In midsummer of 1968 the 25th Infantry Division, stationed at Schofield Barracks in Hawaii, was going to ship out to Viet Nam. Before they left they were to do a practice beach assault on what I believe was Kawa’aloa Beach on the north side of the Moloka’i. The brass and politicians made a huge deal about it as it was to be the largest beach assault made since WWII. About 10 of us from the Fort Shafter photo lab as well as about 100 other troops were set up in a tent camp out by the Moloka’i airport to provide all kinds of ground services. Three of us were still photographers, 2 were film and the other guys were lab techs or clerks. No press was allowed so we detailed to cover the entire landing for Army records as well as to provide the press with still and film.
We flew to Moloka’i a week before the action started to get our tent and makeshift lab and office set up for a 2-week stay. By now I was a Specialist 4th Class or E-4 but was outranked by one of my friends who was a Corporeal E-4 who had time in grade over me. He was in charge of our little detachment but generally didn’t care what we did. We had a truck to use so most days we would pile in and drive the 5 or 6 miles to the isolated, beautiful beach. It really was isolated as were all the beaches of Moloka’i which had a small population and virtually no tourist trade at all. Moloka’i was a farming island that raised cattle, pineapples and produce.
The biggest town was Kaunakakai which had one main street and for all the world resembled a small, rural North Carolina farming town except the faces were all Polynesian or oriental. They wore the same bib overalls and straw hats, drove pickups covered with red dust and were as kind as could be. There was a very large concrete dock that was used to load pineapples and cattle on barges to be shipped to Honolulu just across the Moloka’i Channel. The dock terminated in pretty deep water which was perfectly clear. Standing at the edge looking down we could see large schools of colorful fish swimming around near the bottom. We could see every detail of the fish and coral and assumed the bottom was about 10’ down. A couple of local kids who were fishing set us straight and told us it was more 50” deep!
One night 4 of us, 3 white guys and 1 black got a ride to town on a truck. We stopped in a bar to have a beer and when it came time to pay no one would let us. We went to the café for dinner and after we had eaten the same thing happened. No bill, it had been taken care of for us. We had no idea what to say but thanked everyone and headed back to camp, 6 miles away. By now it was hard dark, there were no lights once we were out of town and the road was narrow. I felt like the stars were pressing me down they looked so close and so abundant. I’ve never seen a night sky like that since then. It was an amazing view. After we had been walking for 30 minutes or so a car came along and stopped. It was a local woman who insisted on driving us back to our encampment! It’s been almost 50 years since that day and I think of the kindness of those good people constantly.
At the beach, we set up a desk in the middle of a large field just because we could and spent our days roaming the hills and valleys that surrounded our ‘office.” We walked the beaches, climbed towering rocks and watched the herds of deer that seemed to be everywhere.
I finally got an assignment to go to the camps of the ‘”guerillas” who would provide an enemy for the assault troops and take some photos. These “guerillas” were all Hawaiian guys who were in the Army and had camps in the jungle where they were living large. They spent their time planning ambushes, spearfishing, catching lobsters, stockpiling coconuts, and papayas and chasing wild hogs. They were happy as could be and acted more like they were at a big party rather than working. As you can imagine they were fun to be with. When we pulled into one camp in our jeep I left my Speed Graphic camera on my seat for some reason. A little later I heard a Jeep crank up but gave it no thought, a few minutes later one of the guerilla guys came over carrying my camera in pieces. He was very apologetic, I was horrified as I knew I’d end up paying for it, but he quickly said he would take full responsibility and pay the damages himself. He must have as I never heard any more about it.
Another day I drew the long straw and got to fly all over the assault area in a small helicopter. The pilot was in no hurry so really gave both of us a good tour of Moloka’i. My PR handler was there as well to make sure I got the shots he wanted. He was a career Staff Sergeant and a royal pain. While touring the “guerilla” camps he sat up front in the jeep and constantly instructed the driver on how to drive. I was surprised he didn’t tell the pilot how to fly.
Finally, the big day arrived and the assault was on. It was amazing and a bit scary to see all the ships off the beach firing, hopefully, blanks, on targets nearby. After the bombardment, the landing craft started for shore carry the troops. They came through the surf and dropped their ramps on dry sand sometimes and other times in water a foot deep. I was running around taking pictures as fast as I could considering the size of the camera and having to insert a new film holder after every second shot. I have no memory of how we carried our film but assume we must have had some sort of backpack or bag as they were bulky.
Eventually, all the troops were ashore at which point the large, 400’ long, LST’s drove onto the beach with their load of jeeps, tanks, cannons, bulldozers and pretty much any kind of hardware you can imagine. Seeing a ship that size with its bow on the sand was quite a sight and one most people will never see. In the meantime the troops had moved inland battling the “guerilla” forces and trying to capture something, I don’t remember what, while we followed with our cameras. All in all, it was great fun for those of us not going to Viet Nam, not so much for the real soldiers.
The next day it was all over except the packing up and leaving. Several days later we flew back to Hickam and our regular jobs at the Fort Shafter photo lab. We spent the next week developing any pictures that didn’t get done in the portable lab, labeling them and finally adding our names as the photographer. Shortly after we got back the promotion lists came out and I had made Spec 5 or E-5. I had only been in the Army about 20 months at that point so didn’t have the required time in service or time in my previous grade so had to be waived for me to get promoted. I knew plenty of soldiers who had waited 10 or 15 years to make E-5 so I was pretty pleased. With my promotion and several Congressional pay raises for the military I was now making close to $500.00 a month! 4 months later when I went over 2 years’ time in service I got another raise to $600.00 a month. I felt rich even though I was still broke all the time.