Calvin Kuamo‘o is everywhere. High school volleyball matches, basketball games and swim meets. Hawaiian music concerts at the Baldwin Home and Picnic with Poki shows at Ka‘ahumanu Church. He also films the island’s Friday town parties as well as various community events. His Kanaka Cam channel on YouTube currently boasts more than 100 videos shot over the last year (you can also see them on Akaku, where he’s a member of the board of directors). Each opens the same, with an extreme close-up of his eyes.
Currently living in Kahakuloa, Kuamo‘o is a seemingly tireless citizen journalist. As soon as I heard of him I became fascinated with him, with his motivation to travel so much around the island, film community events and then post the footage online for all to see (and without compensation for himself). Using a mutual friend as an intermediary, I asked him for an interview, which he immediately declined. But a few days later, our mutual friend said Kuamo‘o changed his mind. On Aug. 22, he dropped by the MauiTime office to talk story.
As you’ll see, Kuamo‘o did most of the talking. And while he ultimately answered my question about why he films so many events, he could only do so by talking about his experiences as an infantry soldier with the 75th Ranger Regiment during the Vietnam War.
“I remember Calvin well,” said Rick Grimes, who served with Kuamo‘o and maintains an online archive of photos of the unit’s Vietnam experiences. “He was well-liked and the other Rangers knew they could depend on him in the most difficult situations. A true American hero, a great asset to the 75th Rangers and I was proud to serve with him.”
MAUITIME: Thanks so much for stopping by. Let’s start by you telling me when you were last filming something.
CALVIN KUAMO`O: I filmed yesterday–a planting ceremony of koa trees. I got there Friday night, and left Saturday evening. I figured they had a lot of camera personnel, so I wanted to get there before everyone else. I knew they would end at six, which made it easy to slide in and say hello. I wanted to film the property I was on. So I had koa trees dancing around the property. I carried it to different locations–I was trying to enhance our project there.
MT: I saw you have a lot of videos on YouTube. And you’re on Akaku as well?
CK: I’ve been having a hard time putting things on YouTube. I try not to get personal. I download it, learn how to edit, turn it in. Since I’m a volunteer [at Akaku], I fall into different categories. At one point, I turned in 21 projects in one month. They tell me they only have three hours. That’s just nine projects out of 21.
MT: What are your goals?
CK: I’ve been trying to be better than the next person with a camera out there. OC16 has exclusive rights to all MIL sports. I do basketball, water polo, judo, swim meets. I do Hawaiian music series–the one in Wailuku and the one in Lahaina. But the other month I couldn’t participate because there was an Akaku board meeting–they always put those meetings on my game days!
MT: How’d you get started in filming?
CK: When I was a young man, I saw our neighbor doing an 8mm recording. I was really excited about that. He captured my family. In those days, we couldn’t afford cameras. There weren’t too many Hawaiians with cameras then.
My first camera was a Kodiak. I had to send in the film to get it processed–that was the only hangup. That was in 1966. I was living in Hawaii. Then I went to Alaska.
I went to Alaska on a United States Geological Survey ship. It was the last steamship in the American fleet. I had a 4F [draft status] in high school, but when I went on the ship I got 1C. From then on I knew I could get into the military.
MT: So you joined?
CK: I entered the military on Jan. 6, 1969, from Pennsylvania. I joined the army. I wanted to get there as soon as possible.
MT: Get where?
CK: Over to Vietnam. I knew at some point that the war was going to stop. I heard the news all the way up to Alaska. When they opened up the draft, a lot of folks from Hawaii got drafted.
When I was in Seattle in 1968, my classmate said he was going to Vietnam. When I went to Alaska, my cousin also left for Vietnam. Everyone was leaving except for me. So when I got to Pennsylvania, that’s when I signed up.
MT: Were you afraid of being left out?
CK: It was not about being left out. It was about doing what’s right. An undeclared war was a great opportunity for me to learn. I’d been hearing a lot of news about it. I wanted to be there to do a part. I was 21 when I joined. I had just made 21.
