“Over the years, the United States has sent many of its fine young men and women into great peril to fight for freedom beyond our borders. The only amount of land we have ever asked for in return is enough to bury those that did not return.” — Colin Powell

BY DUANE ALLEN VACHON, PH.D. Having written about Medal of Honor recipients for several years I thought it would be interesting to some readers to learn about where many of these recipients are at rest. There are 63 Medal of Honor recipients at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific. The bodies of 28 of these recipients have never been recovered and they are memorialized on the Wall of the Missing. As the Cemetery Representative at Punchbowl for many years I had the honor and privilege of working with the families of these Heroes and being able to perform this final service and assure that these recipients of our nation’s highest award for bravery went to their final resting place with honor and dignity.

The National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific is also known as the Punchbowl. The Punchbowls Hawaiian name is Puowaina, translated as the Hill of Sacrifice. The site became a national cemetery in 1949.

The cemetery is located in Punchbowl Crater (Puowaina in Hawaiian), located just north of downtown Honolulu. In ancient times Punchbowl was used as a site for human sacrifices, and pu-o-waina means “hill of placing (human sacrifices).”

In February 1948 Congress approved funding and construction began on the national cemetery. Since the cemetery was dedicated on September 2, 1949, 34,000 veterans of World War I, World War II, the Korean, and Vietnam wars have been interred. The cemetery is now full and a new veterans cemetery has been built and dedicated on the windward side of O’ahu at Kane’ohe.

Prior to the opening of the cemetery for the recently deceased, the remains of soldiers from locations around the Pacific Theater—including Guam, Wake Island, and Japanese POW camps—were transported to Hawaii for final interment. The first interment was made January 4, 1949. The cemetery opened to the public on July 19, 1949, with services for five war dead: an unknown serviceman, two Marines, an Army lieutenant and one civilian—noted war correspondent Ernie Pyle.

Initially, the graves at National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific were marked with white wooden crosses and Stars of David—like the American cemeteries abroad—in preparation for the dedication ceremony on the fourth anniversary of V-J Day. Eventually, over 13,000 soldiers and sailors who died during World War II would be laid to rest in the Punchbowl. Despite the Army’s extensive efforts to inform the public that the star- and cross-shaped grave markers were only temporary, an outcry arose in 1951 when permanent flat granite markers replaced them.

The National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific was the first such cemetery to install Bicentennial Medal of Honor headstones, the medal insignia being defined in gold leaf. On May 11, 1976, a total of 23 of these were placed on the graves of medal recipients, all but one of whom were 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 National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific contains a memorial pathway that is lined with a variety of memorials that honor America’s veterans from various organizations. As of 2005, there were 63 such memorials throughout the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific—most commemorating soldiers of 20th-century wars, including those killed at Pearl Harbor. “Operation Glory” and the Punchbowl Cemetery After their retreat in 1950, dead Marines and soldiers were buried at a temporary gravesite near Hungnam, North Korea. During “Operation Glory” which occurred from July to November 1954 the dead of each side were exchanged; remains of 4,167 US soldiers/Marines were exchanged for 13,528 North Korean/Chinese dead. In addition 546 civilians who died in United Nations Prisoner of War camps were turned over to the South Korean Government. After “Operation Glory” 416 Korean War “unknowns” were buried in the Punchbowl Cemetery; {total 867 Korean War “unknowns” are at the “Punchbowl Cemetery”}. Fifty-seven years after the Korean War, remains of two of the “Punchbowl unknowns” were identified-both from the 1st Marine Division: one was Pfc. Donald Morris Walker of Support Company/1st Service Battalion/1st Marine Division who was KIA Dec 7, 1950. The other was Pfc. Carl West of Weapons Company/1st Battalion/7th Regiment/1st Marine Division who was KIA Dec 10, 1950. From 1990 to 1994 North Korea excavated and turned over 200 sets of remains-but few identified because of co-mingling of remains. From 1996 to 2006 220 remains were recovered from near Chinese border. In January 2008 remains of a Michigan soldier were identified. In March 2008 remains of an Indiana soldier and a Ohio Soldier were identified. In April 2008 remains of 3 US soldiers were identified.

Should your travels take you to Hawaii, Punchbowl should be on the top of your must visit list.