Intro & the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific
Some people dream of going to Hawaii as I dream of going to Egypt or of participating in a fossil dig.
I mention this, not to belittle Hawaii or the trip I took with my dad, but to explain why I knew so little about the islands prior to visiting one of them. In my long list of places to which I want to travel, tropical islands rank somewhere at the bottom. But my brother, Vaughn, lives on Oahu, and he was graduating. Being able to be with my immediate family—regardless of where they live—ranks at the top of my list.
There are two things that surprised me about Oahu:
- the military presence there, and
- the popularity of Spam.
I took this picture in a local supermarket because I could not believe how much of the product so many stores carried.
I had no idea it had more than one flavor! (The flavors are: Ham & Cheese, Turkey, Hickory Smoke, Garlic, Hot & Spicy, Bacon, Black Pepper, Lite, Less Sodium and just plain Spam.)
Dad promptly bought two cans.
“What?” he said in response to my disbelief. “I like it.”
And he ate them both within two days.
Oahu houses numerous military museums and memorials in addition to its active military. It became apparent, reading about these museums in a guidebook on the plane, that most of the vacation would be spent at these very places. Both my brother and my dad are big military history buffs. I was outnumbered.
Days into our trip, Dad and I drove to the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific (NMCP for short). Vaughn had work and was unable to join us.
The cemetery is in what is called the “Punchbowl”, so named for its natural structure: a depressed center encircled by a large hill. The Hawaiian name for it is “Puowaina”. [[**Nadine Siak corrected my comments here. She wrote: “Actually, ‘Puowaina’ is an extinct volcano (we hope!) like Diamond Head. So the cemetery is probably the only one in the world situated inside the crater of an extinct volcano.” 9/16/13]]
Driving through suburban landscapes and winding hills, we didn’t really get a sense of where we were going. (Part of it may have been that we were so focused on getting there and finding it.) I didn’t appreciate the magnitude of the Punchbowl until we were actually there. Unlike Diamond Head—an extinct volcano one can see for miles—this land mass seemed to be buried within the homes and buildings around it. I highly recommend searching for this in Google Images, preferably using the phrase “aerial view” with any variation of its name.
National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific – Brief History
The NMCP website mentions that the Punchbowl was recommended as a place to put the cemetery in the 1890’s, but “[t]he 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.” Despite these objections, this plan moved forward in 1943. I have been unable to discover—whether online, in history books or in speaking with people in Oahu—much about what happened between the 1890’s and 1943. Had general feelings changed since the 1890’s? That’s quite a shift in public sentiment. Why isn’t there more information?
Dad referred to the cemetery as “the Arlington of the Pacific”. This comparison is reiterated in guidebooks and websites.
One cannot enter this memorial without feeling an enormous sense of loss. And yet, it is, at the same time, strikingly beautiful.
Unlike Arlington, most of the graves are embedded within the ground.
Visitors to the Cemetery
When one first enters, there is a large sign for visitors requesting that they abstain from any of the following while on the grounds:
- eating or drinking
- having picnics
- walking dogs (except service dogs)
- engaging in recreational activities such as jogging and biking
I asked Nadine Siak (Public Affairs Specialist for the NMCP) whether these requests were made at all National cemeteries.
“National cemeteries are hallowed grounds,” she emailed in response, “dedicated to honoring the service and sacrifice of our nation’s veterans and their families. In order to uphold the dignity and solemnity of the environment, visitors are requested [not to engage in the activities highlighted above].”
“NMCP is unusual among all the 131 national cemeteries administered by the VA in that it is a major tourist destination,” she continued. “In addition, many people—especially tourists—get the impression that this is a national park (not a cemetery) because of the beauty of the grounds and the lack of upright headstones. As a result, we may have to devote more energy in enforcing these rules than other national cemeteries.”
According to the NMCP’s website, five million people visit this cemetery annually.
“I personally think,” Siak offered, “that the collaboration between NMCP and the DoD Joint POW-MIA Accounting Command (JPAC) in identifying those individuals interred here as ‘Unknowns’ is the most interesting—and little known—aspect of the cemetery.”
“…Most people do not know that all of the unidentified remains that were brought back of American service members who died in the Korean War were buried at NMCP. In fact, the one ‘Korean War Unknown’ that is not buried here is the one at Arlington. But that individual was first buried here and later taken to the Tomb of the Unknowns of Arlington Cemetery.”
Hope and Reconciliation
The trees lining most of the Punchbowl’s basin stretch into enormous canopies. These are graceful monuments themselves; silent sentinels amongst those who have passed on before us.
Flags flutter in the wind, people sit quietly near gravesites, and the statue of Columbia—seemingly small from the entrance—is gargantuan. She rises above wall after wall after wall of names: soldiers whose bodies were never found.
Dad and I spent some time walking around these walls, contemplating everything around us, walking up the stairs to Columbia and reviewing the detailed information contained in structures around her.
There are moments in which nothing can be said. When what you are witness to leaves you without words.
Such was the case as we walked up the rim of the Punchbowl on a shaded path to an outlook area. Rocks with plaques lined part of the path; smaller monuments with hopes of peace between countries from visiting dignitaries.
Seeing these names brought to mind the small building near the entrance. Pictures of Ellison Onizuka hang above an encased flag and information about the former astronaut. There are pictures of well-known people buried within the cemetery. Lining the walls are numerous pictures of heads of state, presidents, and prime ministers accompanying Gene Castagnetti, the cemetery director, at NMCP. He has been the director there for over 20 years.
“One of the most significant [visits] to the greatest number of people, perhaps, was the first visit by the emperor and empress of Japan in 1994,” wrote Siak. “The emperor and empress conducted a wreath-laying ceremony in the spirit of peace and reconciliation, and to honor the American veterans of World War II.”
The concepts of war—with all of its devastating consequences—and peace—so fragile! so rare!–were tumbling through my mind as Dad and I walked up to the top of the Punchbowl.
And it was at that moment that sirens began blaring all over the island.
My brother, Vaughn, had been remarkably thorough and thoughtful in informing Dad and I about Oahu. Anything we might encounter, things we should know, he had already reviewed with us.
These sirens were never mentioned. And I’ve seen World War II movies. I knew exactly what that sound meant.
“Are we having an air-raid??”
Dad—who was as new to the island as I was—just laughed. “We’re not having an air-raid.”
I was not convinced. “Well, then it’s a tsunami!”
Dad just shook his head. “Maybe it’s a tsunami test.”
“Are you kidding?? Aren’t you worried?” I looked below us to see if people were fleeing.
With uncharacteristic calm, he shrugged. “What’s to worry about? We’re up high.”
For more information on the NMCP, please visit: http://www.cem.va.gov/cems/nchp/nmcp.asp
Mahalo, Nadine Siak!