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On The National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific

November 23, 2012 - Ray Tsuchiyama

Above-listed is the official name, known in Hawai’i as simply “Punchbowl”, for the large green, calming dipped expanse atop an extinct volcanic tuff cone located near downtown Honolulu. According to geologic time, the cone is not that ancient, as it was blasted and formed about 75,000 to 100,000 years ago during the most “recent” period of volcanic activity on Oahu Island.

After the 1893 Overthrow, the new Republic of Hawai’i government assigned a committee to investigate various land parcels, and a committee (all pro-Republic, non-Kingdom loyalists) recommended that Punchbowl become the site for a new cemetery. However, the new pro-Dole government rejected the idea, since that would put a graveyard for all races overlooking the Republic’s new splendid capital city, and for the next fifty years, after the Territory of Hawai’i was established, the idea for a cemetery languished.*

After World War II Congress and veteran’s organizations lobbied the U.S. Department of War to accelerate the burials of the remains of thousands of GIs stored on Guam awaiting permanent burial. This was the trigger for the U.S. Army to begin planning the Punchbowl cemetery, and soon construction began.

Starting in early 1949 among the first persons to be buried at Punchbowl was Ernie Pyle, the famous war correspondent who was killed on Iwo Jima in 1945 (he was also an ex-Navy enlisted man, Seaman Third Class, which gave him great empathy for the downtrodden soldiers and sailors, especially in the Pacific War, and was beloved by millions who read his battlefield reports).

Among many Hawai’i heroes who are buried at Punchbowl, one is Staff Sergeant Robert T. Kuroda, who was with the 442nd Infantry Regiment, and killed in action in the famous “Lost Battalion” battle near Bruyeres, France in fall, 1944. He single-handedly attacked two enemy machine gun posts before being killed by a sniper – and was later awarded the Medal of Honor. When he passed away, he was only 21 years old. On Kalia Road at Fort DeRussy in Waikiki, the “Kuroda Field” sign, so named after this gallant, brave soldier in a ferocious battle so far away from Hawai’i, is in front of a monkey pod tree.

Contrary to popular opinion, not all who are buried at Punchbowl were killed during World War II battles (over 13,000 remains are there now). Included in the list of Medal of Honor winners is Private Erwin Jay Boydston, a Marine who was decorated for his efforts supporting the Allied defenses during the Boxer Rebellion in Beijing, China, during a terrifying siege campaign in the summer of 1900. After his Marine service, Private Boydston somehow made his way to Honolulu and passed away in 1957, and was interred at Punchbowl. One wonders what he would have thought of the past two decades of China’s economic rise, so different from his Marine service at the turn of the century: the weak imperial government, a revolutionary nationalist uprising, and an technologically-advanced international “police” force, including Americans, British, Russians, French, and Japanese -- that could march anywhere in China not subject to any Chinese laws. Now the Chinese have a huge army, and are developing better missiles, even an aircraft carrier, and are engaged in territorial disputes with countries ranging from Vietnam, Philippines, Taiwan, and Japan.

Among notables in politics, entertainment, and space travel interred at Punchbowl are former Governor John A. Burns (he served in the U.S. Army), Clara H. Nelson (known as the iconic “Hilo Hattie”, the “Hawai’i Calls” radio personality and 1960s nightly singer/comedienne at the Hilton Hawaiian Village; as a spouse of a former serviceman, she was eligible to be interred at Punchbowl, as my mother), and astronaut Ellison S. Onizuka (an Air Force Lt. Colonel), who passed away in the Challenger tragedy in 1986. Interestingly, Ellison Onizuka, a native of the Island of Hawai’i, was the first Buddhist in space.

Some time ago the Punchbowl ground burial sites ran out. So, low walls were constructed with rows of small spaces where urns with the deceased ashes are placed – called a “columbarium” (the original Latin term referred to compartmentalized housing for doves and pigeons).

Whenever I stand in front of my parents’ small wall marker, I feel very close to my parents’ spirits, perhaps by now reincarnated. I clean the small metal flower vase and place sunflowers (my father’s favorite) or tropical arrangement (my mother liked anthuriums) into the vase. Out of curiosity, I read other grave markers along the wall. I felt uncomfortable once when I saw a grave marker for an individual whose birthday year was the same as mine – such a short life: I felt that I was coming nearer to the end of my life, as well, and felt anxious about what I had not done nor experienced (but that’s another post). Often on visits with my sister or other family members I see gaudy birthday balloons attached to the vases, and in front of one space, according to the birthday date, the interred individual would be 129 years old.

Once during Thanksgiving some years ago I saw a turkey and mash potatoes meal in a take-out box in front of a grave (unopened beer bottles can be enjoyed by the maintenance crew – but a full dinner attracts ants and other insects). As the holiday season is coming, I chuckled when I read the Punchbowl rules – no Christmas trees are allowed, as these are not in the “potted plant” category and banned (as are stuffed animals, pinwheels, balloons, large cards – but I have seen them all and a lot more).

Even if our loved ones are gone forever from the material world, some family members and friends try their hardest to include them still in their daily lives, and to do something that would have made them happy. And although I wince at entire turkey dinners, I have thought of bringing a slice of apple pie for my father to place in front of the wall and imagine how much he would have enjoyed it.

*Barely 30 years after the Republic of Hawai’i ended, in 1927 a Beaux-Arts memorial was dedicated to the Hawai’i servicemen who gave their lives during World War I – the Natatorium in Waikiki. The controversy still rages if the memorial includes the pool – and this is a critical point for some supporters, since if that is so, any destruction or removal of the pool from the Natatorium site would mean a desecration of the memorial to the fallen Hawai’i soldiers at far-away European battlefields.


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