MARINE CORPS BASE HAWAII - In October of 1969, Lance Cpl. Charlie Kanehailua crawled up Hill 953 in the Que San Mountains of Chu Lai, Vietnam.
The 18-year-old Marine and his squad were to join another squad to assault two enemy bunkers at the top of the hill. There was only one way back down because the other side of the hill was a steep cliff.
Kanehailua had already been fighting in the war-torn country for six months. He was all too familiar with the blood spilt atop Hill 953, having previously spent an entire day carrying his lieutenant through slippery mud with only one other Marine to the base of the hill for a medical evacuation.
Without hesitation, he advanced forward. His comrades, however, hesitated before finally joining him.
“They told me later they had thought I was crazy, and they were scared, because they had only been in Vietnam for a week and this was their first time under fire,” he recalled. “Fear is good for everybody. Fear keeps you from getting cocky.”
Charles "Charlie" Kanehailua looks through his old photos and clippings from his Marine Corps days and reunions with his fellow Marines at his home in Nanakuli, Nov. 4, 2013. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Kristen Wong)
As Kanehailua and the two squads made their way up the hill, a Chinese communist grenade called a “chicom,” landed in their midst.
“It landed right in front of us, me and my men, and I told them to run,” he said.
But before he could throw the grenade back, it ignited in his hand. Kanehailua landed on his back, staring up at the sky. He couldn't feel the right side of his face, nor could he see out of his right eye.
“I thought, ‘so this is what it's like to die,'” he said.
The unit corpsman performed triage on his head and hand, but Kanehailua would have to wait nearly a day before he could be carried down the hill and medically evacuated. That day earned him his third Purple Heart — and a trip straight home from the war.
Today, Kanehailua is a father of five, and grandfather of 10, retired from the U.S. Postal Service, and lives with his wife in Nanakuli, Hawaii, currently caring for his aging mother. He enjoys making Hawaiian crafts, surfing and sharing his story with students at the University of Hawaii.
He has led a busy life; also coaching canoe paddling for many years, earning his pilot's license and traveling. He has paddled with the wounded warriors of Wounded Warrior Battalion West-Detachment Hawaii, paddled in British Columbia twice with the Native Americans of the Squamash Nation and is planning a third trip. But the effects of six months in Vietnam will always linger in his body, and his heart.
Born in Honolulu and raised in Nanakuli, Hawaii, Kanehailua was the fourth of eight children. After graduating from Waianae High School, he looked forward to joining the military like his grandfather, uncles and elder brother. During the summer of 1968, he and his friends spent the night at a beach after having a potluck in honor of his brother's return from boot camp, only to be arrested by the police for vagrancy.
While in court, the judge said Kanehailua had two choices: go to jail or enlist in the Marine Corps within the next five days. Kanehailua enlisted in August of 1968 and attended boot camp at Marine Corps Recruit Depot San Diego. He became part of the all-Hawaii Marine Platoon 2206 in 1968, made up of 80 young men from the Hawaiian islands. Of that platoon, 10, including Kanehailua, were assigned to Golf Company, 2nd Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment, 1st Marine Division and sent to Vietnam.
Golf Company provided security for Cobb Bridge, surrounded by the Rocket Belt. The Rocket Belt is described as an arc extending from Hai Van Pass to Marble Mountain and enclosing Da Nang Air Field, according to “U.S. Marines in Vietnam: High Mobility and Standdown 1969,” by Charles R. Smith from Headquarters Marine Corps. In August of 1969 Kanehailua said his unit left Da Nang for Chu Lai, assisting Army troops in two new areas of operation: Landing Zones Baldy and Ross.
During his six months in Vietnam, Kanehailua said the men not only fought the Vietcong and the North Vietnamese troops, but also Chinese allies. Because of Vietnam's monsoon season, they endured rain and muddy terrain. They patrolled carrying heavy packs of ammunition and other supplies. Sometimes supplies didn't arrive in time and food was scarce, though to some, that was not a priority.
“When you're scared, you don't (feel like) eating,” he said.
Kanehailua's first injury was a result of friendly fire. While in the midst of a battle, an artillery round shot from the Marines' side failed to reach its mark and instead landed on Kanehailua's squad, sending them to a makeshift hospital nearly eight miles from their base camp. He was awarded his first Purple Heart medal in the hospital, June 16, 1969.
His second award would come when he was burned by white phosphorus, which came from mortar rounds, again from friendly fire.
After receiving his third Purple Heart, Kanehailua was ordered to return home from Vietnam and was given the opportunity to leave active duty early. After working a few civilian jobs, he decided to reenlist in 1971.
“I kept having nightmares and I couldn't readjust back to civilian life,” he said.
He served a short time at Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton in California, and moved to Echo Company, 2nd Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment, based at Marine Corps Base Hawaii. He then became a military police officer at Camp H.M. Smith.
To this day, Kanehailua experiences occasional dizzy spells and black spots among other health problems. Like many combat veterans from the Vietnam War, he suffers adverse effects from a widely-used herbicide known as “Agent Orange.” There are still remnants of metal shrapnel embedded in his skin, and has post-traumatic stress disorder.
But said he treats each day as if it were his last, and remains active in the community, counseling others, lecturing at UH, and attending church. He calls his experience in the Marine Corps “bittersweet,” because despite the physical and emotional injury, the Corps still taught him discipline and independence. He plans to write a book about his experiences, and shares his story with the young men and women preparing to join the military.
“It's not easy to put emotional words down onto paper,” Kanehailua said. “It's a struggle because as you write you get flashbacks, and you try and put two and two together and then you try to validate your stories with other people's stories. But you can have five guys in one incident and you're going to get five different stories.”
The war and the Corps are still very much a part of Kanehailua today. He annually attends gatherings with the remaining members of Golf Company, 2nd Bn., 7th Marines, as they share stories and pay tribute to their fallen.
“(Reunions are) good because you can almost put the little pieces (of the puzzle) together, because those are the guys (who) were with you and these are the guys that can help you validate your stories,” he said.
His comrades also visit him from time to time, enjoying music and song. But they never forget the war that brought them together. Though their scars from this war may never completely heal, Kanehailua always lends an ear to his fellow Marines, when they need closure.
“You don't need to ‘medicate' yourself with drugs or alcohol,” Kanehailua said. “Talk about it, let it out.”
By USMC Kristen Wong
Provided through DVIDS
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