A True Hawaiian Hero

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Kind, sweet, considerate, always putting others first.  These are hardly the words one expects to hear describing a Special Forces soldier, particularly one who was a member of the 1st Special Forces Group, Vietnam.

These were the words that Billie Gabriel, one of Gabriel’s eight siblings, used to describe her brother James Gabriel Jr. as she sat across the table from me holding the last letter that her brother had sent home to his mother.  He spoke of how much he missed her and how he wished he could have some of her homemade coconut cookies.


“When I read his letters I could feel that sense of pride and he was so young but yet eager,” said Billie who was only 11-years-old when her brother was at war. “At the same time you could sense the fear you know in his words.”

Their mother kept every letter written by Kimo.

“This was the last letter you know that he had written.”

It was postmarked April 3, 1962.

“Today I got the blessing of my life. Nobui told me that she is expecting,” says Billie Gabriel, struggling to read her brothers final words to his mother. “I just want to say don’t worry about me because I’m fine. Give my love to dad and the kids, I have to go now sorry. Your loving son, Kimo.”

Five days later Gabriel was executed by Viet Cong guerrillas during a training mission, the First Special Forces solider and first native Hawaiian killed in Vietnam. He was only 24. Five months later James Gabriel III was born.

James is seen in the center in the photograph above taken just days before he was executed by the Viet Cong.

James along with three other Special Forces team members from the 1st Special Forces group was working in a small village  about 350 miles north of what was then known as Saigon.  Their mission was to train South Vietnamese in village defense.

On the morning of April 8th, 1962 Communist Viet Cong  guerrillas who had been alerted by spies in the village of An Chau , attacked the village.   Eventually superior firepower and manpower won out and the village was overrun.

Gabriel, using a small machine gun and calling for reinforcements, was wounded three times.  When the Viet Cong began marching Gabriel and the other men to a prisoner of war camp, Gabriel and one of the other soldiers had been so badly wounded they could not keep up.  The Viet Cong executed both men by shooting them in the face.

On that day Gabriel took on the dubious honor of being the first native born Hawaiian to die in Vietnam, as well as the first Special Forces soldier to die in Vietnam.

It has taken a while, just a bit over 48 years but on Saturday May 22nd  2010 the Fifth Special Forces Group will officially dedicate  the Gabriel Memorial Field at Fort Campbell Kentucky.  His sister Billie Gabriel is scheduled to meet with the 120 Hawaiian soldiers currently stationed at Fort Campbell.  During this meeting she will present them with a KOA fishhook pendant – a gift from the Kamehameha Schools class of 1969.

James Gabriel Jr was awarded the Purple Heart, Bronze Star for Valor and the National Defense Medal.  He was the inspiration for the song Barry Sadler wrote about the Special Forces.

As I thought about what to write for this week’s column, it seemed fitting to me that on this Memorial Day James Gabriel Jr, the first native born Hawaiian to die in the Vietnam conflict  would be an excellent choice.  Please remember him and the 58,159 other Americans who paid the ultimate price.

If other eyes grow dull and other hands slack, and other hearts cold in the solemn trust, ours shall keep it well as long as the light and warmth of life remain in us. – Gen John A. Logan, 1st memorial Day, 1868

Duane A Vachon PhD works at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific. He is the author of “Gems From The Antipodes: 12 Collections of Faith-Focusing Insights” He also writes a weekly column  “in The  Big Island Reporter”mailto:vachon.duane@gmail.com/