us all. The veterans are asking the community to support the legacy of Nicholas Cutinha and those legions of young fighters by contributing to this statue.

The effort is well on its way, coordinated by the Military Support Foundation, Inc., and supported by LaBelle’s veteran’s organizations, the City of LaBelle (which kicked things off with a $6,000 donation) and a $3,000 donation from Hendry County. The Nisbet family, who hosted a fundraising event at their LaBelle McDonalds location on Saturday, January 18, contributed a $1,000 check, representing $657 from French fry sales and a personal gift of $343 to honor Steve Nisbet’s father, Arthur F. Nisbet USAF retired, a World War II and Korean Conflict veteran, and father-in-law John J. Mazzarese USAF retired, a veteran of World War II and Purple Heart recipient from the Viet Nam War.

Donors will be invited to the LaBelle Civic Center March 29 at 2 p.m. to honor the life and sacrifice of Nicholas Cutinha and his comrades. Afterwards the event will move to the LaBelle Veterans Park across from the Courthouse for the unveiling of the statue.

Donations are may be sent to:
Military Support Foundation, Inc.,
10181 Six Mile Cypress Pkwy., Suite C
Fort Myers, Fl 33966

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