In August, things were in a turmoil in Afghanistan, the pandemic continued to spread across the globe, Hurricane Ida barreled towards Louisiana, the September 11th anniversary was fast approaching and “doom and gloom” was everywhere I turned—It was overwhelming!
I wanted to go someplace quiet to reflect and to gain perspective…and where better than the hallowed ground of the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific? It is a fitting place to remind oneself of the sacrifices that others have made in support of the ideal that is America.
“Punchbowl” cemetery is in a volcanic crater atop a ridge. One of the most breathtaking views of the island of Oahu can be seen while standing at the lookout built at the highest point on the crater’s rim.
Punchbowl’s Hawaiian name, “Puowaina,” translates to “Hill of Sacrifice.”
According to the cemetery website, the crater has a long history. Its first known use was as an altar where Hawaiians offered human sacrifices to their gods and killed people who violated taboos. During the reign of Kamehameha the Great, cannons were mounted at the rim to salute distinguished arrivals and to signify important events.
Around 1890, a committee recommended that a cemetery be built in the crater to accommodate the growing city of Honolulu, but it was decided that a cemetery might negatively impact the water supply or that there might be an aversion to creating “a city of the dead above a city of the living.”
In the 1930s, the Hawaii National Guard used the Punchbowl as a rifle range and during the latter part of World War II, tunnels were dug and artillery was placed to guard Honolulu Harbor and the southern part of Pearl Harbor.
In the 1940s, Congress authorized funds to establish a national cemetery in Honolulu with two provisions: that the location be approved by the War Department and that the land be donated. In 1943, the governor of Hawaii proposed donating the Punchbowl. At the time, there was not enough funding allocated so the project was deferred until after World War II.
By 1947, Congress and veteran organizations were pressuring the military to find a permanent burial site in Hawaii for the remains of thousands of World War II servicemen on the island of Guam awaiting permanent burial, so the Army again began planning the Punchbowl cemetery. In February 1948, Congress approved more funding and construction began.
The remains of soldiers from locations around the Pacific Theater were given priority for internment in the new cemetery. The first burial was on Jan. 4, 1949, and on July 19, 1949, the cemetery opened to the public. On that day, five veterans were laid to rest, among them, civilian war correspondent Ernie Pyle. Over 13,000 soldiers and sailors who died during World War II have been buried in the Punchbowl.
As a former VA employee, I know the high standards the National Cemetery Administration upholds. Each cemetery is to be maintained as a national shrine in perpetuity. The VA operates 155 national cemeteries and 34 soldiers’ lots and monument sites in 42 states and Puerto Rico. More than 4 million Americans are buried in VA’s national cemeteries.
Having worked with colleagues at the Santa Fe National Cemetery, I know how dedicated the cemetery staff are, how much they learn about the veterans under their care and how they strive to ensure they carry out the NCA vision ensuring that “No Veteran Ever Dies.”
That vision, at first, seems perplexing. All of the people interred in Punchbowl and other cemeteries are dead. How can one uphold that vision?
“How can the dead be truly dead when they still live in the souls of those who are left behind?”– Carson McCullers
Over the years, great efforts have been taken to identify some of the unidentified remains and update their status in the columbaria of unknowns. At the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific, little markers indicate when a previously unknown service member has been identified.
In August 2001, about 70 unknown markers for the graves of men known to have died during the attack on Pearl Harbor were replaced with markers that included “USS Arizona” after it was determined they perished on the ship.
In 2002, 175 graves that had previously been marked as unknown were identified and updated. As new information emerges, graves are subsequently revised.
Many National Cemeteries are compiling histories, stories and photos about some of the veterans buried there. Many of their websites have interactive sections where the stories can be read, shared and used as part of school curriculum. The Veterans Legacy Program provides educational opportunities for the public to learn about the legacy of veteran sacrifice through documents, stories and media. The Nationwide Gravesite Locator is an online database which allows people to locate their veteran’s grave site anywhere throughout the system.
NCA staff are meticulous in their care of the grounds and markers, and very often, know the stories about the people interred. Years ago, I was fortunate to have a guided tour of the Santa Fe cemetery, and the groundskeeper showing me around acted as if each veteran was a member of his own family.
