By David "Duna" Hodge
JBPHH Public Affairs
The Memorial Day holiday brings special attention to a federal landmark in Hawaii, located here on the island of Oahu. In a typical year, more than five million visitors come to the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific to pay their respects to the dead and to enjoy one of the most breathtaking views of the Island. Placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1976, few national cemeteries can compete with the dramatic natural setting of the “Punchbowl.”
Punchbowl’s Hawaiian name is “Puowaina,” the most common translation being “Hill of Sacrifice.” Within the cemetery, a winding pathway of smaller, individual memorials lie, each honoring our veterans and their sacrifices. Most of these memorials honor our fallen service members of 20th century wars, including the Dec. 7, 1941 attack on Oahu.
According to the Department of Veterans Affairs historical information, it stated “In the late 1890s, a committee recommended that the Punchbowl become the site for a new cemetery to accommodate the growing population of Honolulu. The idea was rejected for fear of polluting the water supply and the emotional aversion to creating a city of the dead above a city of the living.”
In addition, the Hawaii governor offered the Punchbowl up as a national cemetery in 1943, but funding troubles caused the project to be delayed until after World War II. After the war, Congress and veteran organizations pressured the military to find a permanent burial site in Hawaii for the remains of thousands of service members on the island of Guam awaiting permanent burial.
The Army resumed plans for Punchbowl, and after funding was approved by Congress in February 1948, construction began. The remains of service members from around the Pacific Theater were transported to Hawaii, and the first interment was made Jan. 4, 1949.
On Punchbowl’s opening day, July 19, 1949, services for five war dead were held. Those five included one unknown serviceman, two Marines, an Army lieutenant and one civilian, noted war correspondent Ernie Pyle. Eventually, over 13,000 Soldiers and Sailors who died during World War II would be laid to rest in the Punchbowl.
The Punchbowl was the first National Memorial Cemetery to install Bicentennial Medal of Honor Headstones, with a gold leaf medal of honor insignia. On May 11, 1976, a total of 23 of these were placed on the graves of medal recipients, all but one killed in action.
In August 2001, about 70 generic 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 this vessel. In addition, new information that identified grave locations of 175 men whose graves were previously marked as unknown resulted in the installation of new markers in October 2002.
The Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency fulfills the nation’s promise to identify our fallen, and exhumed unknowns killed aboard the USS Oklahoma in 2015. Just after this year’s Memorial Day, on June 1, another of those Sailors will be buried, U.S. Navy Bandmaster, Chief Musician James B. Booe, of Veedersburg, Indiana. Two other Sailors from the ship will be buried that day, also recently identified.
Participating in ceremonies such as this one brings unique reflection for members of our installation’s honor guard, who routinely perform memorial services and commemorations throughout the year.
“It’s a humbling experience having the opportunity to serve military families by honoring their loved ones through customary Navy tradition,” said Cryptologic Technician Second Class Levi Anderson, a member of Pearl Harbor’s Honors and Ceremonies.
“Performing my first military honors funeral at Punchbowl meant many things to me. There was an overall sense of sadness as family members walked past us. Feeling that sadness affected me and made me realize that we as the Honor Guard can help provide closure to those family members,” said Senior Airman Grace Latourelle, a member of the Hickam Honor Guard.
Musician 1st Class Collin Reichow, operations coordinator for the Navy’s Pacific Fleet Band, expressed his feelings on the importance of Memorial Day from a musician’s unique perspective.
“I have performed taps at Memorial Day Ceremonies all over the world...whether a small gathering at a local chapel or the National Cemetery, or at a large local event. The response is always the same. Someone comes up to me and shares a story about a loved one that never came home.” Reichow emphasized the day as one to pause, and remember, in thanks to those that gave their lives for us. “I don’t have to tell you it’s heavy stuff …but it’s important to take some time to stop and reflect and say thank you. Being able to participate and provide a small part is special to me and one of the most important parts of my job as a bugler.”
Memorial Day this year will be different because of the ongoing pandemic. Many public ceremonies have either been canceled, or transitioned to a virtual, online experience. However you choose to salute our fallen, remember the men and women who died while serving in the U.S. Military.
Honor their sacrifice.
(Note: Published in the May 2021 Ho'okele digital magazine)