Punchbowl National Cemetery
Designated as National Memorial Cemetery Of The Pacific in 1949, Punchbowl Hawaii was a barren expanse of a volcanic crater with no trees and no memorial shrines or buildings. The first to be interred here in 1949 were many unknown sailors from the Pearl Harbor attack and one civilian, Pulitzer prize winning war correspondent Ernie Pyle.
President Harry Truman said of Pyle, “No man in this war has so well told the story of the American fighting man as American fighting men wanted it told. He deserves the gratitude of all his countrymen.” He along with hundreds of unidentified remains from the Pearl Harbor attack were the first to be buried here on July 4th 1949.
Other notables interred at Punchbowl are Hawaii’s late senator Spark Matsunaga, Ellison Onizuka (the first astronaut from Hawaii) who perished in the Challenger shuttle accident and Charles L. Veach, the second astronaut from Hawaii.
Hawaiian History and Punchbowl Crater
Originally called Puu O Waiho Ana and abbreviated to Puowaina, meaning “Hill of Offering or Sacrifice”, today’s Punchbowl Crater was first formed around 100,000 years ago. Lava erupted from the reef which, during this short geological phase, extended up to the Ko’olau mountain range which today towers above and beyond Honolulu. These relatively small types of one off eruptions also formed Diamondhead Crater and Kokohead. These eruptions set the stage for the formation of what would become the Honolulu foothills and Waikiki shoreline. Today Punchbowl Crater’s rim rises 461 feet above sea level and from it’s rim commands an expansive view of the city of Honolulu, Pearl Harbor and Diamondhead Crater.
The Name “Punchbowl”
Whoever gave the crater it’s modern name of Punchbowl is not known. The shape of the crater does resemble a bowl. However the first printed mention of “Punchbowl Hill” was in the William Ellis Journal of 1823. Ellis was a British missionary sent to report on the natural history and culture of Hawaii. He lived throughout the islands for over 8 years and returned to England in 1831 to publish his journals.
Ancient Settlement of Hawaii
1025 A.D. to 1290 A.D.
Researchers have determined through carbon dating that two major waves of migration came to Hawaii even though there is evidence that there were small groups of people living here before that. The first wave arrived between 1025 AD and 1120 AD and the second wave from 1190 AD to 1290 AD. During this time it is believed priests from Tahiti introduced the kapu system of governing and religion. This resulted in the extensive building of heiau (temples) and sacrifices to the gods, including human sacrifices.
Punchbowl and Ancient Hawaii
1300’s A.D. to 1700’s A.D.
In the later part of Hawaii’s ancient evolution Punchbowl was called Puowaina Crater or “hill of sacrifice” which had four heiau’s (Hawaiian Temples) wrapping around the northeastern slopes facing the shore. The most prominent, Kanelaau Heaiu, was a Luakini Heiau or a temple of human sacrifice. Breakers of the kapu system of laws were sacrificed here. There were hundreds of these laws that regulated religion, lands, water, food and personal interactions with royalty. The penalty for infractions of any of these laws was usually death – often by drowning, strangulation or clubbing. This may seem cruel but at the time most European and Middle Eastern countries were often equally as cruel to commoners and peasants.
As Captain Cook, the first European to report of Hawaii’s existence in 1778, wrote that in his travels throughout Polynesia the people were often widely scattered, undisciplined (in his view) and unorganized. Not so in Hawaii where he was impressed with the generosity of the people and the discipline and attention to detail the Hawaiian society exhibited. The clothing, weapons, houses and agriculture were some of the most advanced Cook had encountered.
Punchbowl and Kamehameha the Great
One of the most famous battles Kamehameha fought was for control of Oahu. The battle eventually led to Kamehameha gaining control of the entire island chain. The well known story of the battle of Nu’uanu really began at the foot of Punchbowl. It was here, at the four heiau, where the Oahu forces gathered to engage Kamehameha’s army of some 12,000 warriors who had advanced from their landing near Diamondhead. Kamehameha, with cannons mounted on sleds, attacked the defenders around Punchbowl and drove them into Nu’uanu valley. His adversary and ruler of Oahu, Kalanikupule, also had cannons positioned in the back of the valley. However Kamehameha knew this and had sent men to neutralize the guns and fire on the retreating Oahu army. Kalanikupule’s forces were picked apart until they were driven up to the edge of the 800’ cliff at the top of the valley. It is believed over 800 men were driven over the edge to their deaths.
