By Dr. Richard Kelley — This week, at a cocktail reception in Denver, Colorado, I had a chance to talk with U.S. Representative Mike Coffman (R-Colo.) about his service to our country as an enlisted man in the Army and, later, a Marine Corps officer from 1972 to 1994 and again from 2005 to 2006. As we were talking, a gentleman next to me commented that he too had served in the Army during the Vietnam War.
I said that my company operates a number of hotels in Waikīkī and, during the Vietnam War, we were proud to host many members of our armed forces on leave from their battlefield duties on the military’s Rest and Recreation – R&R – program.
The gentleman asked, “Was that the Outrigger Hotel?”
At that point, I introduced myself to Mr. Thomas Akin, and we both recalled how, in the midst of the wartime chaos, the military undertook several programs designed to give U.S. troops a brief respite from the horrors of battle. The most popular program was R&R – a week off from Vietnam.
The single guys generally took their R&R in major Asian cities such as Bangkok, Tokyo, Manila or Taipei. Married servicemen and some singles would meet their wives, girlfriends and families in Waikīkī, and the just-completed Outrigger Waikiki quickly became a favorite R&R location.
Akin told me he served in the Mekong Delta from 1969 to 1970 as an Army captain advising the South Vietnamese army’s (ARVN) 21st Division. When his opportunity for R&R came up in the spring of 1970, he flew to Hawai‘i to meet his fiancé, Lana, a lady from his hometown, Evansville, Indiana. He recalls that they met at Ft. DeRussy and were told there was a room available at the Outrigger Waikiki.
The couple had a great but far too brief time in Waikīkī. They relaxed on the beach, visited the Punchbowl Cemetery and watched Don Ho perform “Tiny Bubbles”! He also recalls listening to Terrie and Jennie Frankel, “The Twin Sisters Two,” who performed nightly in Davy Jones Locker, the poolside bar at the Outrigger Waikiki.
I commented that it was a hectic time for the members of our ‘ohana working the Front Desk and the Reservations telephones in those days. Reservations was still a rotary-dial phone operation, with just three or four agents working in a small office behind the Front Desk with little help from the “Stone Age computers” we were just beginning to adapt to our needs at the time.
While the military was able to “schedule” R&R, the vagaries of war introduced a great deal of unpredictability into the timetable. Families would arrive in Waikīkī and find that their loved ones in the military had been delayed. With scant communications available, family members who had already arrived in Honolulu would often have no alternative but to go to Hickam Air Force Base every day and watch the planes unload, hoping to find their husband, brother or son coming down the steps. (Jetways had yet to be introduced.) Some arrived still in their battle fatigues, having been plucked from the field only a few hours before.
In the midst of all this, the Outrigger Waikiki was always full and scrambling to find space for everyone. Each night was a struggle, as we balanced commitments to tourists with reservations and last-minute calls from the R&R Housing Office pleading for “just one more room” for a serviceman or -woman.
The effort was not without cost, however. In 1970, I was slapped with a subpoena one day to appear in court to answer to a tourist whose reserved room had been given to a serviceman on R&R. We fought the case and lost, and Dold v. Outrigger has become the classic benchmark for hotel overbooking liability in America. However, I supported our staff, and told Akin that if I had to make the call again today, I wouldn’t change a thing.
In fact, 42 years later, we still work very hard to find “just one more room” for those who serve our country. Our Military Liaison Office works day and night to see that everyone is accommodated at a price they can afford.
In recognition of her tireless efforts to make that happen, next Saturday night, June 23, the Honolulu Council of the Navy League will honor Mildred Courtney, our Military Liaison, with the American Patriot Award. She will be introduced by Outrigger CEO David Carey who has also been tireless in his efforts to assist our servicemen and -women. Also being honored that evening with an American Patriot Award, alongside Mildred, will be retired Navy Captain John S. McCain III – better known to most of us as a U.S. Senator from Arizona and former candidate for president of the United States.
It’s going to be a memorable evening but perhaps no more memorable than that day in 1970 when Tom Akin flew from the Mekong Delta to meet the future Mrs. Lana Akin at the Outrigger Waikiki for an unforgettable but all too brief few days of R&R.