I recently had relatives visiting from Philadelphia who were staying in a time-share at Disney at Aulani, far from Downtown Honolulu and Waikiki. With just a couple of hours to spend together, I decided to take them to the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific (Punchbowl Cemetery, informally).
It turned out to be a good choice, as I was to learn that my Uncle Jackie had been in the service as an oft-deployed reservist for 24 years. It was, I believe, much more rewarding to him than a trip to, say, Ala Moana Shopping Center or a quick Mai Tai on Waikiki Beach. It was a sunny, breezy day.
It was rewarding for me, too. It will be humbling and rewarding for any Oahu visitor, from anywhere in the world, to come face to face with the stark reality of the sacrifices servicemen and servicewomen have made for the United States since World War I.
I’ve been to Punchbowl Cemetery many times, mostly for solemn ceremonies involving loved ones of my extended (and extensive) hanai (adoptive) Hawaii families. I have never simply strolled the sacred grounds. I’m glad visiting family gave me a reason to do so.
There are more than 53,000 veterans and their family members interred and memorialized at Punchbowl. Certainly, the USS Arizona Memorial at Pearl Harbor gets the most attention of the two. But Punchbowl has a unique history all its own, one that attracts many thousands of visitors every year.
Punchbowl Cemetery was approved by Congress in February of 1948. The first interment was undertaken in January 1949. The national cemetery opened to the public in a ceremony on July 19th of that year. That ceremony involved services for famed war journalist and war hero Ernie Pyle, an unknown soldier, and three other fallen servicemen. 13,000 fallen soldiers and sailors of World War II are memorialized at Punchbowl.
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There are many distinguished figures who have been laid to rest at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific. Hawaii’s second Governor, John A. Burns, US Senators Daniel Inouye and Spark Matsunaga, Congresswoman Patsy Mink, and Hawaii NASA astronaut Ellison Onizuka are among the many heroes whose final resting place is nestled within the crater’s ancient volcanic walls.
For visitors without family or friends distinguished by inclusion at the memorial, Punchbowl Cemetery sounds a solemn call much in the same way as Arlington National Cemetery in Washington DC or the Vietnam War Memorial. At Punchbowl, even the unknown are acknowledged and honored.
The marble memorial shines in the sunlight and the rain, featuring mosaic descriptions of decisive battles from multiple international wars and conflicts. It is now iconic in part because of it being featured at the beginning of Hawaii 5-0, which focuses in on the massive statue of Lady Columbia, known commonly as Lady Liberty. It dominates the silence of the memorial.
At the National Cemetery of the Pacific, prevailing trade winds tickle the canopies of banyan and Monkeypod trees, whispering memories of those who have lived and died to serve freedom. Cloud shadows wander over the graves of men and women whom have given their “last full measure” for the greater common good of mankind.