Though faded, flag bears 45 years of soldiers' bonds
HONOLULU — A war-torn Vietnam-era battle flag with thousands of miles of travel and decades of service and sacrifice interwoven with its stars and stripes is making a return to Hawaii from Afghanistan — before heading back to the country next year.
The flag belongs to Allen Hoe, a Honolulu attorney and Vietnam War veteran whose 27-year-old son, Nainoa, an Army first lieutenant, was felled by a sniper's bullet in Mosul, Iraq, in 2005. The 1995 Kamehameha Schools graduate was carrying the flag with him when he died.
For the past nine months, it has been in the possession of the 25th Combat Aviation Brigade and making the rounds in southern Afghanistan.
The unit's 2,600 Hawaii soldiers, based at Wheeler Army Airfield, are heading home, and Hoe's flag will return in January with Col. Frank Tate, the brigade commander.
Hoe, 65, said his son "would have a (huge) grin on his face" to know that the flag has been on so many deployments. "He would be absolutely so thrilled and honored that he had been part of its legacy."
A bit faded now, the flag nevertheless carries the considerable weight of bonds forged in combat, the losses that occur, pride of service to country, and a warrior connection to Hawaii.
"While entrusted with the flag, we sought to travel to every corner our brigade serves in to share the story, history and honor of the flag with as many of our soldiers as possible," Tate said in an Army news story about the battle flag.
It has been to Iraq and Afghanistan multiple times as well as Kuwait, and been held aloft by the Army, Marine Corps, Air Force and Navy.
Former U.S. Pacific Command head Adm. Timothy Keating had the flag during a conference of Pacific commanders on Iwo Jima, and it was even flown atop famous Mount Suribachi.
The flag is expected to return to Afghanistan in mid-2013 on a deployment by the 2nd Stryker Brigade Combat Team and several thousand Schofield Barracks soldiers on one of the last big deployments from Hawaii to Afghanistan.
The flag will go with Stryker Brigade commander Col. Tom Mackey, who was Nainoa Hoe's executive officer in 2004.
Allen Hoe, then 21, bought the flag in 1967 at a souvenir shop outside a U.S. military base in Chu Lai, Vietnam, when he was serving as a combat medic with a long-range reconnaissance team.
The flag is made of silk, its stars are sewn-on plastic and it has string fringe, Hoe said.
On Mother's Day 1968, 18 soldiers in Hoe's unit were killed in battle in Kham Duc on the Laotian border.
Among the missing was his platoon leader, 1st Lt. Frederick Ransbottom. The survivors pledged that when his remains were recovered, they would present the battle flag to Ransbottom's parents.
In the meantime it remained in Hoe's possession.
"My two boys grew up, and this flag was either on my desk or on my dresser, and this was part of their growing up," said Hoe, who is a civilian aide to the secretary of the Army.
The flag went on a U.S. government search for Ransbottom in Vietnam in 1998, and to Afghanistan on a 2004 Schofield deployment there.
While serving in Mosul, Hoe's son Nainoa asked whether he could continue the legacy of the flag.
"Nainoa said, ‘Dad, send me the battle flag. My soldiers want to carry it in honor of the men you served with and in honor of your platoon leader,' who at that time was still missing in action," Hoe said.
Within a year of Nainoa Hoe's death, Ransbottom's remains were recovered. But his family, hearing of the flag's journeys, told Allen Hoe it should remain with him.
In 1999 Nainoa Hoe was selected as the U.S. Army Pacific Reserve Soldier of the Year while assigned to the 100th Battalion, 442nd Infantry Regiment.
He went through the ROTC program at the University of Hawaii, where he was fourth in a 2002 national ranking of 4,500 cadets, according to the Army.
Nainoa's brother Nakoa, 27, also is part of the 100th Battalion.
Allen Hoe admits Nainoa's death is even harder to cope with now, "because now I see what he has missed, his buddies who are now making captain and major, they have families, and they've all worked so hard."
But on Christmas the Hoes planned to focus on Nainoa's life, not his death.
"Christmas was his absolute favorite holiday, and so we celebrate Christmas by celebrating him. So we have a good Christmas," Allen Hoe said.