Pfc. Gibson Comes Home
Story and Photographs by JOHN FETTERMAN
More than 25,000 Americans have died in the Vietnam War. Almost daily since early 1961 the headlines have told of a few deaths—or of many deaths—until the figures threaten to lose meaning.
One of the recent statistics was Private First Class James Thurman (Little Duck) Gibson, a son of Mr. and Mrs. Norman Gibson of Knott County, and husband of the former Carolyn Ward of Vicco. The Gibson family agreed to let Magazine writer-photographer John Fetterman be present when Private Gibson's body came home in the hope that it would help show that behind each statistic of death there is deep personal grief and shock which affects an entire family, and an entire neighborhood or community.
It was late on a Wednesday night and most of the people were asleep in Hindman, the county seat of Knott County, when the body of Private First Class James Thurman (Little Duck) Gibson came home from Vietnam.
It was hot. But as the gray hearse arrived bearing the gray Army coffin, a summer rain began to fall. The fat raindrops glistened on the polished hearse and steamed on the street. Hindman was dark and silent. In the distance down the town's main street the red sign on the Square Deal Motor Co. flashed on and off.
Private Gibson's body had been flown from Oakland, Calif., to Cincinnati and was accompanied by Army Staff Sgt. Raymond A. Ritter, assigned to escort it home. The body was picked up in Cincinnati by John Everage, a partner in the local funeral home, and from that point on it was in the care of people who had known the 24-year-old soldier all his life.
At Hindman, the coffin was lifted out while Sgt. Ritter, who wore a black mourning band on his arm, snapped a salute. One funeral home employee whispered to another:
"It's Little Duck. They brought him back."
Most of his life he had been called Little Duck; for so long that many people who knew him well had to pause and reflect to recall his full name.
By Thursday morning there were few people who did not know that Little Duck was home—or almost home. During the morning the family came: his older brother, Herschel, whom they call Big Duck; his sister, Betty Jo; and his wife, Carolyn.
They stood over the glass-shielded body and let their tears fall upon the glass and people spoke softly in the filling station next door and on the street outside.
The soldier's parents, Mr. and Mrs. Norman Gibson, waited at home, a neat white house up the hollow which shelters Flax Patch Creek, several miles away. Mrs. Gibson had been ill for months and the family did not let her take the trip to Hindman. Later in the morning, they took Little Duck home.
Sweltering heat choked the hills and valleys as Little Duck was placed back in the hearse and taken home. The cortege had been joined by Maj. Lyle Haldeman, a survival assistance officer, sent, like Sgt. Ritter, to assist the family. It was a long, slow trip—over a high ridge to the south, along Irishman Creek and past the small community of Amburgey.
At Amburgey, the people stood in the sun, women wept and men removed their hats as the hearse went past. Mrs. Nora Amburgey, the postmistress, lowered the flag in front of the tiny fourth-class post office to half-mast and said, "We all thought a lot of Little Duck."
At the point where Flax Patch Creek empties into Irishman Creek, the hearse turned, crossed a small wooden bridge and drove the final mile up Flax Patch Creek to the Gibson home. The parents and other relatives waited in a darkened, silent home.
As the coffin was lifted upon the front porch and through the door into the front living room, the silence was broken by cries of grief. The sounds of anguish swelled and rolled along the hollow. Little Duck was home.
All afternoon and all night they came, some walking, some driving up the dusty road in cars and trucks. They brought flowers and food until the living room was filled with floral tributes and the kitchen was crammed with the food. The people filled the house and the yard. They talked in small groups and members of the family clasped each other in grief.
They went, time and time again, to look down into the coffin and weep.
The mother, a sweet-faced mountain woman, her gray hair brushed back and fastened behind her head, forced back the pangs of her illness and moved, as in a trance, among the crowd as she said:
"His will will be done no matter what we say or do."
The father, a tall, tanned man, his eyes wide and red from weeping, said:
"He didn't want to go to the Army, but he knew it was the right thing to do so he did his best. He gave all he had. I'm as proud of him as I can be. Now they bring him home like this."
Around midnight the rain returned and the mourners gathered in the house, on the porch and backed against the side of the house under the eaves.
The father talked softly of his son.
"I suppose you wonder why we call him Little Duck. Well, when the boys were little they would go over and play in the creek every chance they got. Somebody said they were like ducks.
"Ever since then, Herschel was 'Big Duck' and James was 'Little Duck.'
"You work hard all your life to raise your family. I worked in a 32-inch seam of coal, on my hands and knees, loading coal to give my family what I could.
"There never was a closer family. Little Duck was born here in this house and never wanted to leave."
Other mourners stepped up to volunteer tributes to Little Duck.
"He never was one to drink and run up and down the road at night."
"He took good care of his family. He was a good boy."
