The National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific at Punchbowl is, for me, one of those places that are taken for granted by residents. I really wanted to talk about O’ahu cemetery, which I will later, but I had to do Punchbowl first… just because. Even though I was born and raised on the island of O’ahu I had never been to a funeral there, never stepped foot on the soil there, never drove through the gates, never that is… until last week.
Geographically, this cemetery is located right in the middle of everything on Pu’owaina Drive in Pu’owaina Crater. This crater is an extinct volcano in the area often referred to simply as Punchbowl. Likewise, the cemetery is often referred to simply as Punchbowl Cemetery, since “National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific” is such a mouthful.
Gazing into the cemetery from the front gates, there is a huge stone statue set back against the side of the crater. Thinking it a statue of Christ, I didn’t really think anything of it except that I thought it strange to be so large in a military cemetery. I can’t imagine any burial place being more non-denominational than a military one. As I got closer and my gaze became more focused I realized that the statue was not who I thought it was.
Who’s That Lady?
First of all, it’s a woman. Who is this lady? Why is she here? What does she represent? Well, I guess I’ll have to do some research later and find out. Let’s get closer and see what we have here. Why so much concrete? Names. There is nothing but names engraved into a bunch of cement walls. These walls make up the “gardens” that flank the staircase leading up to that lady. So many names.
At this point reality has already begun to sink in. I’m close enough now to read what’s in raised stone at the bottom of that statue.
“THE SOLEMN PRIDE THAT MUST BE YOURS TO HAVE LAID SO COSTLY A SACRIFICE UPON THE ALTER OF FREEDOM.”That’s a nice quote. Okay, so, on the way back down I turn to read the sign that I missed on the way up; I was just so focused on and captivated by that statue. The sign at the bottom of the staircase said, “In these gardens are recorded the names of Americans who gave their lives in service to their country and whose earthly resting place is known only to God.”
That was it! Reality bit hard! The tears started to fall and I started talking to myself, “You bitch!” That was all I could come up with, “You BITCH!” I spent the rest of my time there chastising myself severely for all of those times that I have gotten annoyed with military personnel, been offended by their cat calls, or for those times I just plain took on an attitude with our people in uniform. Feeling sorry, saying sorry, that just doesn’t cut it! That’s 28,778 names whose “resting place is known only to God.”
It was kind of cloudy that day and kind of overcast. That didn’t help my now melancholy mood. Could you see Diamond Head from there? Yeah.
Nice view. In fact, it was beautiful. But, I’m sorry, the view of the ocean and Diamond Head suddenly paled in comparison to the gravity of what was surrounding me. After I left the cemetery and started to do some research, to explain just what it was that I saw — so that I could share it in an intelligent way, things just got worse.
There are a lot of interesting tidbits about this burial place! This cemetery has been called one of the most beautiful and most moving of all military cemeteries. I got the “moving” part down! Seven hundred and seventy-six people killed on December 7, 1941 during the attack on Pearl Harbor were among the first to be interred there. Sigh, no surprise there. There are over 30,000 graves of those who died in war. They are some of the casualties from World War I, World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War. So many.
I had to look up the meaning of the Hawaiian word, pu’owaina. Yeah, it was the name of the street but it was also the name given on one of the pillars at the cemetery entrance. Now, if they put it on that pillar, it must have some relative significance. I found it. Loosely translated, Pu’owaina means Consecrated Hill or Hill of Sacrifice. I also found a note that these grounds had once been a secret burial place for the Hawaiian Ali’i (Royalty). “Wow, I didn’t know that.” There are over five million people that visit the cemetery every year, and yet I had never been there.
Now, what about the statue of that woman, and the inscription beneath her? The descriptions that I found say that this is a thirty-foot statue of Columbia and that she is looking over her lost children. Then I discovered that the words at her feet are not just something thrown together by someone trying to be poetic or a company creating bereavement greeting cards. Those are the words of our beloved and ever-so-eloquent President Abraham Lincoln writing to a mother mourning the loss of five sons during the Civil War. It was in his letter to her that President Lincoln wrote those same words, “The Solemn Pride That Must Be Yours to Have Laid So Costly A Sacrifice Upon the Altar of Freedom.”
Yes, the awesome sacrifice of men who lost their lives, mothers who lost their children and a country that lost many fine citizens – all to give us the freedoms that we cherish. Those sacrifices continue now in Iraq and elsewhere. Needless to say, I have developed a greater respect for the men and women that make up our Armed Services and a deeper sense of what patriotism really is. Enough said. Here is a link for more pictures and a less-emotional description of the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific.
That was the original post. It still makes me cry but it still means so much.