Vietnam War memorial dedicated today at West Hawai‘i Veterans Cemetery
March 29, 2023, 4:00 AM HST
Shirley Kauhaihao knew her husband likely would not come home from the Vietnam War after reading his letter.
“He left instructions as to what I should do if anything happened to him, care for the [four] children and to live my life,” Kauhaihao recalled Tuesday. “Thinking of the time difference, he was already dead when I got the letter.”
First Lt. John Ku‘ulei Kauhaihao of Hōnaunau died on Sept. 5, 1969. He was being medivaced by helicopter out of the Vietnam jungle when the aircraft came under fire and crashed. He was 27 years old.
Kauhaihao is one of 15 West Hawai‘i men whose names are etched on a new Vietnam War memorial at the West Hawai‘i Veterans Cemetery in North Kona. The memorial will be dedicated today at 11 a.m. on National Vietnam War Veterans Day, also the 50th anniversary of the war’s closure. The public is invited to attend.
Also etched on the memorial is Sgt. 1st Class Rodney Yano, who was awarded the Medal of Honor, which he received posthumously, for his efforts in extinguishing a fire within a helicopter, keeping it from crashing.
According to the U.S. Army, on Jan. 1, 1969, Yano was the acting crew chief and one of two door gunners on his company’s helicopter as it fought an enemy entrenched in the dense Vietnamese jungle near Bien Hao.
Yano used his machine gun to suppress the enemy’s assault despite taking direct fire. He tossed grenades that emitted white phosphorous smoke at their positions so his troop commander could accurately fire artillery at their entrenchments.
One grenade exploded too early, covering Yano in the burning chemical and causing severe burns. Fragments of the grenade also caught supplies in the helicopter on fire, including ammunition, which detonated. White smoke filled the chopper, and the pilots weren’t able to see to maintain control of the aircraft. The situation wasn’t looking good.
Although the initial grenade explosion partially blinded him and left him with the use of only one arm, Yano jumped into action, kicking and throwing the blazing ammunition from the helicopter until the flaming pieces were gone and the smoke filtered out. He saved the helicopter from crashing but died from his injuries.
Glen Yano was home in Kealakekua on leave from the National Guard when the U.S. Army came to his family’s doorstep to inform them that his brother was killed in action in Vietnam on New Year’s Day.
Glen Yano, 22 at the time, said he had orders to go to Vietnam after his brother, age 26, returned from his third tour.
“When we saw them walking to our front door, we knew it wasn’t something good that happened,” Glen Yano said. “I knew he stayed longer than normal because of me, to keep me out of the war.”
The memorial was made a reality by a group of Vietnam veterans who formed the nonprofit West Hawai‘i Vietnam Veterans War Memorial Association. The group raised $75,000 in 17 months to construct the 6-foot-tall by 7-foot-long memorial, crafted in basalt rock. The memorial face is constructed with a marbled green hued granite reminiscent to the group of how Vietnam looked from the air.
Veteran Mel Behasa and member of the association said he wondered for years why the West Hawai‘i Veterans Cemetery didn’t have a Vietnam memorial, adding he assumed the government would at some point build one.
A member of the Honor Guard, Behasa volunteers his time to perform military honors — 21-gun salutes — at veterans’ funerals. About two years ago, Behasa was approached by a family member at a Vietnam veteran’s funeral and asked why there wasn’t a memorial at the West Hawaiʻi cemetery.
“We started doing research and learned we had to raise our own funds,” said Behasa, who retired as sergeant in the U.S. Army. He was a helicopter crew chief during the war.
As news of the memorial dedication spread, Behasa learned of more names to add to the memorial. It didn’t surprise him.
“Most Vietnam veterans, we try to forget,” Behasa said. “Now we’re in our 70s. For me, I felt it was time to have a memorial.”
Kauhaihao is pleased that there will be a memorial in Kona and plans to be in attendance for its dedication. She said she feels the memorial will be good for everyone who lost someone in the war because it honors the men and women who served.
“To have the memorial here, it’s like we can visit him,” Kauhaihao said. “What I would give if I could’ve heard John’s voice before he passed. The memories are all we have left and a few mementos but oh, to hear that voice, it would be heavenly.”
It’s become tradition for Kauhaihao and her family to visit the Vietnam War memorial in Hilo throughout the year. She said they leave floral offerings on the markers for the 50 Hawaiʻi Island people who died in Vietnam on Memorial Day and Veterans Day. In December, Kauhaihao purchases little red poinsettia flowers that are placed on the markers. She plans to also start leaving floral offerings at the new memorial in Kona.
“It won’t bring them back, but at least it indicates that though they’re not with us physically, it honors them and it does help with the [healing] process,” Kauhaihao said.
Glen Yano was surprised when he learned there was going to be a memorial in West Hawai‘i. He was at the cemetery Tuesday with photos and memorabilia of his brother that will be put on display. One framed photo he shared is of him and his parents accepting the Medal of Honor on behalf of his brother from President Richard Nixon in April 1970.
In his honor, the cargo carrier USNS Yano was named for him, as well as a helicopter maintenance facility at Fort Rucker, Ala., and a library at Schofield Barracks, Hawaiʻi.
“Any war memorial is good because it honors those who sacrificed their lives,” Glen Yano said. “I’m glad they did it now.”
After his brother’s death, Glen Yano’s orders were canceled.
“He got the Medal of Honor for saving people on the helicopter, but he saved me, too,” Glen Yano said.
The West Hawai‘i Vietnam Veterans War Memorial Association also made it possible for Glen Yano to bring his brother’s remains back to the Big Island. They made the request in January. Previously buried at the Punchbowl National Cemetery in Honolulu, Glen Yano said he flew to O‘ahu to pick up his brother’s remains on March 17.
“It was my mom’s wish that he come back to the cemetery,” Glen Yano said.
A burial will be planned for the future.
Below are names of the Vietnam veterans listed on the memorial:
- Rodney James Takashi Yano, SFC, U.S. Army, Dec. 1, 1943 – Jan. 1, 1969
- Joseph William Gaa, Sr., Sgt. U.S. Army, May 2, 1950 – Jan. 15, 1971
- Wayne Howard Hedemann, WO1, U.S. Army, Feb. 22, 1945 – May 13, 1970
- Glenn Teugio Shibata, Cpl., U.S. Army, Sept. 15, 1947 – March 29, 1969
- Steve Freddie Johnson, SSG, U.S. Army,Dec. 22, 1946 – Dec. 14, 1970
- Momi Nuhi Kane, SSG, U.S. Army, March 27, 1935 – Nov. 18, 1967
- John Waikane Cabrera, SPC4, U.S. Army, Dec. 8, 1940 – June 23, 1966
- Randy Charley Paro, PFC, U.S. Marine Corps, Oct. 8, 1950 – May 1, 1969
- Keith Jon Puhi, LCPL, U.S. Marine Corps, June 29, 1949 – March 6, 1969
- Herman Halemanu Ban, Sgt., U.S. Army, July 16, 1947 – Jan. 4, 1970
- Lukana Edward Loo, Jr., SFC, U.S. Army, Sept. 12, 1925 – April 1, 1969
- Thomas Anthony Salvatore, PFC, U.S. Army, Dec. 8, 1949 – Sept. 6, 1969
- John Ku‘ulei Kauhaihao, 1st Lt., U.S. Army, April 17, 1942 – Sept. 5, 1969
- Ernest Seichi Sakai, SFC, U.S. Army, May 17, 1940 – June 19, 1968
- Samuel Kanehailua Solomon, Jr., 1st Sgt., U.S. Army, April 13, 1928 – Nov. 3, 1966