EDITOR’S NOTE: Haynes Cyril celebrated his 100th birthday yesterday. And what a day it was. Cyril has quite an interesting story to tell as a soldier, policeman and fireman. Here is his story as told by journalist Stan Bishop, who interviewed the now centurion, two years ago.
American political satirist and journalist, P.J. O’Rourke, is credited with coining the following quote: “Soldiers are not policemen, and it’s very unfair, even for those soldiers who have some police training, to burden them with police duties. It’s not what they’re trained for, or equipped for.”
Clearly, O’Rourke has never met Haynes Martin Louis Cyril, a 97-year-old (now 100-years-old) World War II veteran and former policeman and fireman, who has made remarkable contributions in those fields, Cyril is still having a ball.
Born in Soufriere, Saint Lucia in November 1921, Cyril was the eldest of his parents’ three sons. He was raised in Castries and schooled at St. Aloysius R.C. Boys’ Primary School, taking up correspondence courses after graduating.
During his school days, he was very popular in sports, an all-rounder, and later joined the scout movement which helped shape his young mind. Aside from school, the scout movement was the only organization that instilled discipline and character in youths.
Cyril was one of seven senior scouts selected when war was declared in Europe, with Germany threatening the British colonies in the Caribbean islands which swore allegiance to England.
“My scout commissioner told us that we needed to have a meeting with the Commissioner of Police,” Cyril tells me during our interview at his Maynard Hill, Castries home in February 2019. “I was among the senior scouts. The Commissioner of Police explained to us that they were short on manpower and needed our help”
Members of the group were assigned to different areas, with Cyril and another scout working the area spanning Morne Fortune right down to Bocage. It was a daunting task, he admitted, as they had to report to the police station in Castries from 6:00 p.m. until 10:00 p.m. Afterwards, the work became easier when other people came on board.
Shortly after that, seven of them including Cyril, were selected to assist the nurses at Victoria Hospital after the Germans had torpedoed the Umtata and Lady Nelson in Castries Harbour in March 1942, which claimed many lives.
He was later attached to the police department but, since he fell short of the age requirement to become a police officer — he was around sixteen or seventeen at the time — he was made a special constable.
Cyril was soon transferred to Castries Harbour, joining three policemen aboard a coasting boat moving between Castries and Barbados. The boat was anchored in the middle of the harbour where the Germans had torpedoed the Umtata and Lady Nelson.
“A huge gun was attached to the boat and two Bajan men – Spooner and Squires – while another man, Charles, a Saint Lucian, was the captain,” he explained. “I was the signaler. During that time, we used to use Morse Code to send signals. My job was to raise the alarm if I saw any boats approaching Saint Lucia. We also used to patrol from Castries to Pigeon Point and back to the hotel at Vigie Beach.
Around that time, Cyril recalled, the larger islands – Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago – had defence forces while Saint Lucia and other Windward Islands had none. The authorities in Saint Lucia appealed for assistance and the other islands responded by helping to organize the Windward Islands Battalion, of which he was part.
Cyril became part of that cause since he was a scout with some experience having been attached to the police force as a volunteer. He was promoted to the rank of Lance Corporal and assisted in training recruits.
But one fateful day in February 1944 his life changed forever.
“Some of us were picked up and taken to the barracks and then to Vieux Fort where a boat awaited us. We sailed out and arrived in Trinidad the following day and were taken to the barracks where the commanding officer briefed us,” he recalled.
They picked up two companies in Trinidad and sailed for Jamaica where another two companies boarded before they sailed to Key West, Florida onwards to Norfolk, Virginia where they joined companies from other Caribbean countries and underwent very intensive training for about six weeks.
They later left the United States and sailed across the Atlantic Ocean where they joined a heavy British convoy. Further into the Atlantic Ocean, the Germans starting torpedoing, causing ships to scatter and forcing the ship Cyril was on to enter the Straits of Gibraltar. The company commanders and section commanders were told that they were going to Algiers in North Africa. After they got to Algiers, they were told that they were heading to Italy.
