Forgotten … and Now Remembered
Originally published March 6, 1987
A woman lovingly arranges a bunch of fresh-cut flowers and leans them against the stark black and white wall. She brings her right hand up to her lips and tenderly kisses her fingertips as her eyes remain fixed on a name etched on the wall. Gently, she presses her fingers to the name. “I love you, and I miss you” — just a few simple words, never spoken in those few minutes, but words she has probably voiced over and over in her mind.
Who was he? I wondered. Her husband? Father? Brother?
A few yards away, a middle-aged man studies the 58,132 names etched on the wall. In his street clothes he looks like any other downtown worker. But in his left hand he clutches an Army cap and you can’t help but know that two decades ago, he was 6,300 miles away — fighting a costly, undeclared war in Vietnam.
The last days of January 1987 and the first few of February brought it all back for Hawai‘i’s Vietnam veterans and their families and friends. For those who lost loved ones in that 30-year war, remembering was especially painful.
Debuting in Honolulu at about the same time was director Oliver Stone’s Oscar-nominated film, “Platoon,” heralded as the most authentic film made about the American soldier’s experience in Vietnam. John Devitt’s 250-foot-long Plexiglas replica of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall was also touring the Islands. A few days later, a model of a statue to honor the women nurses who hurriedly patched up the mangled bodies of young American servicemen in Vietnam went on display at Tripler Army Medical Center. When enough money can be raised to cast the statue, it will stand alongside the marble Vietnam veterans wall in Washington, D.C. — a reminder of a war America tried to forget.
“Why me? What did I ever do to deserve this?” Lester Higa asked himself those questions over and over again in the first few months of his yearlong deployment in Vietnam.
The year was 1970. Higa was 23 and fresh out of college — Denver University — an economics graduate who had planned to go on to law school. But Uncle Sam quashed those plans forever. Instead of sitting in a classroom, studying the law, he sat in mud-stained fatigues in a jungle across the Pacific Ocean.
Higa, who was assigned to A Battery, 6th Battalion, 27th Artillery, hated Vietnam. He hated the heat, the humidity, the snakes, the rats, and those blood-sucking mosquitoes and leeches. “Why me?” What did I ever do to deserve this?”
As his year began to break down, so did the chip on his shoulder. “Then there’s a resignation somewhere along the line that I’m stuck here. I just gotta do the best I can.”
But fear was an emotion he could never escape. “It was just the constant fear in case you got caught. I didn’t think about death. I just thought about being mangled; I didn’t want to get mangled. Let it (death) be quick if it had to happen,” he told himself.
Higa worried constantly about being captured by the Viet Cong. Would they go easier on him because he had an Asian face like theirs? Or would they treat him like a traitor to his Asian ancestry? “I think the Asians (Asian American servicemen) had that to think about, while their contemporaries of non-Asian ancestry didn’t have to,” noted Higa.
In 1943, his father had volunteered for the 442nd Regimental Combat Team and fought in Europe. Les Higa says his generation’s war, Vietnam, and his father’s war, World War II, were two very different wars. “That’s not an understatement; that’s an underscoring,” Higa said.
From politics and provocation down to the fighting man himself and the strategies of his leaders, the two wars were vastly different. Most of the Japanese American soldiers in World War II were Nisei who had volunteered in droves for the right to prove their loyalty to America, the country of their birth. Most of the Vietnam soldiers were younger than their Nisei counterparts and were involved in a conflict that had lasted a total of 30 years.
Some three decades later, many of those Nisei soldiers sent their sons off to war in Vietnam. Many went reluctantly; some burned their draft cards and a few fled to Canada or Sweden in protest of a war they believed was wrong, racist and that America had no business fighting.
Higa said speedy evacuation by helicopter improved the chances of surviving injuries by 300 percent. But when he thinks about the life some of those who survived their injuries lived, as “vegetables,” he wonders whether letting them die might not have been more humane.
