Old photo of leis on Vietnam Memorial

Forgotten … and Now Remembered

Karleen Chinen
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.

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