National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific -- Punchbowl

Visited 7 January 2007

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 Above: View from atop the Punchbowl Memorial steps.  The distant flag mourns Pacific WWII veteran (and Wolverine) Gerald Ford

About 100,000 years ago, one of southern Oahu's magma-fed volcanoes rested, allowing ash to congeal into a nearly perfectly round tuff cone.  When the Polynesians arrived millennia later, they named this crater Puowaina, hill of sacrifice, which is what they did to humans who violated their kapu (taboo laws).   Here in the early 1800s, an upstart from the Big Island called Kamehameha the Great wiped out the last Oahu opposition to his vision of a united Hawaii.  Since 1949 the ideas of war and sacrifice have been combined in this spot nicknamed for its shape as Punchbowl.  Over 45,000 American military (and a few others) sleep forever in its 112 acres.


Punchbowl consolidated remains from various temporary resting places in the Pacific Theater of WWII.   The first five re-interred here in 1949 included an unknown soldier and famed war correspondent Ernie Pyle.  His tombstone is at left, decorated with leis.  (Annually 2500 local Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts decorate every grave with flags and leis to accompany the 21-gun salutes that greet Memorial Day.  Celebrities such as Pyle get theirs refreshed frequently by tourists.)  You'll notice his tombstone is flush with the sod -- wooden crosses were raised here temporarily, but replaced by the modern flat marble tombstones, much to the chagrin of the public.  Consequently, this place has a different feel to it than the European WWII cemeteries we visited with their silent rows of white crosses in Normandy and Tuscany.  The  great number of crosses there overwhelm visitors with the sheer volume of the sacrifice of what Tom Brokaw calls our Greatest Generation.   Punchbowl is more subdued, resting gently in Hawaiian warmth, and its flattened tombstones have more of a feel of a civilian cemetery.   


Pyle was a civilian war correspondent and at age 44 one of the older casualties in what the recently departed Kurt Vonnegut called the "children's crusade."  Most headstones here bracket men who died in their early twenties.  (And we don't use the C word anymore.)  

As we walked through Punchbowl in the gentle January mist, we felt as if we had the place pretty much to ourselves.  This may have been an illusion as this claims to be the most visited site in all Hawaii with 5 million visitors per year.   Does this count those in tourist busses which circle but are not allowed to stop?  We had no problem finding a spot in the small (10 spaces or so) visitors center where we we greeted by a knowledgeable and friendly WWII vet.  How much longer will we have them around to thank?

The visitor center abuts the park entrance; the flag rises above the brass insignia of the army, marines, navy, air force, and coast guard.  All is calm, all is symmetric:

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Empty lanes shaded by Chinese banyan trees lead to the marble Honolulu memorial past over 100 acres of graves including, among the oldest, 776 from the Pearl Harbor attack.

 The Memorial

The Honolulu Memorial was added in 1964 and dedicated in 1966.  Like all WWII Memorials commissioned by the American Battle Monuments Commission, it contains:

  • A chapel

  • An area to name those Missing-in-Action (MIA) in the region

  • A place to display maps of the major conflicts that required the sacrifice of those interred.

But when approaching from a distance, none of that is obvious. Instead, the 30-foot statue of Lady Columbia rises on a ship's prow at the top of industrial-strength-memorial stairs.  Climbing these stairs soon reveals eight full and two half "Courts of the Missing" like the one below dedicated to those who fell in the Korean War.  At center of each are frangipani (plumeria) trees.

The Missing and the Found

The names of the 28,778 missing are carved in alphabetical order by branch of service by war on the freestanding Italian Trani marble tablets.  (Nearly 2/3rds of WWII names are Navy and include burials at sea).  Medal of Honor winners get stars and their names in gold (see left picture).  

Besides names without remains, the cemetery contains remains without names -- unknown soldiers from WWII and Korea.  (Vietnam had no unknown remains but nearly 2500 names on the two half courts list that conflict's MIAs, 40% from the Air Force.  The memorial flies the MIA flag below the Stars and Stripes).

Although nearly 13,000 of those who fell in the Pacific Theatre are interred here, this is much more than a WWII cemetery .  (An even larger military cemetery holds 17,000+ Pacific casualties in Manila, Philippines, under those traditional white crosses.  Manila's Tablets of the Missing list over 36,000 names of those who disappeared in the Southwest Pacific.  Altogether, 405,000 Americans died in WWII, about 1 out of every 300 then living in the US.  That may not seem like a lot (especially compared to places like Poland that lost 1 out of 6), but extrapolating today, we'd have to lose a million US soldiers in Iraq to get to that ratio.)  A few graves inter Spanish War Veterans; gravestones also cover remains of Korean and Vietnam casualties (and survivors). 




After climbing past these Courts of the Missing, you arrive at Lady Columbia's 30-foot-statue at the top of the stairs:

Motherhood but not quite Apple Pie

Rising 30 feet from her ship-prow base, Lady Columbia looks vaguely familiar.  A close crop of her face was used in the credits for the popular TV show Hawaii Five-0.  She symbolizes motherhood.  Hey, it beats another one of those statues of a guy on a horse.  She's the creation of Washington, D.C. sculptor Bruce Moore assisted by a couple of Italian stone carvers.