For the men who served, Vietnam was a dichotomy, says Higa. “After a while, it was just a job. You get up and it’s just another shitty day in Vietnam.” And yet, he said, just about everyone kept a calendar, drawing a big “X” through the date as each day passed. “Every day was a different day. Every sunset you put another day behind you.” It was a “psychological” boost, a reward, Higa said.
Every serviceman counted down his days to DEROS — Date Estimated Return from Overseas. Higa recalled the awful feeling of just starting his deployment and a long way from DEROS. But as the months passed, he knew he was “getting short.” He remembers being “very careful” about everything he did in his last few weeks in Vietnam. “In fact, we’d get superstitious. I saved all of my R&R (rest and relaxation/recuperation) and leave time for the last few months. I kept myself real busy.”
“Getting short” made most of the men superstitious and reluctant to follow orders that might put them in danger, he said. “As a consequence, the effectiveness of the fighting unit would go down. That was a constant thing because everybody had a different DEROS day. So they were all getting out and going home at different times. It would decimate certain units,” Higa said.
Combat effectiveness also suffered as replacements took the place of the fighting units who were going home. “They were constantly training new guys, and the new guys were getting bumped off if they didn’t learn real quick.”
Higa said he learned early on that survival in Vietnam meant he had to “de-humanize” the enemy in order to fight him. “If you saw the human side of the enemy, you wouldn’t fight him. The bottom line to that is they’ll kill you. If you hesitated to return fire or to initiate fire, they’re going to get you. So you can be a nice guy, but in this case, nice guys finish last.” He says he never killed anyone “face to face,” but is sure his artillery fire killed his enemy.
Vietnam produced a generation of angry men, said Higa. Oftentimes, that anger was directed at the men in the “rears” — those who did paperwork back at the base camp.
“The guys in the rear didn’t mess with us. There were cases where the soldiers came in from the field and they got told where to go. Guys threw grenades at them, fired off a clip at them. Some people got killed. So they left guys like us alone. When we came out of the jungle with the 1st Cavalry, they’d put us in this one room and there were hot dogs, pizza, beer and soda. They didn’t let us out of that area for 48 hours. All you did was stay drunk and stuff yourself with hot dogs for two days. They wanted you to calm down before they let you out in the world.”
As the war dragged on, the American serviceman’s anger and cynicism grew, often including his family and friends back home. “They felt like nobody really cared that they were there,” he said.
Lester Higa finally left Vietnam in June of 1971. He considered returning to school, but the war had left him scarred, mentally and emotionally. The chip on his shoulder entering Vietnam had grown even bigger. “I didn’t think I could stomach sitting in a classroom, listening to a bunch of hypocrites lecture about unreality.”
Higa was angry with everyone, so he withdrew. He lived on unemployment for six months after returning to Hawai‘i. He over-indulged in alcohol and spent every day at the beach. Higa said he did a lot of nothing, until a good friend helped him snap out of his self-pity.
“’Hey, nobody can help you. You gotta start helping yourself,” was his friend’s message.
Not a day goes by that Higa isn’t reminded about his year in Vietnam. Sometimes the reminder is a mere word, or the sound of a plane, or a helicopter flying overhead. Sometimes it’s the smell of diesel oil. And for a local kid whose greatest thrill at New Year’s was playing with fireworks, the smell of gunpowder and the sound of exploding fireworks bring back many a painful memory of Vietnam.
Higa thinks the Southeast Asian refugees who began settling in Hawai‘i after the fall of Saigon reminded the Vietnam veteran of a war they had fought for nothing.
More than 15 years have passed since Lester Higa’s DEROS date finally came up. He said a part of him is curious to go back and see what the country is like today. He thinks he may be more curious about Vietnam than those who fled their homeland.
“In another generation, Vietnam will only be a memory of the grandparents, not a reality of the second and third generation that left,” he said. “Very few will ever go back.”
Postscript: Les Higa now manages condominium associations. He said the advent of the internet helped him track down some of the men with whom he served. They began getting together for reunions every other year. He said he has not been back to Vietnam since leaving in 1971. He conceded, however, that he is “curious now” about visiting the country he once hated so much. Higa said a tour may be a subject for discussion at his battalion’s next reunion. If he does visit Vietnam, he said he’s interested in seeing the countryside where he served and not so much the city.
