Sunday, June 20, 2010

James Gabriel is finally honored

James Gabriel Jr., March 22, 1938-April 08, 1962, has been part of the lexicon of the Green Berets — the Army's Special Forces best known for their clandestine operations from the jungles of Vietnam in the 1960s to the mountains of Afghanistan today.

However, it has taken 48 years and the tireless effort of a Green Beret soldier to garner official recognition for Gabriel, a Hawaiian memorialized in the song "The Ballad of the Green Berets."

He was the first Special Forces soldier and the first Hawaiian to be killed in the Vietnam War. On Saturday the 5th Special Forces Group will officially dedicate Gabriel Memorial Field at Fort Campbell , Ky. , honoring the 1956 Farrington High School graduate.

Billie Gabriel, one of James Gabriel's eight siblings, said, "The family is truly humbled by this honor to our brother. This will indeed be a bittersweet moment as I represent my parents at the ceremony. They would be ever so proud to see this day."

Gabriel added that because her brother was "the first native Hawaiian casualty of the Vietnam conflict, this event holds even greater significance for the state of Hawaii and every kanaka maoli. This field holds special meaning to every 5th Special Forces Group soldier at Fort Campbell , and to have my brother's name forever memorialized with such a sacred place for other families of fallen warriors is even more humbling."

Gabriel said her mother, Juliette, who has died, kept all of her brother's letters that he wrote from 1959 to '62.

Rereading them recently, Gabriel was moved to tears.

"I felt the youth in his words when he would tell my mom that he missed the coconut cookies that she made for him when he was a little boy. Then in the next paragraph I could feel his strength and pride of being a soldier fighting for freedom."

Gabriel will meet with 120 Hawaii-born soldiers stationed at Fort Campbell and present them with a koa fishhook pendant — a gift from the Kamehameha Schools class of 1969 and others. Also, the Royal Order of Kamehameha and retired Navy Capt. Gerald Coffee, a MidWeek columnist who was a prisoner of war in North Vietnam from 1966 to 1973, will donate leis that Gabriel will place on the memorial stones at the parade field. A maroon-and-white lei, a gift from his high school alma mater, will adorn his memorial stone.

Staff Sgt. Barry Sadler, a Special Forces medic in the Vietnam War, penned the lyrics that refer to Gabriel's wife — "Back at home, a young wife waits" — and their son, James Gabriel III, who was born five months after his death.

Billie Gabriel noted that Sadler, in his book, "I'm a Lucky One," said her brother's death was the inspiration for the 1966 hit song.

The Gabriel demonstration area and the Special Forces demonstration teams were established at Fort Bragg , N.C. , in 1962. The area was featured at the beginning of the 1968 movie "The Green Berets," starring John Wayne.

However, Chief Warrant Officer 5 Bruce Watts, a second-generation Green Beret, said it has since been overgrown with weeds and abandoned.

The Fort Campbell parade ground has served for 22 years as a memorial site for 47 Special Forces soldiers and one Navy SEAL and was unofficially known as Gabriel Field. However, it and rows of sugar maple trees were to be demolished along with many of the post's World War II and Korean War barracks and buildings.

"They were just planning to bulldoze it," Watts , who has been a Green Beret 22 of his 27 years in the Army, told the Star-Bulletin.

Watts said that soldiers have since 1988 planted sugar maple trees near stone monuments that were erected to honor fallen Special Forces soldiers.

"Since 9/11," Watts added, "there have been annual formations held on the parade ground dedicated to the memories of all our fallen."

About two years ago Watts started writing letters and collecting information to bolster his campaign to keep the parade field and have it officially named after Gabriel.

"It just fell into my lap," Watts said. "He (Gabriel) was very heroic and inspirational in his last actions. It was a travesty to allow it to evaporate," he said of Gabriel's story.

Gabriel, 24, a Specialist 5, and Sgt. Wayne Marchand were executed by Viet Cong sympathizers on April 8, 1962, during a training mission in a remote village seven miles from Da Nang . A 1962 Time magazine report said Gabriel and Marchand were in the third night of a two-week field exercise near the village of An Chau , 360 miles north of Saigon , when they were killed. His group was attacked at daybreak. Gabriel was shot three times in the chest and stomach while calling vainly for reinforcements.

Before he fell, Gabriel radioed a final message to the base at Da Nang : "Ammunition is running short and we are being overrun." He was captured and later killed.

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