The sights of Honolulu at night from the harbor were wasted on us this night. The lights of the hotels on Waikaki, the taillights of the cars climbing the Pali Highway and the Manoa Valley and the Diamond Head Lighthouse, all were being ignored. The only sounds were the ocean gently lapping at the side of the sailboat and the occasional creaking of the rigging as the trade winds wafted over us. Five war-hardened soldiers on a 27-foot sailboat silent, not uttering a word or making a noise. We were alone with our thoughts and fears. We were anchored just outside the Honolulu reef. We had been here since sunset to honor a promise to a friend, a fellow soldier, and a brother.
I thought back to that last day in that South Asian country.
There were six of us preparing to rotate back to Hawaii. We had made several trips into country over the last three years. We were a specialized Search and Rescue Team (SAR). We were a strange mixture when we first started together. A Texas cowboy, an Oklahoma Reservation Cherokee, a West Virginia Coalminer, a California used boat salesman, an Oregon schoolteacher and a Louisiana oil field roughneck. We were all in our mid to late 20’s and all single. Who ever put us together as a team must have known what they were doing because we bonded quick and we were good at our jobs. Of course it could have been that our very survival depended on each other. Whatever the reason we were closer than most brothers.
We had the rest of the day and a wake-up and we would be on that freedom bird. Rumors had it that a pull out was close and that meant we wouldn’t be back like we usually were. But we had all heard the rumors before. We were shopping in the ville for souvenirs, simple things to give the bar girls in Honolulu. This young boy came up and tried to sell us a shoeshine. We blew him off, all except Zeke. Zeke had a soft spot for all kids. We wandered up to the next shop while Zeke was getting the shine. We were about 15 feet away when the kid came running past us and then the explosion.
As I was going down from the concussion I saw a GI try to grab the kid and the kid sliced his arm with a cutthroat razor. As I hit the ground and looked up I saw a ranger slip a revolver back into his belt. When I finally got up I saw the kid laying on the road with the back of his head missing.. I turned to Zeke and rushed to him. Both his legs were raw meat. I couldn’t even see any boots or feet. I took off my blouse and tried to stop the bleeding with pressure while yelling for a medic. The other guys came over to help. Chad stood there with his belt, I guess he was thinking tourniquet but there wasn’t enough leg left to wrap anything around.
A jeep appeared and we all put Zeke in the jeep and piled on and the driver headed to the nearest aid center. Zeke didn’t make it. We had been together for three years; in a bunch of firefights; trekking through booby-trapped jungle; jumping out of planes, and generally in harm’s way. We had all been wounded but we had survived and now that we were going home… It just wasn’t fair. The medics at the aid center noticed all the blood on us and found that part of it was ours. We had all been hit with some shrapnel. I didn’t even realize it.
After we were treated I went over to the airfield and the MATS (military air transportation). I arranged for us to travel back to Hawaii on the C-130 that was transporting Zeke. The airman at the counter thought I was nuts giving up seats on a commercial aircraft to ride in a cold noisy cargo hold. It would have taken too long to explain it to the REMF and then he probably still would not have understood. I also sent a message to our HQ at Camp Smith. I then had to go down to the Provost Marshal’s Office and file a report about the “incident”. That’s what they kept calling it, an incident. While I was at the Provost Marshal’s the rest of the guys went to graves registration and persuaded them to put a rush on Zeke.
We all knew what the others wanted in case of death because we had talked about it. Strange but we never talked about it in country only when we were safe back in Hawaii. No one in country thought about dying out loud. We tried to suppress all such thoughts. We were going to live forever. Zeke wanted to be cremated and his ashes spread in Honolulu harbor. Zeke didn’t have any living relatives. We were his family. The six of us had gone together and bought a 27-foot Catalina that we kept in a slip at the Ala Moana marina. When we were there we would take tourists sailing on harbor tours. We also used the boat as place to decompress. Zeke loved the ocean and Oahu as we all did.
Now the five of us were sitting out here silent, remembering. When the moon appeared over the Koolaus I stood up on the bow of the boat and others came forward. Chad brought the urn. Someone turned on a cassette player and the haunting strains of TAPS broke the silence. When TAPS had ended, I asked, “if anyone had any words to say?” As I looked around I could see the emotions in their faces. I could feel the pain. Death never bothered us when we were in country. It was a daily part of survival, but here we could afford to feel emotions like normal people. A part of our family was gone, but would never be forgotten. I took the lid off the urn and said, “Kanaloa, accept our brother into your care may he find peace beneath your waters. Well, old ‘zekiel tried his best to do the thing the Lord had told him to. He did his best that’s all he can, after all Zeke was a natural man.” I sprinkled some ashes into the wind and passed the urn around to the other team members who did the same. Finally the urn was empty. Then as if we were of one mind we said in unison, “Aloha brudda” as we all tossed our leis into the water.
We sat there on the boat and talked the rest of the night. Remembering Zeke. All too soon the sun came up over Diamond Head and we headed back to the marina taking our memories and our fears with us. I think we all realized that we were all just little wheels within wheels and the world would continue to turn with or without us.