Tom Kobashigawa refused to believe that his nightmare was really over until his plane lifted off the runway in North Vietnam, bound for Clark Air Force Base in the Philippines and then on to Hawai‘i. His recurring dream of going home to Hawai‘i had always turned into a frightening nightmare with his being captured again by the Viet Cong.
This time, however, after three long years in captivity, Tom Kobashigawa was really going home.
He was 21 years old when he enlisted in the Army in 1968. “I knew I was going to be drafted already. I was on 1-A status at the time, so I enlisted . . . . Actually, I wanted to go to Europe.”
Instead, Kobashigawa arrived in Vietnam in the summer of 1969 and was assigned to the 101st Air Mobile Division, working on helicopter maintenance.
Feb. 5, 1970, was just another day in Vietnam for SP 5 Tom Kobashigawa. It was a cloudy, drizzly afternoon when Kobashigawa and another maintenance man, who flew as the door gunner, got into a UH-1 “Huey” helicopter along with two pilots to do some work on the chopper. Nothing major — just maintenance work that needed to be done somewhere else, he said.
“We went into the valley and were flying at a pretty high altitude. What the pilot wanted to do was go below cloud level.” As he did that, however, the chopper hit the tops of some trees, ripping the helicopter’s rotor from its shaft. Seconds later, the chopper hit the mountainside near Hue, South Vietnam, and burst into flames.
As soon as he could, Kobashigawa, who had suffered serious burns to his back, legs, buttocks and hands, dragged himself about 15 yards to check on his crewmates. One captain’s leg had “almost ripped in half,” Kobashigawa recalled. “His face was all white, no eyebrows — all burnt. He was in shock, so he didn’t know who I was.”
The other captain had a dislocated leg and the door gunner was paralyzed from what appeared to be a pinched nerve, Kobashigawa recalled.
Darkness began to fall and it was drizzling when they heard the sound of branches cracking as someone made their way through the dense forest. The men were armed only with their .38 pistols.
“We heard them yelling to each other.” Kobashigawa said their captors approached the captain first, who called out “chu boy,” a term Kobashigawa had heard used for captured guerrillas. He said it was the only Vietnamese term the captain knew.
“They shot their guns up in the air, but I couldn’t see anything. I yelled up to the captain to see if he was all right. He told us, ‘Don’t try anything. Just throw your guns down.’ We could hear them all around us. I don’t know how many people, maybe a dozen or so. They encircled us and moved in closer and made sure that our hands were up. They were yelling at us. They took our weapons and then moved back out.”
They were held at the crash site overnight. By morning, the seriously injured pilot had died. He was buried at the site. The remaining three prisoners were then moved out of the mountains.
Kobashigawa recalled the five-to-six-day walk over rough terrain to the Viet Cong base camp. The captors carried the captain with the dislocated leg and the paralyzed door gunner. Kobashigawa managed to walk for two days.
On the third day, his legs refused to move and his captors were forced to carry him, too. “They made gestures like they were going to shoot me if I didn’t keep moving. But I got to a point where I didn’t care already. The guy kept pushing me. I guess I was kind of delirious already. I couldn’t move my legs. My pant legs were pasted to my legs. They had to pour water on my pants and cut it off because of all the pus, like it was glued to my leg.”
Kobashigawa said the medic at the base camp applied a type of fish oil to his burns and dressed them. His legs are scarred from the burns, but the treatment he received helped the burns to heal.
Kobashigawa thought they were held in a North Vietnamese camp near Laos because he could hear bombing in the area every night. He says the treatment from their captors was “better than I expected.”
During his interrogation, his Viet Cong captors asked him where he was from. “I said, ‘Hawai‘i,’ so they asked, ‘Why are you fighting this war? Why are you here?’ I told them, ‘We’re part of the United States.’ They never treated me any differently, one way or the other.”
