Thump.Even after 60 years, that innocuous sound can still cause 87-year-old Korean War veteran Peter Cuthbert to shiver—and it does not matter where he hears it.
He shared that detail this week while seated at The Beach Bakery on Westhampton Beach’s Main Street, his right hand gently clutching his still-cooling cup of coffee, as baristas hastily prepared caffeine-infused concoctions for waiting customers. Mr. Cuthbert explained that he often overhears the sound—which he always relates to the sound of a shell being fired from an enemy mortar—even when he is out completing routine activities, like enjoying a cup of Joe.
It automatically takes him back to his time in Korea, when he and his fellow infantrymen would have to run for cover to avoid being struck by one of the mortars fired by the North Koreans.
“Your senses are pretty aware at war—you pretty much hear every sound,” Mr. Cuthbert explained. “You hear the enemy tubes in the mortar gun go ‘thump,’ and you knew it was coming. Then you would hit the ground or jump in a foxhole, a trench, dive under the tank. It was almost like a game—they were trying to kill us, and we were trying to kill them.”
As he continues to share stories about his stint in Korea—Mr. Cuthbert served as a platoon leader for the U.S. Army’s 89th Tank Battalion from June 1952 until March 1953—even those with untrained ears, and who never stepped foot on a battlefield, cannot help but start to hear those distinguishable “thumping” sounds.
For his military service, the East Moriches resident and longtime history teacher with the Westhampton Beach School District will be honored later this month as the first recipient of the Westhampton Free Library’s “Hometown Hero” award, part of a new initiative that, in its first year, will honor local military veterans. The initiative, which will honor non-military hometown heroes starting in 2018, was the brainchild of Library Director Danielle Waskiewicz, and library trustees Mitchell Schecter and Mary Anne Yutes.
“I believe in ‘Hometown Heroes’ as a way to honor individuals for their service to our country and our community,” Ms. Waskiewicz said. “The foundation and fabric of our community [are] our heroes.”
The program is part of the Westhampton Beach library’s year-long 120th anniversary celebration. With the library’s official anniversary coming up on March 1, and officials making plans for a special celebration on March 4 to mark the milestone, organizers agreed that this year is a good time to honor prominent members of the community, starting with those who served in uniform.
According to Ms. Waskiewicz, Mr. Cuthbert was the obvious choice after officials reached out to members of the community, including those representing Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 5350, of which Mr. Cuthbert is a member, and U.S. Representative Lee Zeldin, a U.S. Army veteran. She said that Mr. Cuthbert “stood out” among the many people suggested for the recognition.
While he is honored to be the library’s first recipient, Mr. Cuthbert, who volunteered for the Army immediately after graduating from the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps, or ROTC, in 1951, said he does not view himself as a hero.
“It is quite an honor,” said Mr. Cuthbert, who left the Army Reserves in 1985, about the library award. “But I don’t think that ‘hero’ is the word to really use here. Veteran. Just call me a veteran, honor veterans.”
On the first day of what would be a nine-month tour of Korea, Mr. Cuthbert can still vividly recall the first time he slipped inside his new tank, a recommissioned M-4 Sherman last utilized in World War II and with the battle scars to prove it. He recalls that his tank, which he called Cathy—he named it after his sister-in-law, explaining that he was required to pick a name starting with the letter “C”—had two enormous circular welding marks, new sections of armor that had to be installed to make his Sherman battlefield ready.
Mr. Cuthbert would command 25 men, five tanks, a Jeep and a trailer for the next several months, though he often shifted between infantry divisions based on need. Most days, he recalled, he and his men would navigate the Asian country’s hilly countryside, searching for the enemy. But for two months they were caught in a valley with the enemy securing the higher ground—a clear advantage in most battles. In order to make it from their underground bunkers to their waiting tanks, the soldiers would have to sprint across a field and then roll under a tank for cover, entering through the emergency escape hatches located under the vehicles.
He also recalled spending two months serving as a support unit for a division of the Turkish Army, an experience he described as “pretty wild.”
Mr. Cuthbert’s military experiences inspired him to write and self-publish a book, titled “Korea [Our War] 1950-1953,” which is available at the Westhampton Free Library. He published it in 2002, explaining that it took him eight years to write it.
“We went and you did your job,” he said of Korean War. “Even today when I hear the Fourth of July fireworks, it sounds like someone firing a mortar, the thump. The sound hits you, even 50 to 60 years later. It is strange.”
After being honorably discharged from the Army, Mr. Cuthbert returned to his wife, Nancy, and they built a house on a portion of his family’s East Moriches estate. He soon decided to put his minor in history to good use, accepting a teaching position in the Bayport School District. One year later, while finishing his master’s degree at Hofstra University, a position opened up at the Westhampton Beach High School and Mr. Cuthbert applied. He would go on to teach history for the next 30 years, retiring in 1985.
Reflecting on his career in education, Mr. Cuthbert said he enjoyed his profession. “I was teaching them serious history one minute, and the next I was telling them stories,” he said. “That’s why I liked it.”
In addition to teaching, Mr. Cuthbert coached the basketball, golf and tennis teams, and served as principal of the summer school education program. He and his late wife eventually moved to Westhampton Beach where they raised their six children—Mary, Jane, Peter, Bill, Lynne and Lee. The couple eventually moved back to East Moriches.
A military man at heart, Mr. Cuthbert still serves as senior trustee of VFW Post 5350, and previously served as commanding officer of the armories in Patchogue and Bay Shore.
VFW Post 5350 Commander Bill Hughes, a longtime friend of Mr. Cuthbert, said library officials have tapped an excellent person to honor with the award, noting that Mr. Cuthbert is always willing to help his neighbors and remains instrumental in recruiting new members to the post that recently relocated from Quogue.
“He is a great guy, a great family man, and very community orientated,” Mr. Hughes said of Mr. Cuthbert. “He is just so helpful all around and an absolutely great guy.”