WOONSOCKET – Edouard Cournoyer is 95 years old now, living in the home of his son George Fontaine Jr., after spending a long career with the U.S. Army that began in 1933 and ended after nearly 35 years of service to his country.
Cournoyer, who first enlisted during the early years of the Great Depression, served all over the world as a Signal Corps specialist, rising to the rank of Master Sergeant. His ability to speak French fluently came in handy as a serviceman in France during the 1950s. The short-wave radio expert soon became an assistant director of MARS (Military Affiliate Radio System) for the Army. The MARS network connected Army units throughout Europe.
Cournoyer later received a Bronze Star after serving in the Vietnam Conflict during 1967-68. And he was in the thick of things in Korea, a war commonly referred to as a “police action” at the time it was being fought.
“I was right near the border between the north and the south,” Cournoyer admitted last week while paging through a bulky scrapbook of photographs, newspaper clippings and copies of Army orders, citations and commendations he had accumulated during his military career.
Cournoyer’s military service had been remarkable, highlighted, perhaps, by his stint out of uniform during the Belgian Congo uprising in Africa in 1960. The First Republic of the Congo had been formed earlier in the year as the new country split away from its colonial ruler, Belgium. Missionaries and other foreigners saw their lives endangered when all forms of electronic communications were cut off inside the new republic.
Before the revolution was completed six years later, over 100,000 people would die and the Prime Minister, Patrice Lumumba, would be assassinated, and dictator Joseph Mobutu would rise to power.
Short wave (“ham”) radio expert Eddie Cournoyer was the first soldier sent to the Congo by the United Nations, arriving in Leopoldville in early July on a plane heavily loaded with communications equipment. For security reasons, Cournoyer was instructed to wear only civilian clothes and not identify himself as a soldier.
Cournoyer won an Army commendation medal after completing his mission of setting up a communications network via ham radio with missions throughout the Congo. Working in the basement of the U.S. Embassy in Leopoldville, Cournoyer made ham radio contacts throughout the world, allowing U.S. Ambassador Clare Timberlake to speak directly with the Pentagon, Department of Defense and other key government agencies during the early days of the crisis.
The communications network Cournoyer set up also allowed for the safe evacuation of many Catholic missionaries and medical personnel who had been inside the country prior to the cutoff of communications by rebel forces.
Cournoyer retired from the Army at the age of 53, soon after returning from Vietnam in 1968. He had completed 22 years of service during three separate enlistments, the most permanent stint occurring from 1950-68. He then transferred to the Army Reserves, continuing his work as a Civil Service communications specialist in the MARS network, winning a Certificate of Merit from Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird in 1971.
Cournoyer eased himself into retirement in Georgia during the 1980s, hearing occasionally from his sister, Irene Estes, that he had a son back home in Woonsocket from his first marriage, one that ended after three months back in 1939. Cournoyer didn’t take the rumors seriously at first but in 1990 he made a trip home, visited his former wife, Mrs. Alice Fontaine, and received permission from her to meet his son, George Fontaine Jr.
“I never knew my real father,” Fontaine admitted last week. As a youth, he had noticed how much he did not physically resemble his siblings but his mother had always reassured him that he was her husband’s son.
Ironically, George Fontaine Jr. also had a secret of his own.
“I joined the Air Force in 1956, fell in love with a woman I met in Amarillo, Texas, married her, and then we got divorced six months later,” Fontaine admitted. “She never told me she was pregnant but over the years, I learned that I also had a son I never met. How strange is that? I had done the same thing my father had done, even though I never knew he existed at the time.”
The Woonsocket Call published a story on the reunion of Fontaine and Cournoyer in July of 1990. One of Fontaine’s friends passed the article along to producers of the Oprah Winfrey Show and they arranged the reunion of Fontaine and Cournoyer with George’s son, Dr. Hollis Ray Helms of San Antonio, Texas. The three of them were reunited on an Oprah show with the famous host bursting into tears while Cournoyer met his grandson and George Fontaine Jr. met his son for the first time.
Five years ago, Cournoyer’s wife passed away. Eddie Cournoyer was 90 years old by then and George Fontaine brought his father home to Woonsocket to live out the final years of his extraordinary life in the company of family.
Cournoyer suffered a stroke four years ago and struggles to remember some aspects of his life’s long journey. But when he sees the scrapbook, his eyes light up and a smile comes to his face.
“This picture here, that’s from Vietnam,” Cournoyer said to his son as they paged through the scrapbook together last week.
“Dad collected everything,” George Fontaine Jr. said with a smile. “Just about his whole Army career is in this scrapbook.”