Folding Flags at the ‘Arlington of the Pacific’

 

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
OF FREEDOM

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 Military
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  1. Miffed White Male Member
    Miffed White Male
    @MiffedWhiteMale

    Ernie Pyle is buried there, as is El Onizuka.

     

    • #1
  2. Miffed White Male Member
    Miffed White Male
    @MiffedWhiteMale

    I got married on Oahu in 2003.  We went to Punchbowl in the morning the morning of the day we left the island.  We had left my wife’s wedding bouquet in the hotel room when we checked out, because … what else were we going to do with it?

    Wandering around the cemetery, I wished we’d brought it with us to leave flowers on some of the graves marked “unknown”.

    • #2
  3. Jon Gabriel, Ed. Admin
    Jon Gabriel, Ed.
    @jon

    Miffed White Male (View Comment):

    I got married on Oahu in 2003. We went to Punchbowl in the morning the morning of the day we left the island. We had left my wife’s wedding bouquet in the hotel room when we checked out, because … what else were we going to do with it?

    Wandering around the cemetery, I wished we’d brought it with us to leave flowers on some of the graves marked “unknown”.

    It’s a powerful place, that’s for sure.

    • #3
  4. Susan Quinn Contributor
    Susan Quinn
    @SusanQuinn

    Thanks, Jon. Somehow knowing the role you served brought me closer to this sacred rite. 

    • #4
  5. Susan in Seattle Member
    Susan in Seattle
    @SusaninSeattle

    I am fortunate to be able to go to O’ahu frequently.  Punchbowl is a favored place to visit and it doesn’t take long once there to be reminded very deeply, viscerally, of the blood and treasure that has been spent on our behalf. 

    • #5
  6. Randy Weivoda Moderator
    Randy Weivoda
    @RandyWeivoda

    That’s beautiful, Jon.

    • #6
  7. Stad Coolidge
    Stad
    @Stad

    Jon Gabriel, Ed.: Something about that loud crack breaks even the most stoic survivors — and flagbearers.

    For me, it’s the folding of the flag and its presentation to the widow, mother, or other surviving family member . . .

    • #7
  8. JimGoneWild Coolidge
    JimGoneWild
    @JimGoneWild

    While in the 82nd, I served on funeral detail a few times. We would drive in a military van anywhere within 4 hours of Ft. Bragg. Always attached to us was a bugler from 18th Airborne Corp, and he could blow. He had a gift for reading the crowd, so to speak, and could hit all the right notes perfectly, then hold them just right to bring the mourners to tears. We would literally brace for the  moment when he hits that one special note (Jon knows it) and the women (usually) would breakdown, wail or cry out. Our rifle squad did all the tricks with  the M-16’s and always, always came off sounding like one shot. People were always appreciative of our ‘performance’ despite it being a sad occasion.

    • #8
  9. Stad Coolidge
    Stad
    @Stad

    JimGoneWild (View Comment):

    While in the 82nd, I served on funeral detail a few times. We would drive in a military van anywhere within 4 hours of Ft. Bragg. Always attached to us was a bugler from 18th Airborne Corp, and he could blow. He had a gift for reading the crowd, so to speak, and could hit all the right notes perfectly, then hold them just right to bring the mourners to tears. We would literally brace for the moment when he hits that one special note (Jon knows it) and the women (usually) would breakdown, wail or cry out. Our rifle squad did all the tricks with the M-16’s and always, always came off sounding like one shot. People were always appreciative of our ‘performance’ despite it being a sad occasion.

    I attended a service several years ago where “Taps” was played on a boom box.  Didn’t have the same reverence . . .

    • #9