Memory Of An Island Hero Lives On

Jerry Coffee
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Wednesday - May 19, 2010
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Kimo Gabriel (center) with buddies in Vietnam, shortly before his death in 1962

The Korea-Vietnam Veterans Memorial is nestled on the Beretania-Richards Street corner of the state Capitol grounds. Low-key, quiet and reverent by design, and partly obscured by lawai fern and other native foliage, the casual passerby would hardly notice it.

It is divided into two sections, Korea and Vietnam, the Richard Street sides consisting of curving “stairstep” walls made of separate black blocks with names engraved on the top of each one; reading from left to right, the names appear in the order in which the individuals gave up their lives for the cause of freedom for people they didn’t even know.

Near the left side of the Vietnam section one block reads “SP5 James Gabriel Jr.” James, or “Kimo” as he was known by his family and friends, was the first Special Forces soldier and first Hawaiian to be killed in Vietnam while fighting against the Communist Viet Cong guerrillas who were determined to impose communism on the people of South Vietnam.


According to a press release from Gabriel’s sister, Billie Gabriel, “Technically there was no war in Southeast Asia at the time (1962). Kimo was a member of an advisory team of the Army’s elite Special Forces (training South Vietnamese soldiers in the village of An Chau near Danang.) All went well until the third night when the Viet Cong forces launched their attack ... The first attack was quickly repulsed, but shortly after daybreak the guerrillas came back in earnest. A Vietnamese said afterward, ‘I saw Sergeant Gabriel phoning (for air cover), shooting and changing clips all at the same time. Three times he was wounded and knocked down, the third time he didn’t get up.’ Gabriel was shot three times in the chest and stomach while calling for reinforcements. His final message to the U.S. base at Danang: ‘Under heavy attack from all sides. Completely encircled by the enemy. Ammunition expended. We are being overrun.’”

The VC captured Gabriel and his three teammates, one of whom was critically wounded, and fled into the jungle. Pursuing forces found Gabriel and the wounded man after they had been shot in the head, hands tied behind their backs.

An NBC correspondent later inspected the battlefield where Gabriel had been wounded: “In front of Gabriel’s position were about 12 or 14 Viet Cong dead, and they say it looked like he got most of them.”

Gabriel was awarded the Bronze Star for Valor, the Purple Heart, the National Defense Medal and - the first to an American - the Vietnamese Cross of Gallantry. His Purple Heart is believed to be the first awarded in “peacetime.”

He also was immortalized in the original lyrics of the Ballad of the Green Beret: “Remember, Gabriel died on Asian shores, to a wife and son he will return no more, they heard that brave man say, I would give my life for the Green Beret.”

Since 1988, the 5th Special Forces Group (Airborne) at Fort Campbell, Ky., has referred to its parade field as the James P. Gabriel Memorial Field. “Upon it rests the memorial markers and sugar maple trees planted for SP5 Gabriel and 56 other fallen soldiers. Gabriel Field holds a special place in the hearts of every 5th Special Forces Group soldier. It is sacred ground to the families of the fallen and any who served with those fallen there.”

Although the Fort Campbell site has been used for the past 22 years for major ceremonies, it has never been officially dedicated by the U.S. Army as a memorial site. But that will change on May 22. It will be officially dedicated the James P. Gabriel Memorial Field, a soldier proudly remembered by his comrades.

Gabriel’s family will be officially represented by his sister Billie (their parents have passed on). Her friend Leighton Tseu, represent ing the Royal Order of Kamehameha, will give an oli (chant) honoring Kimo and the other 56 brave soldiers who gave their lives defending their country, and then he and Billie will place orchid lei on the markers of all. From that time on, Hawaii’s aloha will be a part of that sacred place.

Gabriel was born in Honolulu and was a 1956 graduate of Farrington High School as a member of the JROTC program, where the “seed for service to country” was planted. He was the eldest of nine children. Five remaining siblings still live in Honolulu, and his son James P. Gabriel III resides in Chicago.

For further information, refer all inquiries to Billie Gabriel 497-7264.

In the meantime, take a few minutes for quiet time and reflection at the corner of Beretania and Richards streets. Read Kimo Gabriel’s name and the date of his sacrifice on his somber black square, and keep in mind that every single one of the hundreds of names on those black squares have their own stories, too.

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