Mother Columbia stands above a quotation ascribed to Abraham Lincoln in a letter to a woman who was thought to have lost five sons1 in the civil war: "The solemn pride that must be yours to have laid so costly a sacrifice upon the altar of freedom."  The quotation fits the memorial well but real life was a little more sloppy.  Probably Lincoln's secretary, John Hay (later secretary of state during the Spanish-American war) wrote the letter to New Englander Lydia Bixby who, being a confederate sympathizer, destroyed the letter.  While she lost two sons in the civil war, two others may have deserted.   

Besides including space to list MIAs, architects commissioned to create memorials (in this case the Weihe, Frich and Kruse of San Francisco) must also include a small devotional chapel and a  graphical record of the "achievements and sacrifices of the United States Armed Forces."

Going to the Chapel

Hidden behind Lady Columbia, is the non-sectarian chapel.  The picture at left shows the altar with dominant cross flanked by the Star of David and the Buddhist Wheel of Righteousness, probably more politically correct than most 1964-vintage construction.  Buddhists are not too populous in the US as a whole, but are 9% of Hawaiians due mostly to the 19th century Asian immigration.  

The chapel altar, stairs, and floor are Verde (green) Antico marble.  The Latin Cross is displayed on  Rojo Alicante marble..  

Sculptor Bruce Moore whose Lady Columbia graces the tower above the chapel also designed the glass cabochons that grace the art-deco-ish bronze work inside the chapel.  The four cabochons in the altar rail are lit electrically while those in the chapel window and doors (shown respectively below left and right) are backlit by the Hawaiian sun.

Map Galleries

On either side of the chapel radiate two map galleries which describe in detail the major battles of the Pacific War.  For history buffs, all of these words (nearly 6000!)  are reproduced in an on-line document accessed by clicking here.  These maps were first made using an Italian technique known as scagliola.  Unfortunately, Hawaii is more humid than Italy and the maps were replaced with tinted mosaic concrete and colored glass.

The map describing the month-long Battle of Iwo Jima, one of the bloodiest in WWII,  is shown below:

What made this 8 square mile island so valuable is that it was unusually flat for a volcanic isle -- and therefore could provide air bases for the fighter planes needed to protect the bomber squadrons attacking Japan.   Many more battles are shown in our overflow picture page accessed by clicking here.

Heroes Walk

After descending from the Memorial, one typically walks along the memorial pathway where various veterans groups have installed markers commemorating specific groups.  The ones below honor the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, a Japanese-American unit that fought in Africa and then Europe during WWII while many of their relative were interred in concentration camps in the American West.  (When WWII broke out, 3 out of 8 Hawaiians were of Japanese descent and internment was not feasible.  The Government asked for 1500 volunteers to enlist from Hawaii --10,000 did.  The American Melting Pot can also forge weapons!)  The 442nd became the most decorated unit in the US Army for its size, including 22 Medal-of-Honor winners and (much later) a US Senator.  

Characters in Search of a Plot

With over 45,000 occupants, Punchbowl's 34,000 gravesites are technically full, but remains are put to rest here frequently in this active military cemetery.  If you served and there's room, you're in.  Actually you are entitled to burial in a VA cemetery -- but whether you make it to Punchbowl depends upon luck.  Improve your luck by timing your death.  Punchbowl keeps no waiting list but if a spot opens up just before you apply -- you're in.  This can happen because a few (about 450 in 2002) veterans have a pre-1973 contract with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (which runs the cemetery).  The Army ran the cemetery before then and promised vets two side-by-side spots for them and a family member.  When the VA took over in 1973, families with a loved one already buried kept their adjacent spot.  Otherwise they lost both plots.  Some of these spots are given up when the family decides to bury a surviving spouse elsewhere.  Not to worry, you can bury several members in the same plot if you're willing to stack them on top of each other.  The rest is up to history.

Somehow Punchbowl found room for the remains of Lieutenant Colonel Ellison Onizuka, the Japanese-American who perished in the 1986 Challenger explosion.

Hawaii runs state cemeteries for casketed veteran burials and Punchbowl's columbarium still accepts the urns of the cremated.

The American Cemetery in Normandy

More pictures from the cemetery at Punchbowl are available at our overflow page available by clicking here.  Or if you really want detail on the map gallery, nearly 60  more pictures are available by clicking here. 

Hawaiian hills are nice but do you miss those white crosses?  If so, check out our other military cemetery sites by clicking below:


The American Cemetery in Florence
For an index of all of our Hawaii pictures, click here
Created on 23 April 2007


[1] Hold off in writing that letter to Steven Spielberg.  In Saving Private Ryan, General Marshall quotes from Lincoln's letter to Mrs. Bixby before ordering Matt Damon's (who played the surviving Niland brother) rescue.  In real life, 3 of 4 Niland brothers were thought killed in WWII but one emerged later as a POW.

[2] More than you'd ever want to know, including all of the text in the map galleries can be found at:

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