Posted on September 4, 2015 by Scot Allen
By Maile Chow
The six weeks afforded by "summer break" allow teachers the unique opportunity for yearly renewal. Few other careers provide this built-in time for professional growth and change and the chance to return to work with a new perspective to share, both with colleagues and students. But to be completely honest, I wasn't thinking about this last September when I opened a weekly email I receive as part of a list-serve to which I belong. The email lists professional development opportunities for teachers, both here in the United States and abroad and this particular email described a study and research opportunity that would ultimately culminate in a summertime teacher trip to Europe to visit some historic WWII sites. It indicated that teachers of any discipline were welcome to apply. I am by no means a historian, but the program sounded interesting. And a free trip to Europe? Where do I sign up? I completed the application process for the program, called Understanding Sacrifice.
When Lynne O'Hara, director of programs at National History Day (NHD), who along with the American Battle Monuments Commission (ABMC) oversees the Understanding Sacrifice program, called a few weeks later to tell me that I had been chosen as a participant, I suddenly felt overwhelmed. I was an English teacher, not a history teacher! And yes, I was interested in WWII, but I had no real knowledge of it, beyond what everyone in America learns in school. Would I be able to hold my own in a group of educators who taught WWII history every day? What was I doing? Why had they chosen me? Was a free trip to Europe worth the stress and work that would go in to completing all that the program required of me? I had little time to dwell on my own personal concerns. All participants were required to fly to Washington D.C. for a weekend to meet and begin our work. Our first task while there was to begin researching a Fallen Hero from our state--someone who had gone to WWII but never returned home. The options for me were few. I was assigned the Normandy American Cemetery and had to choose a soldier from Hawaii who was interred or commemorated there. Most soldiers from Hawaii fought in the Pacific Theatre of the war. And the families of those who fought and died in the European Theatre often had their remains repatriated and buried at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific, or what most of us call Punchbowl. Where other teachers in our group had hundreds of home state soldiers to choose from, I had five. And I had no idea how to choose. I thought briefly of throwing a dart into the list of names. Again I began to doubt my ability to hold my own in this program. I couldn't even choose a solider! That's when another teacher, Joe Boyle from Ohio, came to the rescue. He pointed at one of the names on the list. Henry Saaga. "Choose this guy," Joe told me. "He was in the 83rd like my uncle! I'll help you out." I had no idea what being "in the 83rd" meant, but Joe Boyle's enthusiasm was infectious. I chose Henry Saaga and got to work.
Despite my best efforts to research him, the information about Henry Saaga was scarce. His body had never been recovered. According to ancestry.com he had no living family members. I couldn't even find an accurate birth date. We got word that NHD had contacted the National Archives and had the enlistment files of many of the group member's Fallen Heroes. Henry's files, however, had burned in a fire. They did not exist. Meanwhile, other members of the group were finding loads of information on their Fallen Heroes. We "met" each month in an online discussion group, to talk about reading assignments and our progress with our research. Others had their soldier's records and photos and had even met family members. I had hardly anything. As the months passed I began to despair. I had a few basic facts about Henry, things anyone could have googled and found online, but nothing more. I began to think that my initial reaction to acceptance into the program (Why did they choose ME?) was accurate. I couldn't do this research! Why DID they choose me?
In April I went to an Easter dinner at a family friend's house. She asked me what I was doing during the summer and I explained to her about the Understanding Sacrifice program. I told her all about Henry Saaga and how I was struggling to find any information about him. "We have some friends on the North Shore who are Saagas," she said. "I'll ask them if they're related to Henry." I thanked her, but had little hope. The Saaga family tree had not indicated any living relatives. One day later, I received an email. "Don and Linda Saaga are related to Henry! Don is Henry's brother! Please contact them to talk to them about your project." It was a small miracle. Don was indeed Henry's brother--he had been left off of the family tree because he had been adopted by the Saaga family after the death of Henry. And someone else had been left off of the family tree--Henry's sister Matilda "Tile" Lolotai, who was in her eighties but still alive and well and living in Texas. She would be visiting Hawaii soon and did I want to speak to her? Of course I did!
Because of these family connections, I went from having almost no information about Henry to having perhaps more than most of the other teachers travelling to Europe. I even had the recording of a family song, O Le Vi'i O Enele or Henry's Vi'i (Henry's Tribute), written by Henry's family after he went missing in France.
There was never a moment when music was not a part of Henry Williams Saaga's life. He could sing before he could talk and dance before he could walk. After emigrating from Samoa to Hawaii, Henry, his parents and two of his sisters performed traditional Hawaiian and Samoan song and dance at luaus in and around Honolulu. Henry was an incredibly talented musician. His sister Tile said of Henry: "There was not an instrument he couldn't play. If you challenged Henry to do something, he would do it. He taught himself to play the piano on a dare." Henry played the piano, the guitar, and the ukulele. He sang and taught his sisters to harmonize with him. He also danced. And not only did he dance; he was a Samoan fire knife dancer. He was a musician who played multiple instruments, sang AND danced while juggling flaming knives.
