Punchbowl makeover first since it opened


POSTED: Monday, August 31, 2009

The National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific will mark its 60th anniversary by undertaking a $4.6 million, two-year grave-site renovation—its first since Punchbowl was dedicated.

Punchbowl officials will hold a blessing ceremony tomorrow in one of the 11 sections that will be renovated, featuring interfaith leaders and a Hawaiian pule, chant and a patriotic song. Wednesday will mark the 60th anniversary of the dedication of the cemetery that celebrated V-J Day—marking the end of the war with Japan.

Gene Castagnetti, cemetery director, said 45 percent of Punchbowl's 36,000 grave markers will be cleaned beginning in October.

Through the next two years, old grass and weeds will be removed in the 111.5-acre national cemetery.

“;The turf has never been redone before,”; Castagnetti added.

Grave sites will be leveled, grave markers will be cleaned and soil will be tilled to a depth of 8 inches and replanted with a new Bermuda grass called “;Celebration”; that is tolerant to both shade and drought, Castagnetti said.

There are 688 trees in the cemetery, he said, and “;some cast a big shadow and don't let the sun in.”;

“;This will take out the 'washboard effect' in our worst section,”; he said. “;The grave markers and flower vases will be stored for safekeeping, cleaned and replaced once the renovation in each section is completed.”;

Castagnetti said his maintenance staff now tries to clean 300 grave markers each month.

“;But at that rate it would have taken us 10 years. This is a great opportunity to bring the grave markers up to standard in two years.”;

Each marker will be cleaned and stabilized to prevent sinking, he said.

Eleven burial sections and 16,406 markers will be renovated in the next two years. There are anywhere from 1,200 to 2,900 graves in each of the 11 sections. Only one burial section at a time will be closed during the renovation.

Castagnetti said servicemen killed in the Pacific in World War II, the remains of 864 unknown soldiers from the Korean War and local veterans who died in the past 20 years are buried in the 11 sections.

Punchbowl, known in Hawaiian as Puowaina, or “;hill of sacrifice,”; is one of 130 national cemeteries in 39 states and Puerto Rico maintained by the Department of Veterans Affairs.

The first known use of the volcanic crater was as an altar where Hawaiians offered human sacrifices. Later, during the reign of Kamehameha the Great, a battery of two cannons was mounted at the rim of the crater to salute distinguished arrivals and signify important occasions.

Early in the 1880s the slopes of Punchbowl were opened for settlement, and in the 1930s the crater was used as a rifle range for the Hawaii National Guard. Toward the end of World War II, tunnels were dug through the rim of the crater for the placement of shore batteries to guard Honolulu Harbor and the south edge of Pearl Harbor.

In 1943 the governor of Hawaii offered Punchbowl for use as a national cemetery. After World War II Congress and veteran organizations pressured the military to find a permanent burial site in Hawaii for the remains of thousands of World War II servicemen on the island of Guam. In February 1948 Congress approved funding and construction began.

The first interment was made Jan. 4, 1949. The cemetery opened to the public on July 19, 1949, with services for five war dead: an unknown serviceman, two Marines, an Army lieutenant and one civilian—noted war correspondent Ernie Pyle.