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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Friday, March 1, 2002

Survivor builds up courage to see 'Soldiers'

By Tanya Bricking
Advertiser Staff Writer

Jane Maeda is working up the courage to see "We Were Soldiers," the new Mel Gibson drama that opens today. The movie will be taking her back to a place that has preoccupied her for nearly 37 years.

The film is about the first major battle between U.s. and North Vietnamese troops in Ia Drang, which marked the beginning of the massive American ground war in Vietnam.

At the time, Maeda was a secretary at the U.S. Agency for International Development, stationed in Saigon. Her husband-to-be was a Special Forces major who wanted to take her to explore several villages one day.

Instead, they got caught up in the same gut-wrenching aspects of war described in the book "We Were Soldiers Once ... and Young," by Lt. Gen. Harold Moore and war correspondent Joseph Galloway, whose book is the basis of the movie.

Maeda and her husband were on a military flight headed into the area when warfare broke out. They were diverted to a landing strip from which they made a tense break for safety and a Special Forces camp aboard a convoy truck.

Maeda ended up flying back to Saigon with two dead U.S. soldiers at her feet.

She still remembers the details, such as the way she tried not to look at their identification tags. She didn't want to feel compelled to write to their families and tell them she had accompanied their husband or son out of the battle area. She didn't want to infringe on their grief.

"I look back now, and those two men represent to me all of the American soldiers who died in that brutal battle," Maeda now says.

Her lingering grief is for more than 250 U.S. soldiers killed there in November 1965.

Maeda now lives in Hawai'i Kai and has been executive secretary at the local KPMG accounting office for 25 years. She keeps journals about her experiences, and she plans to return to Vietnam in April for the first time with a combat nurse she befriended.

She said she's scared to see the movie because she still gets choked up just talking about her memories.

"Sometimes it takes me right back to it," she said. "And it's hard."