When I met my recruiting officer, he asked me if I wanted to go to a school. I said I wanted to learn how to jump out of airplanes. He said they’d ask that in the first week of basic training.
Basic training was over in South Carolina–Fort Jackson. My AIT [advanced infantry training] was in Georgia–Camp Crockett. And jump school was Fort Benning.
I met my cousin in the cafeteria at Fort Benning. He was getting ready to go to Vietnam, and I was going to jump school. It was a blessing for me. I said as soon as I finish, I’ll meet you there. He went to the First Cav Division as a mechanic, and came out a chief warrant officer.
MT: What happened when you finally finished with the schools?
CK: Fourth of July marked the ending of classes. I took a plane home. I met my parents. When it came time to go, I let them take me to Hickam airbase. But my mom didn’t know I was leaving. So before we left, I went into the bathroom and changed my clothes. I thought she was going to have a heart attack. She ran and grabbed a pocket Bible for me. My mom, she was so funny.
I waited about 20 minutes at Hickam for my flight. I was the last to board. At the first drop-off, everybody left but one other guy and me. Timothy Russell in the back and me in the front. We had an opportunity to meet the crewmembers.
In Vietnam, we first went to our transit position. All soldiers coming in from stateside–you wait for your orders to come down. Timothy Russell and I are airborne, so we’re waiting. Timothy had just gotten married 17 days ago. That’s how we developed a relationship.
MT: So you’ve finally arrived in Vietnam. What happened then?
CK: Across the street were the “legs”–non-airborne soldiers. We were told not to cross the road, but I noticed that they had a swimming pool. At night, I asked Timothy if he wanted to cross. He complained about how illegal it was. But they have movies, a pool, I told him. We all look alike, I said. So we went. We watched the movie. Then came a red alert.
But we couldn’t cross the road to get back–they’d shoot us. So I said, “let’s go in the pool.” The pool looked to be in good shape. We took off our clothes and got in the water, but he’s mad at me because we left our station. We were just waiting until the signal changed. When it changed, we got dressed and went to our foxhole. But the sergeant was waiting for us, and told us to report for extra duty.
MT: Extra duty?
CK: He made us burn shit. Boy, was I pissed. Then at lunch, a command sergeant major came in, looking for recruits. He was with the 75th Rangers, and asked for volunteers because they just lost a team. So I raised my arm. I told Timothy, raise your arm. No, he said, they just lost a team! So I knocked his hand up, and that’s how he volunteered.
There were no more details! Now, we could really relax. When we were finally sent to a unit, we were attached to the 173 airborne brigade. When we finally got there, our orders were that you couldn’t shoot unless shot at. It was called “pacification.” Then the lieutenant tried to split up Tim and I. “No, no, no,” I said. “Don’t split us up–we’re just waiting for our orders.”
So he sent us to the line. There, I was very uncomfortable in a position where I’m the foreigner and they’re fighting for their country. It’s an undeclared war and they’re in rice paddies. A line company isn’t where we wanted to be because they make too much noise.
MT: And you still haven’t even gotten to your actual unit?
CK: Finally our orders came and we were sent to Ahn Ke, where we finally went to our unit: Charlie Company, 75th Rangers. It was way down south.
We worked in small groups of five to six. We went to Pleiku, even went to Da Lat. Da Lat is lovely. It’s a French resort. Everybody there speaks French. Even had gas stations, restaurants, spas and an outdoor pond where you could take out peddle boats.
That was the first time I had a shishkebab. I was very impressed. As we’re walking around town, there’s an odor that’s very distinct. I told my team about it. To investigate it, I had to drop my weapon and go in a storm drain. It was quite an amazing place. We were underneath the buildings now.
They had another city beneath the city. But what was really neat is that we met the enemy there. But we came in peace–we wanted to know what was going on. They had weapons, we had weapons. We were new at this. We had to stay focused. As long as we didn’t fire, they wouldn’t. There was a lot of guessing on our part.
There were a lot of high risks to take. But the job we got was also high risk. Fighting in a country where we were the aggressor. But since it’s my country, I gotta stand proud. When I came back, they called me a baby killer, a draft dodger.
MT: Draft dodger?
CK: I had long hair. I only had one haircut, when I went in [the army]. The lieutenant called us the Hair Gang. We had long hair, and not-shiny boots.
MT: Getting back to your time in the 75th. What were you doing, basically?
CK: Our mission was four days out, three days in. We got dropped off in country, and had to stay there for four days. Then we came back in.
The medic was Johnny. He was Chinese. He was picking up a rifle from a dead enemy as a souvenir. As he did, the hand on the rifle slapped him. It was so hilarious. No we know why we don’t go looking for souvenirs. But that was a nice rifle the enemy had!
We took a lot of footage. Two of the team members wrote a book. One had everyone’s name in it.
They had a camera then, a Nikon. Everybody used it. We took turns. They’d wait for the enemy to come down the trail, then they’d jump up and snap a picture. Next, they’d draw [their weapon]. You snap the picture, then you draw.
MT: Let me make sure I understand this. You were lying in ambush, and when an enemy soldier would come down the trail, one of you would jump up, snap a photo of the enemy at close range, and then draw a weapon and shoot?
CK: High risk. But to be in that mode, and to take a camera, was the greatest feeling. The hunt was over now.
MT: Damn. Let’s talk about when you finally got out.
CK: Since I left the military, I never looked back. Tim left a few months before me. Everybody did. When I left, I saw family, said hello to my grandparents, found my cousin. They told me my cousin was at my brother’s house.
I was just as goofy as before I left. I ran into Johnny and our team leader, Jim. They were going to hitchhike to Oklahoma from California. Jim and his friend left, and Johnny and I were partners. Johnny was raised in New Mexico, so he wanted to see his family first. We met everybody over there, and then five days later, we went to Sulfur, Oklahoma, and that’s where I got busted.
MT: What happened?
CK: I got called a traitor, a deserter. They had nothing else to do. The town folks had the attitude of guys who wear those choo-choo train hats. The whole place smells like sulfur, and they wanted me to taste the water! I got tossed in jail.
MT: For what?
CK: I was in the cabin, and Johnny and Jim went to town. They came back with the police hot on their tail. I said don’t stop, because I had to eat a pound and a half of marijuana. Then we were pulled over. The police searched the car, but couldn’t find anything because I ate all the marijuana. But the judge said my signature was readable. If I was in the condition that the sheriff had stated, I wouldn’t be that clear. Still, I went to jail. After 120 days I got turned over to the military. They sent me to Fort Bragg, and then shipped me off to the 54th Military Police Company.
MT: What happened there?
CK: What happened was that I taught them compassion. A lot of those folks there had just left Vietnam. They had real people from the war, and they didn’t know how to deal. They didn’t have any compassion. But I got tired of bumping heads, and asked the sergeant major if I could have a break. I was just an E4–there wasn’t too much an E4 could do, because everyone else was higher ranked, more professional.
You can only teach them so much, then you have to learn. Their concept was to split the rangers apart, so that we don’t come together to have a chit-chat. It’s a very good strategy if you don’t want to learn anything.
I was a mess. How do I manage it? I thought. Coming home, my parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins all contributed to my well-being. But it was a struggle. I still have a lot of flash memories when I’m walking about. Sometimes, when I’m driving, I have to grab myself and pull over to the side. I’m still dealing with it.
MT: Which, I’m guessing, explains why you film so many community events…
CK: Filming events helps me focus on the here and now. It’s very easy to drift into the past. The mountains look similar, some of the people look similar… But being in the community helps me focus on the here and now. I’m happy Akaku adopted me, for better or worse. Learning how to edit, use cameras, all helped out.
Cover design: Darris Hurst
Photos of Calvin Kuamo`o from Vietnam courtesy Rick Grimes