Gene Castagnetti


POSTED: Friday, May 22, 2009

The ancient Hawaiians called Punchbowl crater Puowaina, or hill of sacrifice, for the human beings who lost their lives there to appease the gods.

Since 1949, when the 111.5-acre site overlooking Honolulu was dedicated as the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific, it has symbolized a different kind of sacrifice, serving as the final resting place for nearly 50,000 U.S. veterans and family members and as a solemn shrine to American ideals, seen by about 5 million annual visitors.

Maintaining an overall sense of dignity at the cemetery — which serves simultaneously as major tourist attraction, a venue for large ceremonies attracting dignitaries from around the world, and a quiet refuge for survivors of individuals interred there — falls to Gene Castagnetti, 71, a retired Marine Corps colonel whose second career as cemetery director has provided “;one of the greatest privileges of my life.”;

He's been the boss since 1990, after 28 years in the Marine Corps, serving around the globe, including two stints in Vietnam. He was awarded the Silver Star for his actions as a rifle company commander during the war.

Four generations of Castagnettis have served in the Marines, and he recalls the sense of duty instilled in him as a child in Needham, Mass., where the whole town turned out for Memorial Day parades that culminated at the local cemetery. As the annual holiday approaches, with a public ceremony scheduled Monday from 8:30 to 9:30 a.m., Castagnetti shared his thoughts about sacrifice, patriotism and remembering the dead.

Question: Do you have a favorite place for contemplation?

Answer: Yes, there is a place ... in burial section D between the graves of (World War II correspondent) Ernie Pyle and (Hawaii-born astronaut) Ellison Onizuka. There we have 44 graves containing 22 sets of brothers who all died in World War II within six months of each other. My thoughts go to the mothers of those sons ... and it shows me that the burden of sacrifice is not always fair in our great nation.

Q: What feeling do you hope a tourist takes away from a visit?

A: I hope that when people come to this national shrine, walk these hallowed grounds, see the names, see the enormity of the sacrifice, that it will evoke a sense of patriotism and history. Some veterans died in combat, others came to rest here much later, but they all served their country. Visitors will see the graves of soldiers of every race, creed, religion, who saw America as a land of opportunity ... and were willing to sacrifice for the principles of democracy ... I want to emphasize that this cemetery is for the living. ... Without the grave site visitors, and we have such a great group of people in Hawaii who bring flowers, without the living coming to these ceremonies to show their honor, we would be nothing but a landfill for human remains and we never want to be that. That's why Memorial Day is so important ... to bring the schoolchildren out and show appreciation.

Q: Do you ever worry that such displays glorify war?

A: War is hell. We don't glorify it. We memorialize the good character of the American soldier and honor their service and sacrifice. (In plaques on the Memorial Walk) I prohibit anything that is volatile, inflammatory, anything that perpetuates a wartime mentality ... I believe that the United States should always have a ready force ... not appease (threats) ... but that doesn't mean that I glorify war itself. ... The glory of war is a misnomer and I would never use it in any sentence.

Q: The Obama administration allows media coverage of soldiers' caskets returning to U.S. soil from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, if their next of kin don't object. How do you feel about that?

A: I'm in favor of making the American public aware of the sacrifices made by the American soldiers and their families. They deserve honor and respect. So I agree with that decision.

Q: How many presidents have visited Punchbowl?

A: Two U.S. presidents (the first President Bush and President Clinton), plus President Obama when he was a senator (in August 2008.) We also have hosted the emperor and empress of Japan, two presidents of Korea, the president of the Philippines, the prime minister of Japan and many other foreign dignitaries. ... This place has become an international symbol of selfless sacrifice.