“It is…for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain…”–Abraham Lincoln
More than five million visitors come to Punchbowl each year. Some come to pay their respects to the dead; others to read the beautiful educational mosaic “panels” which give a history of wars in the Pacific Theater; others come to walk up the memorial pathway lined with memorials donated by service organizations, military units and foreign governments to take in the views. Or, like us, to do all three.
…My husband and I parked near the chapel and stood looking down, taking in the beauty. Below us, there was a tour bus driving along the lower loop, but other than that, there were only a few cars parked on the grounds. It was quiet except for bird song and the barking of a dog from one of the neighborhoods.
After reading the panels and signing the guestbook in the chapel, we walked down the stairs. We were flanked by the Court of the Missing. We walked in silence, reading names. A man and a woman hurried past me as they carried flowers up the steep steps.
According to the Find a Grave website, there are “eight Courts of the Missing on which are inscribed the names of the 18,096 American World War II missing from the Pacific, excluding those from the southwest Pacific (who are memorialized at the Manila American Cemetery and Memorial), and 8,200 American missing from the Korean War. Two half courts have been added at the foot of the staircase that contain the names of 2,504 Americans missing from the Vietnam War.”
“Our debt to the heroic men and valiant women in the service of our country can never be repaid. They have earned our undying gratitude. America will never forget their sacrifices.” –Harry S. Truman
Walking over to pay my respects to Ernie Pyle, who has Albuquerque connections, I thought of a photograph we have at the museum. It is of Pyle standing on a battlefield. It is not a professional photo; it looks like one snapped by a soldier. Written in pencil on the back of the photo, it identifies Pyle by name. It was one of many in a stack of photos donated to us by a family member of a service member who fought in the Pacific. It may well be one of the last photos taken of Pyle, because he was killed in action in Lejima, Okinawa.
We walked along, reading other memorial markers. Some graves were decorated with leis. On the grave of a Vietnam veteran, someone had left a bottle of beer tied to a flower.
Most of the people nearby seemed to be family members visiting their loved ones. One man about my age sat by a grave. He appeared to be talking, and as he did, he plucked the petals off of a flower from the bouquet he’d placed on the grass. I wondered if he was visiting a parent, a sibling, or a spouse. It could have been any or all of those—or as another grave nearby attested–a child.
I was startled to see siblings, ages 4 years and 2 months buried together amongst the vast sea of veterans. What happened to these children? Where are their parents?
Spouses or minor children, or in some cases, the unmarried adult dependent child of a veteran may be buried in National Cemetery Administration cemeteries.
Walking back to the car, we passed by two men and a woman. They were passing through the Court of Honor, heading towards the Memorial Walkway which is lined with a variety of memorials that have been donated by various organizations and foreign governments to honor America’s veterans.
As of 2012, there were 74 such memorials throughout the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific—most commemorating service members of 20th-century wars, including those killed at Pearl Harbor.
What stood about the trio is that they were dressed for the beach. The men wore tee shirts and bathing trunks; the lady wore a dress that mostly concealed her bathing suit.
Punchbowl Cemetery is not near the beaches of Waikiki; it requires a vehicle and considerable time to navigate through busy traffic and up narrow, windy and congested roads to the top of the crater.
These people had taken time to leave the beach and had made the effort to come to come to pay respect to America’s heroes.
This is why the NCA can envision no veteran ever dying.
Anyone who enters a national cemetery sees the impact of war, of service and of sacrifice. Anyone reading the grave markers engraved with their minimal information, learns a great deal from the few words or symbols carved into the stone.
…WWI…Purple Heart…Christian…Children of SP4____…34 Inf Division…wife…Buddhist…Medal of Honor…Navy…Astronaut…
The carefully carved words have been chosen by someone so that visitors—you and me—can learn something about the person who lies just beneath the lush grass. These granite slabs immortalize ordinary people– all of whom served America.
Helen Keller once said, “So long as the memory of certain beloved friends lives in my heart, I shall say that life is good.”
As we left the quietness of the cemetery to brave Honolulu’s rush hour traffic, I thought about those words. There is so much good in our world; sometimes we need a little better perspective to appreciate it.
The 53,000 plus souls interred in Punchbowl have left their mark. We, the living, can still make ours.
We have big boots to fill.
“Let their remembrance be as lasting as the land they honored.” – Daniel Webster
by Circe Olson Woessner