Hawaii vets revisit
the Forgotten War
Today marks 50 years sinceMIA remains returned from Korea By Gregg K. Kakesako
the U.S Army's 5th Regimental
Combat Team shipped out for Korea
Mililani resident Harold Souza was 27 when the Chinese Communists overran his unit in North Korea. The Army corporal ended up spending more than 28 months in a prisoner-of-war camp near the Yalu River.
During his months there, Souza, who quit school at 16 to help support his family of seven, said he tried not to think of home because "I knew that would make me sick.
"But at times ... I just don't know how I pulled through," said Souza, 75. "I guess I have someone to thank for watching over me."
Souza was an engineer at Fort Shafter 50 years ago, when the Army hastily began rebuilding the 5th Regimental Combat Team, gathering soldiers from different units on Oahu in the early days of the Korean War.
When the 5th RCT finally sailed from Hawaii on July 25, 1950 -- 50 years ago today -- Souza was among the original cadre of 178 officers and 3,129 enlisted soldiers, many of them island residents. The unit landed in Korea six days later.
There were so many locals serving in the 5th RCT that one soldier of Korean descent from Lanai, Sgt. 1st Class Chong Kim, observed later: "I'd hate to have two armies shooting at me at once."
The 5th RCT commander's solution to this problem was to pair Asian soldiers with Caucasians.
The 5th RCT became known as the "Hawaiian Regiment" during its Korea combat tour because there were so many island kids in the unit, said ret. Army Brig. Gen. Irwin Cockett.
"There were several University of Hawaii ROTC cadets, led by Herb Ikeda, who volunteered for the 5th and ended up doing a fantastic job in intelligence," said Cockett, who later volunteered for three combat tours in Vietnam as a pilot.
But in 1950, Cockett was just a 19-year-old private first class who volunteered for the Army after graduating from Kamehameha Schools.
"When we were alerted to go overseas, the rumor was we were going to the Philippines to get organized and get more reinforcements. It wasn't until we were at sea on our second day when the C.O. (commanding officer) came on the public address system and said we were going to Pusan."
Cockett said he can still remember groups of civilians lining Kamehameha Highway in front of Schofield's main gate as the convoy rolled by.
"I still get chills thinking of all the families lined up behind a fenced-off portion of the pier waving goodbye to loved ones."
Four troop transports -- the USNS Gen. Hugh Gaffey, the USNS Gen. W.A. Mann, the USS Ventura and the USS Merrill -- were tied up at Army Pier 40 and Pearl Harbor when trucks carrying Cockett and the rest of the 5th RCT soldiers disembarked. As soldiers walked up the bow of the USS Mann, a Fort Shafter Army band played "Now is the Hour."
Santiago "Sandy" Bunda had been drafted in 1945 just as World War II was about to end.
"I was supposed to go to the Philippines," said Bunda, 73, "but instead I was kept at Schofield where I helped train troops."
Bunda's prowess in sports also may have had something to do with the assignment.
Although only 5 feet 4 inches tall, Bunda was a stellar basketball player at Waialua High School, winning all-star honors in 1944. "When I got into special services with the Army, I was representing it and other services in baseball, also. I played against the Yankees at Honolulu Stadium ... and against the Harlem Globetrotters in basketball."
Bunda, father of Leeward Oahu Sen. Robert Bunda, was in the 5th RCT when it sailed for Pusan on July 25, 1950.
"We saw combat for 11 months straight, with no rest," recalled Bunda, who was awarded the Silver Star following one of the unit's bloody campaigns.
Souza said there were at least 200 Americans and more than 100 British soldiers in his POW camp.
"It was a village but there were no fences, just roving guards. I guess we were so far north -- where would we go? There were eight or nine soldiers assigned to a room. We slept on the dirt floor. The walls were made of straw and mud.
"Meals were sorghum or rice with bugs. Once we had potatoes with rice for about two months. Then there were just carrots and rice and then peanuts and rice ... It was so cold that we had to sleep next to each other to stay warm."
Souza said the days were spent "scrounging for firewood" or playing softball with the ball fashioned from leather from a boot and a bat that was once a tree branch.
"A lot of guys got sick and gave up," said Souza who was a prisoner from April 1951 to August 1953. "They just gave up.
"I tried to stay active. I moved around a lot. I wanted to go home, but I tried not to think about it so I wouldn't make myself sick ... You just kept on going. You wanted to go home, but you didn't allow yourself to think about it because it would only make you sick."
By Aug. 26, 1950, the 5th RCT was assigned to the 24th Infantry Division -- the first U.S. combat unit sent to Korea -- replacing the 34th Infantry Regiment and the 63rd Field Artillery Battalion.
The 5th RCT remained with the 24th Division until January, 1952, when it was assigned first to IX Corps and then later to X Corps until the Korean War ended.
The core of the 5th RCT was the 5th Infantry Regiment, the third-oldest regiment in the Army, dating back to the War of 1812.
During World War I, the 5th Infantry Regiment guarded the Panama Canal. When World War II broke, the 5th Infantry saw combat with the 71st Infantry Division during the Rhineland and Central Europe campaigns.
The 5th Infantry was deactivated in 1946, but was recalled to active duty on Jan. 15, 1949, redesignated the 5th RCT and assigned to Seoul. Later that year, the U.S. decided to withdraw all its forces from the Korean peninsula and the 5th RCT was assigned to Schofield Barracks. Only 13 months later, it returned to fight in the "Forgotten War."
Wahiawa resident Frank Velligas was pulling duty as a fireman at Fort Shafter when the 5th RCT sought replacements.
"The Army screened my records and discovered that I had gotten machine gun training," said Velligas, who had been drafted in February, 1946, and whose only overseas assignment had been in Europe. "I ended up as a gunner."
"There were so many local guys, which was good, since everyone cooperated," said Velligas, 74.
He later earned the rare privilege of wearing the Army's Combat Infantryman's Badge with a star, denoting services in two wars, when he served as a platoon sergeant with the 1st Infantry Division in Vietnam in 1965 and 1966.
Comparing his two war-time experiences, Velligas said the major difference was that, in the latter war, "I was able to work these kids for a year before we shipped for 'Nam from Kansas, where the 1st Division was stationed.
"You know the people, the squad leaders, the team leaders. And, although they were young, you knew them and you knew you could trust them."