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Most people haven’t visited Punchbowl Cemetery but if you grew up watching cop show reruns, you’ve seen it.
That’s from the “Hawaii Five-O” intro (just before the beautiful island girl swings her head and distracts me for the rest of the episode). The official name is the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific but locals call it Punchbowl, after the extinct volcanic crater it was built within.
The crater’s name in Hawaiian is Puowaina, which is translated as “Hill of Sacrifice.” Once, ancient Hawaiians offered human sacrifices there but it now honors far worthier deaths. More than 50,000 people have been buried in this “Arlington of the Pacific,” each marked with a plaque embedded in the soil.
The statue watching over the fallen heroes is Lady Columbia, representing their grieving mothers. The inscription below her is a quote from Abraham Lincoln’s letter to a Civil War widow:
THE SOLEMN PRIDE
THAT MUST BE YOURS
TO HAVE LAID
SO COSTLY A SACRIFICE
UPON THE ALTAR
The first funeral I attended was at Punchbowl, followed by the next dozen or so funerals I attended. As a 21-year-old U.S. Navy petty officer, I often served as a flagbearer at these solemn occasions. I didn’t know any of these people, only that each had served my nation. I felt deeply unworthy whenever I was called to perform this service. Which I was.
A chaplain would perform the service before the gathered mourners. The family members were asked to rise and the honor guard fired three rifle volleys, followed by the playing of “Taps” by a lone bugler.
A fellow servicemember and I would take the ends of the flag from the casket and fold it 13 times, forming it into the shape of a Revolutionary’s tricorn hat. I would hand it to the chaplain who would present the flag to the next of kin with the statement, “On behalf of the President of the United States, the United States Navy, and a grateful nation, please accept this flag as a symbol of our appreciation for your loved one’s honorable and faithful service.”
The first funeral I attended was Buddhist, the second Catholic, then mostly Protestant services after that. Some families sobbed, others wept quietly, while others tried to hold their composure. The latter group was fine — until the rifle volleys. Something about that loud crack breaks even the most stoic survivors — and flagbearers.
To each veteran commemorated by a flag I folded, I want to thank you. I don’t remember most of your names. But I remember you.
Memory eternal.Published in