The National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific, also called Punchbowl because of its shape, is located in an extinct volcano crater. Puowaina Crater (Consecrated Hill or Hill of Sacrifice) had been the site of Hawaiian Ali’i burials and sacrifices of offenders of kapus (taboos). Its first use as a cemetery for US war veterans was in 1949.
It was the second day of our family mini-vacation and we only planned to drive through it. There were many stops on the schedule, but something drew us in. Perhaps it was the main flag at half-staff. Maybe it was the vastness of the place – 116 acres of graves of war veterans. Maybe it was Lady Columbia on the memorial at the far end, inviting us to draw nearer. We parked and started walking across the bottom of the old crater.
We saw lush grass, clipped to a military preciseness to honor the men and women who were buried there. A small army of men with trimmers edged each headstone just so. BG stopped to talk with a man on his hands and knees cleaning the lichen and moss from a headstone with a grinder. In this tropical climate, nature’s reclaimers get to work pretty quickly. He told BG that it takes him nine months to make a complete circuit of all the headstones in the cemetery.
The earliest grave I saw was one from WWI, though most were soldiers from later wars. Each gravestone told a story. That veteran from WWI was from Hawaii. He served as a Mech Company M of the First Hawaiian infantry. Does Mech mean mechanized, that is, versus a cavalry company? In this one gravestone, we may be seeing the transformation of war from horses to tanks. Mariano was born in 1888; he would have been 26 at the outbreak of WWI. He died at age 73 in 1961, twelve years after the opening of the cemetery.
Another that struck me was that of a woman who served in WWII, Korea, and Vietnam – a very unusual female for her time. Born in 1907, Hilda would have been 34 at the outbreak of WWII for the US (see essay on Pearl Harbor, It could have been my Dad, posted April 4, 2013). She was in her late 50’s during the early years of Vietnam. With over 20 years of service in the Army, she would have been eligible to retire from military life with a rank of SFC – Sergeant First Class or Specialist First Class. She was 73 when she died. Both Mariano and Hilda were Christian. One could spend hours reading gravestones, piecing together the stories of the lives and deaths they represented. I suppose my essay’s title is not totally true – there are some happy stories here as well.
A soldier’s spouse and dependent children can be buried here too, and we saw many graves marked “wife of” and “infant son/daughter of.” But this cemetery has long since run out of sites, given all the conflicts this nation has seen in the Pacific: WWII, Korea, Vietnam. The Punchbowl is at capacity with 33,255 graves.
The US Department of Veteran Affairs website states that Punchbowl still has room for cremated remains, but that space for casketed remains is available only for burial in the same gravesite of previously buried family members. People are still being buried – perhaps they had reserved a spot earlier. Just recently, Hawai’i Senator Daniel Inouye was buried at the Punchbowl (December 23, 2012).
We continued our solemn walk past grave after grave, each telling a unique story, some marked with simple flower arrangements. Across the crater at the far end of the cemetery, we reached a massive structure. This is the Honolulu Memorial, built into the side of Puowaina Crater. This memorial honors the thousands of soldiers whose remains were lost or buried at sea, or were missing in action – no body to honor with a gravestone.
In the ten Courts of the Missing that line the stairs, thousands of names are engraved into the walls. The memorial was originally dedicated to soldiers serving in WWII and the Korean War, but was enlarged in 1980 to include the missing from Vietnam.
At the top behind the statue of Lady Columbia, a chapel provides a quiet place to reflect. It contains the Christian Cross, the Star of David and the Buddhist Wheel of Righteousness. It would be nice to add something from the Hindu and Muslim faiths. Because conflict between religions has caused many wars, we should be particularly conscious of extending a gracious gesture to all.
On either side of the chapel stretch walls with murals made of tinted concrete and glass. These map galleries described the conflicts in which the men and women of this cemetery participated. I was most interested in the mural on Vietnam. There was a time when I would not have read it – too painful. As a young college student, I had lost faith in our government, symbolized largely by that conflict in Vietnam. But time can heal old wounds. While I still don’t think we should have been there, I honor those who served and died there.
I hadn’t seen a POW-MIA flag in some time, and it made me wonder. I hope we haven’t left anyone behind in Vietnam. Seems so long ago. Yet, how quickly things change. One of Jade’s good friends from school last year, was a young man from Vietnam. He is now at Amherst. Will Vietnamese tourists visit this place someday the way Pearl Harbor is filled with Japanese tourists? I hope so.
On the far right-hand side of the cemetery, stood walls of urn niches where military still find their rest. The Columbarium appears to be filling as well. We had asked about the main flag as we entered, and were told that the flag is always at half-staff on days when burial services are held. Today was no exception. It was not difficult to find the location of the services that would take place later today.
Why haven’t we found a way to end wars? Why do mothers and fathers have to sacrifice their children to politics-gone-wrong? We’ve been deploring this condition forever. What will it take for the human race to come to its senses?
We offered a little prayer before we left the Punchbowl: “Dear God, guide humanity to a peaceful coexistence with itself. Please help us make the building of additional war cemeteries unnecessary. Amen.”
For more essays on Honolulu and things to see there, see:
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