Ryan Pacolba still remembers that morning 50 years ago when his mother received a visit from military personnel at their Waialua home.
A 7-year-old at the time, Pacolba heard his mother scream after learning her husband, Sgt. 1st Class Alfredo Pacolba, a platoon sergeant with the 100th Battalion, 442nd Infantry Regiment, was killed in Vietnam, leaving behind his wife with four children, ages 12, 9, 7 and 5.
“I just knew that something happened,” Pacolba said Saturday.
His 81-year-old mother, Lois Pacolba, added, “It was a sad day.”
The Pacolbas were among hundreds in attendance Saturday at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific at Punchbowl for the 50th anniversary of the unit’s mobilization for the Vietnam War and the 15th anniversary of its deployment for Operation Iraqi Freedom III.
Originally, the unit was the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, made up of mostly Japanese-American soldiers during World War II, fighting Axis powers in Europe while struggling with racism at home. The regiment became the most decorated unit for its size in U.S. Army history and its motto was, “Go For Broke.” The 100th Battalion was part of the regiment.
Today, the 100th Battalion, 442nd Infantry Regiment, is comprised of soldiers from Alaska, American Samoa, Hawaii, Guam and Saipan and has contributed to wars in Korea, Vietnam and Iraq. The 100th also remains the only Reserve infantry battalion in the Army, said Russell Shimooka, a member of the Go For Broke Association, which supports the battalion and organized the event.
Retired Brig. Gen. Raymond Gandy Jr., former commander of the battalion, said today’s battalion members continue the legacy of duty and honor passed down from the 442nd and 100th battalion soldiers in World War II.
At Saturday’s ceremony, attendees honored the 14 members of the unit who were killed in action in Vietnam and Iraq.
Jim Horton, director of the cemetery, underscored the importance of remembering the sacrifices of the fallen.
“We are responsible, all of us, if that veteran ever dies a second death,” he said. “That second death is when we stop talking about, stop remembering, stop honoring that veteran’s service. It’s up to us … to remember, to take care of those veterans and their families to keep that memory alive.”
Puunui resident Gayle Fujita, 70, was surprised when she got a call informing her that there would be a ceremony to honor her brother, Staff Sgt. Melvin Fujita.
Fujita said she and her older brother were close, and he would take her everywhere he went when she was a young girl — even on his dates.
“I was like a leech to him,” she said.
She recalled being at a luau with family friends in Nuuanu in the summer of 1969 when a chaplain and another military officer showed up and informed her family that Melvin had been killed in Vietnam, at age 26.
Only later did her family learn that her brother had volunteered to venture out of cover in place of a lieutenant and was shot in the head by a sniper. That lieutenant, Robert Wight, later named his first son after Melvin, Fujita said.
Lois Pacolba said she appreciated the ceremony. She said her husband, Alfredo, was a cheerful person, who liked to sing and play guitar, but could also be strict in a military manner when disciplining the kids. He was killed by a bomb on Sept. 11, 1969, at age 37.
Ryan Pacolba recalled how military members carried his father’s casket about a quarter-mile from his house to a church, and a police convoy nearly a mile long followed his father’s body to Punchbowl, where he was buried.
Alfredo Pacolba was supposed to return home for leave the week his family learned of his death.
Besides Pacolba and Fujita, those remembered from the Vietnam War were: Staff Sgt. Robert Spillner, of Waipahu; Cpl. Rodney Fukunaga, of Hilo; Spc. Anthony Bongo, of Waianae; Spc. Leonard Castillo, of Wahiawa; Spc. Larry Leopoldino, of Hilo; Spc. Clifford Taira, of Honolulu; and Pfc. Dennis Silveri, of Hilo.
The five killed in Iraq who were honored were: Staff Sgt. Wilgene Lieto, of Saipan; Staff Sgt. Frank Tiai, of American Samoa, Sgt. Deyson Cariaga, of Hawaii; Sgt. Evan Parker, of Kansas; and Cpl. Derence Jack, of Saipan.