Little Duck also was a big boy. He was 6 feet 5 1/2 inches tall and weighed 205 pounds. His size had led him to the basketball team at Combs High School where he met and courted the girl he married last January.
Little Duck was home recently on furlough. Within a month after he went down Flax Patch Creek to return to the Army, he was back home to be buried. He had been married six months, a soldier for seven.
The Army said he was hit by mortar fragments near Saigon, but there were few details of his death.
The father, there in the stillness of early morning, was remembering the day his son went back to the Army.
"He had walked around over the place, looking at everything. He told me, 'Lord, it's good to be home.'
"Then he went down the road. He said, 'Daddy, take care of yourself and don't work too hard.'
"He said, 'I'll be seeing you.' But he can't see me now."
An elderly man, walking with great dignity, approached and said, "Nobody can ever say anything against Little Duck. He was as good a boy as you'll ever see."
Inside the living room, the air heavy with the scent of flowers, Little Duck's mother sat with her son and her grief.
Her hand went out gently, as to comfort a stranger, and she talked as though to herself:
"Why my boy? Why my baby?"
She looked toward the casket, draped in an American flag, and when she turned back she said:
"You'll never know what a flag means until you see one on your own boy."
Then she went back to weep over the casket.
On Friday afternoon Little Duck was taken over to the Providence Regular Baptist Church and placed behind the pulpit. All that night the church lights burned and the people stayed and prayed. The parents spent the night at the church.
"This is his last night," Little Duck's mother explained.
The funeral was at 10 o'clock Saturday morning and the people began to arrive early. They came from the dozens of hollows and small communities in Letcher, Knott and Perry counties. Some came back from other states. They filled the pews and then filled the aisle with folding chairs. Those who could not crowd inside gathered outside the door, or listened beneath the windows.
The sermon was delivered by the Rev. Archie Everage, pastor at Montgomery Baptist Church, which is on Montgomery Creek near Hindman. On the last Sunday that he was home alive, Little Duck attended services there.
The service began with a solo, "Beyond the Sunset," sung by a young girl with a clear, bell-like voice; then there were hymns from the church choir.
Mr. Everage, who had been a friend of Little Duck, had difficulty in keeping his voice from breaking as he got into his final tribute. He spoke of the honor Little Duck had brought to his family, his courage and his dedication. He spoke of Little Duck "following the colors of his country." He said Little Duck died "for a cause for which many of our forefathers fought and died."
The phrase touched off a fresh swell of sobs to fill the church. Many mountain people take great pride in their men who "follow the colors." It is a tradition that goes back to October of 1780, when a lightly regarded band of mountaineers handed disciplined British troops a historic defeat at Kings Mountain in South Carolina, and turned the tide of the Revolutionary War.
Shortly before Little Duck was hit in Vietnam, he had written two letters intended for his wife. Actually the soldier was writing a part of his own funeral. Mr. Everage read from one letter:
"Honey, they put me in a company right down on the Delta. From what everybody says that is a rough place, but I've been praying for the Lord to help me and take care of me so really I'm not too scared and worried. I think if He wants it to be my time to go that I'm prepared for it. Honey, you don't know really when you are going to face something like this, but I want you to be a good girl and try to live a good life. For if I had things to do over I would have already been prepared for something like this. I guess you are wondering why I'm telling you all of this, but you don't know how hard it's been on me in just a short time. But listen here, if anything happens to me, all I want is for you to live right and then I'll get to see you again."
And from another letter:
"Honey, listen, if anything happens to me I want you to know that I love you very, very much and I want you to keep seeing my family the rest of their lives and I want you to know that you are a wonderful wife and that I'm very proud of you. If anything happens I want Big Duck and Betty Joe to know that I loved them very much. If anything happens also tell them not to worry, that I'm prepared for it."
The service lasted two hours and ended only after scores of people, of all ages, filed past the coffin.
Then they took Little Duck to Resthaven Cemetery up on a hill in Perry County. The Army provided six pallbearers, five of whom had served in Vietnam. There was a seven-man firing squad to fire the traditional three volleys over the grave and a bugler to sound taps.
The pallbearers, crisp and polished in summer tans, folded the flag from the coffin and Sgt. Ritter handed it to the young widow, who had wept much, but spoken little, during the past three days.
Then the soldier's widow knelt beside the casket and said softly. "Oh, Little Duck."Then they buried Little Duck beneath a bit of the land he died for.
The funeral ends with a long, solemn line of people who file past the coffin for a final farewell. . . a figure of Christ, arms outstretched, marks the Perry County cemetery where Pfc. Gibson is buried. . . for the mother, the brief graveside service is the end of the formal tribute, but not of the despair. . . for the young widow, it is a folded flag to keep and a final good-by to the soldier who will be long remembered in his community.