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Photos sought of Hawaii servicemembers killed in Vietnam

The pictures and stories of Army Spc. 5 James Gabriel Jr. of Kalihi and Cpl. Alexander A. Kaopuiki Jr. of Wailuku, who gave their lives fighting in Vietnam, will be among those featured at a new education center being built adjacent to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial inWashington, D.C.

According to organizers of an effort to gather more photos for the center, Hawaii has 276 names etched on the black granite memorial wall.

A total of 206 photos of the Hawaii fallen have been collected, but 70 more are needed for the new education center and its "Faces Never Forgotten" focus.

"This is so important that we don't forget these young men," said Billie Gabriel, whose brother was killed in 1962 in Vietnam, and who is helping lead the effort with Maui resident Janna Hoehn to gather the names.

"We're very close to finding them all," Gabriel said of the project started three years ago. "We may not find them, but we're going to try."

More than 16,580 Hawaii servicemen served in Southeast Asia during the Vietnam conflict, Gabriel said. The Hawaii call for photos is part of a national movement to collect photos of all 58,288 people whose names are engraved on The Wall.

Those photos will be displayed along with the fallen service members' stories in the $85 million education center to be built in the shadow of the Lincoln Memorial.

According to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund, which also built The Wall, the education center will allow visitors to "better understand the profound impact that the Vietnam War and other wars had on their friends and family members, their hometown and the nation."

The Education Center at The Wall also will include a tribute to the fallen from Iraq and Afghanistan.

For those who lost service members in Vietnam, putting a face to the names on The Wall is a welcome move to remember that sacrifice in the line of duty. The step also is a touchstone to the grief that still runs deep.

Kaopuiki's sister, Althea Kaopuiki Aheong, said her brother was 18 when he joined the Army and was assigned to Schofield Barracks in 1966.

He later volunteered to go to Vietnam. She remembers him telling their mother, "I want to give others a chance to be like us, to make their own decisions and to have a taste of what freedom is."

The 22-year-old had been in Vietnam just three months in 1969 when he and other soldiers were resting on top of a rock outcropping reading mail and drinking Cokes in Quang Ngai province.

The family later found out another soldier was "fooling around," pulled the pin out of a grenade and handed it to a medic, who mistakenly let the lever slip that started the fuse.

A letter received by the family from a platoon leader said: "Your son saw this, grabbed the grenade and started to throw it when it exploded, killing him instantly. My medic died about 30 seconds later."

Aheong, who lives on Maui, said during a phone interview, "I'm having a hard time. It's been years -- but still, he's my brother, and I'm getting all choked up again."

She said the new Education Center at The Wall "will be recognition for (the Vietnam service members) that they didn't die in vain, that they died for a purpose."

Billie Gabriel's brother, James, was a Special Forces "Green Beret" adviser in Vietnam in 1962 when he was killed.

The 24-year-old was the first Native Hawaiian and one of the first Green Berets killed in the war, his sister said.

According to an Army narrative, Gabriel was a member of a four-man team conducting a training mission in the village of An Chau.

The team's position was overrun by a larger force of communist guerrillas. Although shot three times in the stomach and chest and outgunned, Gabriel continued shooting, changing clips and phoning to request assistance for reinforcements.

"Before he fell, his last radio message to the U.S. base in Da Nang was, 'Under heavy attack from all sides. Completely encircled by enemy. Ammunition expended. We are being overrun,'" the Army account states.

Gabriel, a 1956 Farrington High School graduate, and three other U.S. soldiers were captured. Gabriel and another soldier were too wounded to walk, and U.S. forces determined later that both were executed by the Viet Cong.

Gabriel was memorialized in the song "The Ballad of the Green Berets."

Billie Gabriel said she was recruited to help in the effort to gather photos of the 276 Vietnam casualties whose home of record was Hawaii.

An even larger number -- 312 -- have been identified as possibly being born or raised in Hawaii, but those additional individuals would be a lot harder to find, Gabriel said.

Maui resident Hoehn's involvement in the Faces Never Forgotten effort grew out of a visit to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial wall.

She subsequently found the 42 photos of all the Maui Vietnam War casualties, moved on to California, starting in her old home town, and has since also raised $65,000 for the project on Maui, she said.

"My biggest success in finding these photos is through (stories in) newspapers," she said.

Her request is that "if there's anyone on the island that either knows these young men, if they don't have a photograph, if they know what school they went to, what year they graduated, we can go to the schools (for a photo)."

Families and friends might see an article and the names being sought "and somebody from here might know someone on the mainland, a sister or something, and it's a domino effect," Hoehn said. "It's just amazing and the readers are so responsive to this."

Anyone with information about any of the names on the list can contact Hoehn at neverforgotten2014@gmail.com or Gabriel at billie@gabrielmmi.com.

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