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Friday, April 28, 2000

Vietnam: 25 years after
Photo courtesy of Ed Yee
"Hueys" from Cu Chi lift off for an attack.

Death, tears
and laughter

Hawaii veterans share their
vivid memories of action in Vietnam,
stories of victory and defeat,
lasting friendships and terrible loss

First of two parts

By Gregg K. Kakesako


The year was 1965.

Ed Yee had just completed a one-year overseas assignment in South Korea when he was assigned as a platoon leader in the 25th Infantry Division's 1st Battalion, 27th Infantry "Wolfhounds."

Just a few years earlier, as Yee was completing ROTC classes at the University of Hawaii-Manoa, the division sent 100 helicopter door gunners to the Republic of South Vietnam in response to a request from the U.S. Military Assistance Command in Vietnam.

Courtesy of Ed Yee
1st Sgt. Leonard Letoto at Cu Chi base camp
in Vietnam in 1966.

Leonard Letoto, now 72, was the first sergeant of Yee's company at Schofield Barracks.

"We were the best jungle guerrilla warfare unit in the Army," said Letoto, who retired from the Army as a command sergeant major after 22 years of service.

"The 25th Division was trained to be an immediate reinforcement any place in the Pacific," he said. "There was always a brigade on standby. We were supposed to move in two echelons -- one immediately by air and then the other would follow by sea. And that's what happened in 1965."

Twenty-five years after the fall of Saigon, Yee's and Letoto's memories are still sharp. Nothing can erase the vivid memories, the lasting friendships or even the terrible losses the Vietnam War evokes.

"Everything is still vivid in my mind," said Letoto, who worked for an auto repair center after retiring from the Army. He then earned a bachelor's degree in sociology from Chaminade University in 1979 at the age of 52.

Courtesy of Ed Yee
1st Lt. Ed Yee served with Letoto as
a platoon leader with the "Wolfhounds."

"I think the hardest part was Cu Chi," said Yee, who recently retired from the Honolulu Fire Department as an administrative officer. "We were trying to take a village outside of the base camp when we ran into heavy automatic weapons fire. That's when I got it."

Yee, 59, said four battalions from the 25th Division were airlifted to the Vietnamese highlands of Pleiku in 1965, and his unit was followed by boats that landed in Vungtau in South Vietnam in January 1966.

That was "Operation Blue Light," then the largest and longest airlift of personnel and cargo into a combat zone. More than 4,000 3rd Brigade infantry men were airlifted to Pleiku in December 1965. Yee spent 90 days there on Huey gunships, providing security for the base, then returned to Schofield Barracks to join his unit as it was preparing to deploy to South Vietnam.


During the early 1960s, Schofield Barracks was the home of the Army's premiere counter-guerrilla training center. There were courses in Asian languages, jungle survival, warfare and military tactics, including rappelling from helicopters and cliffs.

"Its training was different from conventional warfare," said Letoto, who spent two tours in Vietnam. "The theory was to get people on your side."

"I firmly believe, just by the actions of my troops, we couldn't have been better prepared. When the chips were down, my men performed because of their training. One of my men told me that the training here was harder, except for combat, where you could get killed.

Courtesy of Ed Yee
Ed Yee's Company A, 1st Battalion, 27th Infantry
"Wolfhounds" preparing for air assault from
Cu Chi base camp.

"The Koolaus may look beautiful from afar, but they can be very treacherous."

Yee said his unit was the first to be trained in UH-1 Huey helicopters, which initially were used as gunships, armed with M-60 machine guns and rocket pods.

"None of the Hueys had gun mounts and the M-60s were hung by bungee cords from the ceiling of the helicopters," said Yee, who volunteered for three Vietnam tours.

"You rode with the M-60 sitting on your lap. At Makua Valley, we learned how to fire, (and) change the barrel of the M-60 before the helicopter reached the end of the valley and turned around for another run."


The Wolfhounds' mission in January 1966 was to set up a base camp at Cu Chi, which was west of Saigon and a Viet Cong rest area, Letoto said. "But that was something we didn't know at the time."

Yee, who graduated from St. Louis High School in 1959, was wounded at Cu Chi and was hospitalized for three weeks.

"We ran into a very sophisticated enemy force at Cu Chi," said Yee, who retired from the Army Reserve as a lieutenant colonel after 32 years of service. "It was the stomping ground for the VC. They had built an extensive tunnel system and were well organized and well entrenched, having been there since the French occupation."

Letoto said he is haunted by an ambush that took place in July 1966.

"It still stays in my mind. It was when three of my platoons had the biggest casualties -- 32 were wounded and 24 were killed.

"That's when you see grown men cry. In combat, you become very close ... people depend on each other. I remember before we got there, I got my men together on the ship and told them that this was war and that some of them might not be coming back.

"But it was still very hard when something like that happens."


But there also were lighter moments, according to retired Army Col. Milton Goo, who was assigned to the division for five years, beginning in 1961.

He spent his last tour with the Tropic Lightning in Vietnam as a brigade assistance intelligence officer.

"We were at Cu Chi in April 1966", said Goo, "and a brigade from Alaska had been activated to round out the division ... The brigade, after being there for a month, was given the responsibility of guarding one-third of the camp's perimeter from 10 p.m. to 4 a.m.

"That night, you thought we were being overrun from all of the shooting that was going on from that side of the perimeter. Monitoring their radio frequency, you would think there were 200 to 300 people attacking the camp. But when morning came, there was nothing there. No bodies. They were just shooting at shadows and ghosts.

"It brought a chuckle to a lot us, and we wondered if it had been like that when we first came into the country."

Goo, now civilian chief of operations for planning at Fort Shafter, also noted that one of the battalion commanders was a guy from Hawaii, as were several other key non-commissioned officers.

"We had written into our brigade SOP (standard operating procedure) that all captured rice would be turned over to us because of its intelligence value," Goo said.

"You can guess the real purpose ... at least we had something to go with our C-rations."


During the Tet offensives of 1968 and 1969, the Tropic Lightning soldiers -- who got their nickname, "lightning," from their telephone call sign during the Guadacanal campaign in 1942 --were instrumental in defending Saigon. From May 1969 through April 1970, the 25th Division was involved in the U.S. Vietnamization program, but saw limited action in the Hobo and Bo Loi Woods.

From April through June 1970, they joined the Allied effort in the enemy sanctuaries of Cambodia, confiscating tons of supplies and weapons.


Hawaii Army National Guard Brig. Gen. Clarence "Mert" Agena recalls fighting in the Bo Loi Woods, where three companies of the Wolfhounds went in to rescue a U.S. Army Ranger team that was pinned down.

An artillery officer with the Wolfhounds, Agena, 55, said the battle lasted nearly four days and involved more than 200 Viet Cong and North Vietnamese soldiers.

"I remember constantly being up in the air with the commander, riding in a helicopter, trying to adjust our artillery fire," said Agena, who recently received his first star as deputy adjutant general for the state of Hawaii Department of Defense.

"Couple of months later, we made several thrusts into Cambodia, some lasting several weeks. These were essentially search and destroy missions because Cambodia was the sanctuary for the VC and the NVA (North Vietnamese Army)."


Following the Cambodia campaign, the 25th Division resumed the Vietnamization program.

In late December 1970, it began redeploying to Schofield Barracks. In early May 1971, the 2nd Brigade was the last Tropic Lightning element to leave South Vietnam.

During the Vietnam War, the Tropic Lightning soldiers were awarded 22 Medals of Honor -- the most received by any unit in the war.


Bullet Bitterness runs deep among some of Hawaii's Vietnamese, now about 10,000 strong.

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