Kobashigawa and the door gunner were imprisoned together. The pilot who survived was held in a separate barracks for officers. Kobashigawa’s injuries from the crash took a greater toll on him than he had realized. Although he was alert, he spent most of his time sitting or on his back, unable to walk. The boredom got to him, though.
Kobashigawa said they were awakened at 5 or 6 a.m. every morning. From the little window in the door, “They’d shine their flashlight in and yell at us, ‘Get up!’” He said they could distinguish between night and day by the sunlight that filled their concrete cell through a high window.
Every morning, another American prisoner of war was sent in to Kobashigawa’s cell to empty their waste from a can that served as their toilet.
“He was almost like a servant for us because we couldn’t do anything. He would bring us hot water. We had these little teapots and a cup. He’d fill up the water, empty out the waste can. And he’d give us bread — looked like French bread.” Kobashigawa said he was given two cigarettes every morning. “They’d give you a light and then they’d leave, close the door, and we just waited until lunch.
“Lunch was soup, and dinner was soup — no meat, just pumpkin soup. They’d light your cigarette again. So you’d have to smoke when they came with the light.”
Kobashigawa remembers eating pumpkin soup for lunch and dinner, every day, for about six months. The other six months, they were given a potato leaf soup.
The POWs also got a daily dose of “Voice of Hanoi” propaganda. “They would play American music. Actually, it was broadcast for the American soldiers fighting in South Vietnam, not for us. That was our daily propaganda. We would listen to that and then they would come quiz us on that, what we heard.”
For three years, Kobashigawa and his fellow POWs lived in constant fear of being killed. Only after being transferred to a second POW camp did he begin to feel that he might survive the ordeal. “But we didn’t know when it was going to end, either.”
Their lives were psychological roller coasters — full of hope and optimism one day and down in the dumps the next. Even little things raised their hopes.”
The Viet Cong allowed him to write only one letter home to his mother, but not for a while. Matsue Kobashigawa, a widow raising five children alone, received her son’s 10-line letter in August 1972, more than two years after he had been captured. In December 1971, she had been informed that he was being held as a prisoner of war. Until then, all she knew was that he had been reported “Missing in Action.” Although she feared the worst, she would not allow herself to believe that he was dead.
“I remember once we heard that they were negotiating in Paris, and the talks were going real well. And then they broke off and we had heavy bombings. Then it went back to the normal routine.
“From that experience, when they told us that they were going to release us, everybody wanted to believe them, but nobody was really sure. Until the very last day, they made you feel like they didn’t have to release you. You know, ‘You better keep in line because we don’t have to let you go.’ Until the very last day.”
The psychological torment was constant — some of it inflicted on them by the guards and some of it by the POWs on themselves. “Although some people left, we felt like there still could be some snags if the Americans didn’t carry out their part of the agreement. It could end. It could just stop. They could halt it right there and break off the agreement. So until we actually boarded that plane, we just never felt like we . . .”
Freedom finally came for Tom Kobashigawa on March 27, 1973. He had been captured at 21. Three years later, at 24, he was finally going home.
“I was just hoping the plane wouldn’t crash,” laughed Kobashigawa as he relived the experience in the living room of his Kalihi home.
He said he still has a fear of crashing whenever he flies. “I think I’ll always have that feeling. I went through one crash. I don’t have a good feeling about flying. When I get on a plane, I can’t wait until it lands.”
After a few days of debriefing at Clark Air Force Base in the Philippines, Kobashigawa and two other POWs boarded a military transport for the nine-hour flight home. A few hours before they landed in Honolulu, they were told that a crowd of 3,000 was waiting at Hickam Air Force Base to give them a hero’s welcome home. They’re probably going to want you to say something, they were told.
Tom Kobashigawa said he was never comfortable with the “celebrity” treatment he received in the months after returning home. “I actually had a guilty feeling about the way they treated us — the hype, the news — because people died there. You really feel sorry for the families, not so much for the people that died, because you can’t do anything about that.
“The people that survived the war, the ones that were maimed or disabled, the ones that fought there. We felt like they didn’t get any kind of recognition at all. We came back as heroes; they didn’t get anything.”