WAIKAPU - It was perhaps the most unpopular modern war in American history, but there was no sign of politics as a bunch of old war buddies gathered Saturday to mark 43 years since the Hawaii and California National Guard troops were sent off to fight in Vietnam or serve in other capacities.
About 120 long-retired soldiers and their friends and families from the National Guard's 29th Brigade, 299th Infantry held a luncheon in the Kahili Golf Course banquet room to "remember the old days, to see each other and talk story," said the alumni organization's chairman, Gus Fuentes, 79, of Haliimaile.
"We are getting old, but the camaraderie is still there," Fuentes said.
Retired Warrant Officer Gil Amaral of the Hawaii National Guard 29th Brigade, 299th Infantry listens as the names are read of the 44 members of the unit who died during and since the Vietnam War. Saturday was the 43rd time the vets have gotten together to talk story with their war buddies.
The Maui News / CHRIS HAMILTION photo
The morning stretched into the afternoon as the men and their loved ones - who are now in their 60s and 70s - remembered each of the 44 fallen friends they know of. (Inevitably, some of the men said, they lost touch with a number of the men who were once "as close as brothers.")
Some died in battle, others from old wounds, but most nowadays of natural causes, Fuentes said.
The first to die was killed in combat in 1968. It was Spc. Walter D. Brown of Haiku, his friends recalled.
"You have to remember how close we all were. We certainly are not strangers. Many of us were in Vietnam together, but we also trained for 19 months at Schofield Barracks (in Honolulu)," Fuentes said. "We slept together. We ate together . . . We couldn't be closer friends. And you have to keep that closeness intact."
He and some of the others said they arrived at the barracks with a bit of a chip on their shoulders because it had been a long time since the National Guard had been activated.
"And we were still kind of seen as just 'weekend warriors,' " Fuentes said.
By the time the training was done, though, Fuentes said that this part of the National Guard's infantry brigade had exceeded even the regular army's training standards.
"We'd all come from the same, and we'll always have something in common," said retired Staff Sgt. Ernest Hokoana, 69, of Makawao. "At the time, the National Guard was sort of a joke. We wanted to, and I think we did, change that opinion."
Nowadays, Hokoana said, his goal in life is simple, "Be happy."
Despite the laughter and hugs, the vets took parts of the day quite seriously. They toasted to their friendship and lost friends, held moments of silence and said in unison the Hawaii units' fighting phrase, "E Makaala Kakou," or "We Are Prepared."
When the cadre of companies left in 1968, they were 2,000 strong, said Fuentes, the former noncommissioned officer and 44-year National Guard veteran. He said he doesn't know how many exactly are still alive, but they make every effort to try and keep in touch with everyone.
When they did go to war in Asia, the units were sent piecemeal, Fuentes said. Many of the men, like himself, served their country in support capacities, sometimes never leaving the United States or serving in other countries.
It also was not unusual, some veterans said, to have been in the general Asian theater before. Several fought in both the Korean and Vietnam wars.
Members of the Vietnam
group took time during the day to recognize posthumous Medal of Honor recipient Anthony T. Kaho'ohanohano. His family received the award on his behalf from President Barack Obama in May.
Kaho'ohanohano had a brother, Capt. Abel Ka-ho'ohanohano Sr., who served in the Vietnam infantry unit, said his nephew, George.
George Kaho'ohanohano also had served in the Maui-based National Guard as had a number of his relatives, he said.
"It's good for us to be here because they all are part of the family," George Kaho'ohano-hano said.
He had brought with him the encased medal and flag of the fallen soldier, along with the certificate of the medal's verification and the official military account of his heroic actions in Korea in 1951.
Kaho'ohanohano was only a 21-year-old private when his unit came under heavy fire and Americans began to fall.
The men decided upon a staggered retreat to a safer position, but Kaho'ohanohano fought the enemy even after he had run out of machine-gun ammunition and grenades. The former star school athlete used a trench shovel as a weapon.
He eventually was among the dead. But 13 bodies of the enemy also were killed, believed to have been done in at the hands of Kaho'ohanohano.
Many of the men and women at Saturday's event said they still marvel at his heroism.
Fuentes used his turns at the mic to share jokes to lighten an otherwise heavy-hearted mood.
"I hope we don't lose anymore of you in the next year," he said at the end of the event. "I want to see you all again and talk story and share in the spirit of aloha."
* Chris Hamilton can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.