The Kingdom of Hawaii
1810 AD to 1870’s AD
During the reign of the Hawaiian Kingdom, Kamehameha also had two cannons mounted on the rim of Punchbowl for the defense of Honolulu. They would never be used for that purpose and were only fired to announce the arrival of foriegn dignitaries and to mark special occasions. However a U.S. Navy lieutenant noted in 1826 that the battery of cannons on Punchbowl “would be formidable to an enemy in the harbor”. The next four Kings of Hawaii would usher in great changes in the Hawaiian culture as sugar cultivation, religious missionaries and western goods brought the plantation lifestyle and immigrants from across the world to Hawaii.
A Cemetery is Proposed
1881 AD to 1898 AD
By the early 1880’s the slopes of Punchbowl were opened for settlement and houses began to spring up. During the reign of Hawaii’s last king, Kalakaua, there were four guns in place but the fort at the crater’s rim had come under disrepair. In the late 1890’s a committee proposed a cemetery inside Punchbowl crater for the growing population of Honolulu. However it was reject for fear of contaminating the water supply and the idea of a city of the dead above a city of the living was revolting to many.
By 1898 these plantation owners overthrew the Hawaiian Kingdom in what many believed at the time (and still do) was an illegal act of colonization. These land owners would gain control of the legislative branch of Hawaii’s government to annex Hawaii.
Punchbowl Becomes a National Cemetery
1920’s AD to 1949
During the 1930’s the interior of the crater was used as a rifle range for the Hawaii National Guard and during World War II tunnels were dug through the rim for gun emplacements to guard Honolulu Harbor and the south edge of Pearl Harbor against Japanese invasion. After the war in 1947 pressure to designate this crater as a National Cemetery was put on the military by congressmen and veterans who lobbied for the remains of thousands of war dead, waiting in Guam for burial, to be brought to Oahu. The site was approved and construction began in 1948 with the opening to the public in 1949.
In 1959 congress ratified Hawaii as the 50th state.
What To Do at Punchbowl National Memorial Cemetery
The expansive grounds of this 16 acre crater are mostly filled with graves. However there are some wonderful memorials throughout the area donated by several countries in the Pacific who the US forces helped liberate from Japanese control during WWII. The most prominent one is the Honolulu Memorial located at the top of the stairs at the far end of the crater.
The Honolulu Memorial at Punchbowl
Built in 1964 and expanded in 1980, the memorial is located partially on the slope of the interior rim of the crater It sits atop an extensive stone staircase and on either side of the staircase are marble slabs etched with the names of 28,788 military personnel who are missing in action or buried at sea.
The courtyard at the top of the stairs includes a statue, Lady Columbia, also known as Lady Liberty or Lady Justice. She is said to represent all grieving mothers. At the base of the statue is inscribed the words of Abraham Lincoln written in a letter to a mother who lost her sons during the civil war:
THE SOLEMN PRIDE THAT MUST BE YOURS TO HAVE LAID SO COSTLY A SACRIFICE UPON THE ALTAR OF FREEDOM
Inside the Honolulu Memorial
Inside and behind the statue is a chapel and two extensive hallways on either side. These hallways house huge mosaic panels with illustrative maps showing the battles of the Pacific during WWII, Korea and Vietnam. It is an incredible array of information and artistic beauty that is worth climbing the long flight of stairs if you have the time.
Ways to Experience Punchbowl Cemetery
This National Memorial Cemetery is within the city of Honolulu and takes just a few minutes to drive to. However one of the best ways to experience this somber place is to pair it with a guided tour to Pearl Harbor in our custom tour vans. This way you will get a more complete picture of what our country went through during the war years.
Below is a selection of tours we offer that include seeing Punchbowl. Time restraints may limit our ability to visit the Honolulu Memorial at the top of the stairs so you may want to schedule some time for this on your own.
Views from Punchbowl Crater include Honolulu and Diamondhead Crater