Henry's talents were not limited to those of the symphonic variety. As a freshman at 'Iolani school in Honolulu, he was on the varsity track, basketball and football teams. Photos from 'Iolani's 1941 yearbook show him proudly at 6-1, his head rising above many of his older teammates. His face in the photos is serious, almost stern. This is because he was always trying to hide the dimples that flashed when he smiled.
Henry was a 15-year-old sophomore at 'Iolani when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor in December of 1941. Henry saw Pearl Harbor as a call to action and the challenge that he had been waiting for. Though he hadn't yet completed his sophomore year of high school, Henry wanted to be where the action was. He joined the Hawaii Territorial Guard and was stationed to the North Shore of Oahu in Kahuku. The last time his family saw him was in the spring of 1942, shortly before he was sent to basic training at Camp Atterbury, Indiana.
Many did not know what to make of this brown-skinned, Samoan boy from Hawaii, especially after his division moved south to Tennessee. But Henry took it in stride, entertaining his fellow troops by singing and playing the Stars and Stripes on his ukulele. A single photo of Henry exists from his time in training, after the division moved once again to Camp Breckenridge, Kentucky. In it, Henry is shown with the bare feet befitting an island-boy, kicking a football 60 yards down the field. It's a rare photo of a smiling Henry and his dimples are on full view for all the spectators watching.
Henry's division left the United States for foreign duty on April 6, 1944. After Intensive training in England and in the northern part of Wales, the Division landed at Omaha Beach on June 18th and entered the hedgerow struggle south of Carentan on June 27th.
With this information in hand, I felt properly prepared to eulogize Henry at Normandy. Our trip began in England, with stops in London and Cambridge and then on to France. As we took the overnight ferry from Portsmouth to Caen, I couldn't help but think of the brave soldiers who took the same journey over seventy years ago, on their way to an uncertain fate on the Normandy coastline. The next morning we walked the golden sands of Omaha Beach and I thought of Henry, a young Samoan boy from Hawaii, and how he must have felt as he landed in France on a beach so like and yet so different from the ones he knew at home. Joe Boyle, the teacher who had initially encouraged me to choose Henry, had been researching his uncle who, like Henry, was in the 83rd Division. Henry was in the 330th Infantry Regiment, 83rd Infantry Division and Joe's uncle Paul was in the 331st, so they had parallel paths and may have even run into one another. Joe had been working with a Frenchman, Jean-Paul Pitou, who grew up in Bayeux, France, the town liberated by those who landed on D-Day. Jean-Paul is an expert on the 83rd. He agreed to take Joe and me out to the hedgerows to the places where our respective fallen soldiers were killed. We separated from the others in the bus because it was too big to get down the narrow roads in the farm country where the hedgerows are.
Our first stop was at a place where the 330th stopped on their way inland from the beach to relieve some paratroopers who had landed there on D-Day. Though the location of fierce fighting seventy years ago, it is now a peaceful, tranquil place. I wandered down the sunken road, through the canopy of trees and thought of Henry, who surely walked the same path all those years ago. As we walked, I played Henry's Vi'i and thought about his heroic actions so many years ago. After that we went to the place where, according to military records and Jean-Paul's research, Henry's last patrol began. According to a Morning Report filed on July 1, 1944, members of Henry's company were sent on a daylight patrol led by their co-commander, Captain William P. Buhrman. The members of the patrol were all volunteers, including 18 year-old Henry Saaga. During this time, the patrol was pinned down by enemy fire. From the Morning Report:
"Pvt. Saaga...displayed extraordinary courage and bravery without respect for his own life when he vaulted an enemy occupied hedge row to attack, alone, an enemy MG position whose fire was pinning the patrol down. As a result of his act, the patrol was able to move out and return to their own lines. When last heard of Pvt. Saaga was throwing hand grenades and firing his rifle. At this time Pvt. Saaga is still missing."
Jean-Paul was sure we were within at least 100 meters of Henry's final resting place. Being in that now-peaceful place was a surreal experience. We placed flowers there and sat in quiet reflection of this young man who made the ultimate sacrifice for the cause of freedom.
Later that afternoon we visited Normandy Cemetery, where I was able to present Henry's eulogy at the tablets of the missing. Once again I played the Vi'i and the audience of teachers were touched by its plaintive tone and topic, for the lyrics in the song implore Henry's father to look for his son in all the places he would have been, had he not gone to war--swimming at the beach, surfing in Waikiki or on the sports fields at 'Iolani. "Goodbye. Farewell," the lyrics say. "We will not forget you. We can say goodbye but you remain in our hearts." It was not until I stood at that wall at Normandy, Henry's name forever etched there, that I understood just why I had been chosen for the program. It was not for me, although I did learn and experience so much. It was for Henry, so that his story could be told. So that a young man from Hawaii, who died so far from his island home, could finally be returned to those who knew and loved him.
Websites for the program: