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This Day in History: Rodney Yano's sacrifice in Vietnam

On this day in 1943, a hero is born. Rodney J.T. Yano was a young Hawaiian who enlisted in the Army while he was still in high school. Would you believe that he left for Vietnam without telling his mother where he’d been assigned?

“About three months after he got there,” his mother later said, “a friend of his from Kona on leave told us where Rodney was. Of course, I worried. But Rodney was always like that.”

Yano served one tour in Vietnam, but then he served a second, too. His younger brother Glenn was serving in the 29th infantry brigade. He knew that, if he went back to Vietnam, his brother would not also be sent to a war zone.

“Rodney felt that since he had just completed a year in Vietnam he was more experienced than me,” his little brother later told a reporter. “He said his chances were better than mine.”

Trouble came on January 1, 1969, as Yano served with the Air Cavalry Troop, 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment. The mission that day was supposed to be an easy one to pick up an officer in Saigon and return him to Bien Hoa. It was New Year’s Day, and a cease-fire (allegedly) reigned.

“Staff Sergeant Rodney Yano was hanging out on the flight line and picked up on the fact that my door gunner was nowhere to be found,” then-SP4 Carmine Conti described. “He ran over to me and asked if he could come along. Yano loved to fly but, as a technical inspector, wasn’t getting much time in the air. . . . like everyone else in the troop, I liked the guy...a lot. He didn’t have to ask twice.”

Unfortunately, the trip would prove anything but routine. As our boys left Saigon, they were notified of an enemy action nearby, and the helicopter was diverted to help. Enemy forces were entrenched in a dense jungle, and the action was intense.

Yano was marking the position of enemy forces and delivering suppressive fire when everything went awry. One of the grenades aboard the American helicopter exploded prematurely.

“I tumbled to the cabin floor,” Conti said, “unable to hear or see anything but white smoke. I thought I was dead.” He looked over and saw Yano covered in burning phosphorous. He’d been partially blinded by the explosion and his left hand was nearly blown off. Nevertheless, Yano grabbed a first aid kit, handed a tourniquet to Conti and yelled at him to tie it above his left elbow.

“By all rights,” Conti said somberly, “Yano should have sat down and remained still to avoid aggravating his ghastly wounds. He didn’t.”

Flaming fragments from the explosion began causing other supplies and ammunition to detonate. Smoke was everywhere, and the pilot couldn’t see. The helicopter threatened to spin out of control. Yano began kicking the burning ammo out of the helicopter, and he threw grenades out the door.

“Fire was burning all around him and the cabin was still full of white smoke,” Conti described. “It was a surreal sight but the most selfless and courageous act of heroism that I saw during the war, and I saw a lot of heroic actions.”

Because of Yano, the smoke cleared and the pilot regained control of the helicopter. The crew was saved. Unfortunately, Yano himself had taken too many hits, and he succumbed to his injuries later that night.

Yano was posthumously promoted to sergeant first class, and his parents would receive a Medal of Honor on his behalf.

His friends on board that day will never forget what he did, of course. “Our survival that day,” Conti concludes, “was assured only by Yano’s extraordinary courage and calm amid crisis while he personally teetered on death’s door.”

A life well-lived. Rest in peace, Sfc. Yano.

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