“We went to Naples and soon got information that the Germans were coming,” the ex-soldier said. “That forced us to move out during the night. From Italy, we waited for the 64th Garrison and Welsh Regiment to assist the advance troops that went into Germany which had just attacked Russia. However, since we had enough troops in Germany, there was no need for us to back them up.”
Cyril recalled his unit being told that they had to escort 4,000 German prisoners to Egypt. The battalion from the Caribbean was 1,200-strong but they managed, somehow. While sailing through the Suez Canal, the German officer in charge asked Cyril, “What right do you guys have to be in this war? We’re not at war with you. We’re at war with Britain.”
To which Cyril replied: “Look, we’re not at war with you, either. But you know what? Your ship came into my country and torpedoed two ships in our enclosed harbour and killed so many people there. So we have a reason to be here.”
After they dropped the Germans off at Naples Harbour in Italy, Cyril figured the war was over and that the Caribbean battalion would return home. But while camping in Egypt, they were told that they had to undergo more training, especially the officers from the Caribbean, and then deployed to Japan.
Three of them were selected for that mission, including Cyril, and were later recommended for promotions. From then on, they got all the respect they had never received from the troops from the “larger Caribbean islands”.
While Cyril never really participated in active battle, he was always at the forefront in case he was needed. After leaving Saint Lucia in 1944 and returning home in 1946 with a joy in his heart, he was thankful because he never thought he’d make it home safely.
“I had a great deal of confidence at first, but when we had gotten to Egypt and were told about the war in Japan, I told myself that if I survived the war, when returned home I would get married and start a family. In Egypt, I became a changed man,” he told me, repeating the last sentence after a short pause.
Cyril married Mona (whom he had known prior to being deployed) in 1946 and they had ten children. He received many job offers but eventually joined the police force in 1947. The choice worked out well because he already had police and military training.
During that period, the fire department was under the aegis of the police force and Cyril often conducted his policing duties from 6:00 a.m.to 10:00 a.m., following which he would engage in firefighting from 10:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m. In fact, when the Castries fire occurred in 1948, he was among the firefighters who responded.
He remained with the police force until 1974 before moving to the fire service full-time, becoming the island’s first fire chief in 1975 and serving in that capacity for a short while before retiring in 1983. Among his many talents as a decorated ex-soldier, fireman and police officer was that he was good at diffusing explosives.
In 1983, Cyril joined the Saint Lucia Ex-Service Legion, helping out in various capacities, including the sale of Remembrance Day poppies in solidarity for the lives of soldiers lost during battle. Like he was during his early school days, he was very fond of sports in his later years, winning awards at the Senior Games which allowed him to travel to Barbados where he won gold medals in the 50-metres and 100-metres dash and long jump. He has also received numerous national medals for his contributions to country in the war effort and sports.
For a man who would have seen more than his fair share of the carnage and destruction war leaves
behind, Cyril believes that violence is not the method by which humans should settle scores. Describing the Ten Commandments as “a masterful thing”, he says vengeance belongs to the Higher Power.
“If your friend does something to you and you seek revenge, you only make things worse,” he cautioned.
“Instead, pray for him and ask God for the strength to be able to forgive him. Have faith in the Supreme Being and try to do well at all times. We must suffer in this world, we must. We must suffer some injustices. But when you take revenge, you’re not doing anything good.”
Cyril believes that children must be taught proper values so that they grow up to be law-abiding, productive citizens. He recommends sports, the cadet corps and enforcement of discipline at home and school as ways to achieve that. Such advice from a soldier with a distinguished career might seem ironic; however, he maintains that in life a peaceful calm trumps senseless violence.
“Most of the things I’ve done have been between life and death,” he told me as we ended our lengthy interview. “War was rough. When I involved myself with explosives, I never thought that I would ever get to that point. Never thought we’d reach to the stage today where we’re not safe because everybody has a gun.”