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On Walkabout At: Hawaii’s Punchbowl Cemetery

For anyone in the military there is a number of must see locations in Hawaii such as the Arizona Memorial and the Battleship Missouri.  However, another site that unfortunately doesn’t make it on too many people’s itineraries that everyone should visit while on Oahu is The National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific:

Picture of Hawaii's Punchbowl Cemetery

This cemetery is located not too far from downtown Honolulu in extinct volcanic crater more popularly known as the Punchbowl.  Here is a Google Earth image of the Punchbowl as viewed from above:

Picture of Hawaii's Punchbowl Cemetery

The crater is roughly 75,000 to 100,000 years old.  The crater received the name the Punchbowl due its bloody native Hawaiian past.  The crater once served as an area that the native Hawaiians offered ritual sacrifices to their pagan Gods of people that had broken the island’s laws known as taboos.

Honolulu as seen from the harbor. Punchbowl crater is at the far right.

The crater became a cemetery in 1948 due to the heavy demand to bury war dead from World War II that had been stockpiled on the island of Guam.  This is when the crater became officially known as the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific. The cemetery is operated by the Department of Veteran Affairs and is the final resting place for over 49,000 deceased US servicemembers.  There are a number of notable deceased US servicemembers buried in the cemetery to include 23 Medal of Honor recipients.  Probably the most famous name buried in the cemetery was not a US servicemember at all, but a journalist by the name of Ernie Pyle:

Ernie Pyle was the leading combat journalist from World War II who had a devoted following of readers across  America.  What he wrote from the frontlines had great influence in helping the men and women he wrote about.  For example the combat pay that people that deploy away from home today now receive is a legacy of Ernie Pyle who advocated for combat pay for ground soldiers and Marines.  Pyle died in 1944 by Japanese machine gun fire on an island off of Okinawa.  He was originally buried on Okinawa until his remains were eventually moved to the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific.

Picture of Hawaii's Punchbowl Cemetery

Another notable person buried in the cemetery is the first ever Asian-American astronaut Ellison Onizuka:

Onizuka is a native Hawaiian who joined NASA after a successful career in the Air Force to become an astronaut.  Onizuka would go on to be part of the 15th space shuttle mission into space in 1985.  He would tragically die nearly a year later at the age of 39 in the space shuttle Challenger disaster.  His remains were laid to rest at the Punchbowl:

Picture of Hawaii's Punchbowl Cemetery

The most famous group of servicemembers laid to rest in the cemetery is without a doubt the soldiers of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team:

Picture of Hawaii's Punchbowl Cemetery

The 442nd was composed mostly of Japanese-American volunteers from Hawaii who joined up to prove their loyalty to the United States. The unit was shipped off to fight in the European theatre of operations since it was believe Japanese-Americans would not fight felow ethnic Japanese in the Pacific.  The soldiers of the regiment more then proved their loyalty to the US by becoming the most decorated combat regiment in all of World War II.

Some of the soldiers of the regiment that made the ultimate sacrifice for their country are buried in their own plot of land at the cemetery:

Picture of Hawaii's Punchbowl Cemetery

The vast majority of the graves are of Japanese-Americans:

Picture of Hawaii's Punchbowl Cemetery

However, during this time Korean-Americans were also classified as Japanese-Americans due to the fact that Japan had long occuppied the Korean peninsula.  This fact as quite evident as well while walking through the graves due to the few Korean names I could see intermingled with the rest of the Japanese names:

Picture of Hawaii's Punchbowl Cemetery

Picture of Hawaii's Punchbowl Cemetery

There was even spouses of Korean-American servicemembers buried near the soldiers of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team as well:

Picture of Hawaii's Punchbowl Cemetery

Another group of soldiers buried in mass at the cemetery that even outnumbers the number of buried 442nd servicemembers are the unknown soldiers of the Korean War:

Picture of Hawaii's Punchbowl Cemetery

This area was quite large and is the final resting place of 416 soldiers and Marines that died in North Korea during the Chosin Reservoir campaign in 1950.  The soldiers had been buried originally in a hillside outside the North Korean port city of Hungnam that the Marines had evacuated from.  After the ceasefire was signed the North Koreans returned thousands of US servicemembers bodies to include the 416 at the Punchbowl Cemetery that could not be identified.

The headstones of these unknown soldiers simply says “US UNKNOWN, KOREA”:

Picture of Hawaii's Punchbowl Cemetery

I saw a group of people digging up one of the remains while visiting which I later asked the guy that worked at the visitor center about.  He told me that the US government has been hard at work trying to identify the remains of servicemembers in the cemetery through DNA testing.  A number of families who had loved ones disappear during the war have voluntarily given up DNA to the government to be used to be compared to unidentified remains.  Some remains at the cemetery have been accurately identified.  It was good to hear that some of these soldiers who fought in the Forgotten War would no longer at least go unknown.

There are few cemeteries in the US that can match the historical nature of the National Memorial Museum of the Pacific.  Because of this fact the museum has seen a number of high profile foreign visitors to include former Korean Presidents Kim Young-sam and Roh Moo-hyun.  In the visitor center of the museum they even have a picture of Roo Moo-hyun on display:

Picture of Hawaii's Punchbowl Cemetery

There is even a signed guest roster with Roh’s name on it on display:

Picture of Hawaii's Punchbowl Cemetery

Interestingly enough Japanese Emperor Ahihito visited the cemetery as well back in 1994:

Picture of Hawaii's Punchbowl Cemetery

Picture of Hawaii's Punchbowl Cemetery

Former US President Bill Clinton visited as well:

Picture of Hawaii's Punchbowl Cemetery

At the heart of the cemetery is a large elaborately constructed building with many stairs to climb to reach:

Picture of Hawaii's Punchbowl Cemetery

In the building is a small chapel wear people can come to reflect on the sacred nature of this cemetery.  The walls of the building outside the chapel are lined with battlefield maps and narratives of many important battle in the Pacific theatre to include the Korean War:

Picture of Hawaii's Punchbowl Cemetery

Something I enjoyed doing at the cemetery was taking a walk around the perimeter of the volcanic crater.  The crater is lined with beautiful parks and flowers:

Picture of Hawaii's Punchbowl Cemetery

The top of the crater also offers some incredible views of Honolulu:

Picture of Hawaii's Punchbowl Cemetery

The crater’s rim also provides a great view to see how big this cemetery really is:

Picture of Hawaii's Punchbowl Cemetery

Visiting the cemetery is quite humbling which was similar to the feeling I had when I first visited Arlington National Cemetery.  The Punchbowl is open daily and the visiting hours are:

  • Sept. 30 thru March 1, from 8:00 a.m. until 5:30 p.m.
  • March 2 thru Sept. 29, from 8:00 a.m. until 6:30 p.m.
  • On Memorial Day, the cemetery is open from 7:00 a.m. until 7:00 p.m.

Getting to the cemetery can be a little confusing, but really isn’t that hard.  The National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific is located in central Honolulu, approximately midway from the Honolulu International Airport and the popular Waikiki tourist district. Take Hwy 1 East and exit onto Lunalilo Freeway. Then North onto Pali Hwy. Immediately across the interstate overpass, turn right (East) and proceed about 1 block. Turn left (North) approximately 300 feet then angle-turn to the right onto Puowaina.

So if on Oahu definitely check it out and pay your respects to some of the many military heroes of our nation’s past.

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