A look at the history of The Punchbowl Cemetery.
A cemetery for war heroes built on ancient holy ground.
Punchbowl Cemetery, officially called the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific, is located atop Punchbowl Crater in Honolulu, Hawaii, close to Pearl Harbor. The crater’s original Hawaiian name is Puowaina, meaning “Hill of Sacrifice.” The place was hallowed long before it became a modern cemetery, though in a rather different sense: it was the burial site of kings and was also used for human sacrifice, especially the ritual sacrifice of people who violated tribal taboos.
Kamehameha the Great, the founder of the Kingdom of Hawaii in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, installed cannons along the rim of the crater. These weren’t really intended to be used as weapons of war. Instead, they were fired to salute the arrival of distinguished people and on other auspicious occasions.
In the late 1890s, not long after U.S. supported white immigrants overthrew the monarchy, a proposal was raised to establish a cemetery on the site. It was rejected at the time, partly because of concern about the graves polluting the water supply and partly because people were averse to the idea of a “city of the dead” overlooking the “city of the living” from above.
During World War II the crater was used as a firing range for the Hawaii National Guard and a site for artillery covering both Honolulu Harbor and part of Pearl Harbor. The idea of establishing a cemetery arose again during the war, partially because there was no convenient location for the interment of thousands of American soldiers who died in the PTO, such as on Wake Island, Guam or at various Japanese POW camps. The cemetery was dedicated in September 1949 but the first burials had already happened in January that year. It was opened to the public on July 19, 1949 with five burials: an unknown soldier, two Marines, an Army lieutenant and famous civilian war correspondent Ernie Pyle. Pyle, whose reports played a crucial role in the introduction of combat bonus for infantrymen, was killed in the Battle of Okinawa, the last pitched battle of the war.
At first all graves at the Punchbowl were marked with a white wooden cross or Star of David, which were in general use at the time. This, however, was only intended as a temporary measure. In 1951, all markers were replaced by flat granite headstone set into the ground. The change elicited public outcry, as people apparently weren’t aware that the old markers were slated to be removed. The new ones, however, were there to stay, giving the cemetery a very different look compared to overseas military cemeteries.
The cemetery also played an important role in the burial of soldiers after the Korean War. In 1954, Operation Glory was an exchange of war dead between the United States and North Korea. Of the thousands of bodies handed over to U.S. authorities, several hundred unknown soldiers were buried at the Punchbowl Cemetery. The identities of only a few of them have been ascertained since.
In addition to Ernie Pyle, a number of notable individuals are buried in the Punchbowl Crater or the urns containing their ashes laid to rest in the columbarium. Not even attempting to be comprehensive, we would like to highlight only a few of them here.
Air Force Brigadier General Darr Alkire was captured by the Germans and acted as senior officer at the West Compound of Stalag Luft III, the prison camp where the famous Great Escape occurred, inspiring the film. Major Donn Beach operated R&R centers for officers and was the inventor of the tiki bar. Henry Oliver “Hank” Hansen was one of the men who raised the first U.S. flag over Iwo Jima. Wilfred “Jasper” Holmes was a Naval officer who came up with the idea of faking a water shortage on Midway Island in order to learn whether the Japanese were really planning an attack there. His ruse contributed to victory at the Battle of Midway. Ellison Onizuka, the first Hawaiian astronaut, died in the Challenger explosion.
You can pay your respects to the heroes, including 23 Medal of Honor recipients, interred at the Punchbowl Cemetery on our Pearl Harbor Tours. You can still join us for the 77thanniversary this December.