Veterans Keep Memories Alive at Hawaiian 'Punchbowl' by COL Renita Foster


For the last 15 years, Bernard Akamine has volunteered his services at the "Punchbowl Cemetery" in Honolulu, Hawaii. And the drive there almost always reminds him of another journey. One he made just over 65 years ago, the day after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor Dec. 7, 1941.

Called Punchbowl because of its shape, the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific lies in an extinct volcano called Puowaina (pronounced: puh-oh-why-nah), and meaning "Consecrated Hill" or "Hill of Sacrifice." Its name is appropriate since it's the final resting place for 33,230 service men and women from four wars, beginning with the casualties from the Pearl Harbor assault.

Identifying the dead after the battle at Pearl Harbor was difficult. Dog tags, bill­folds, personal letters, ring inscriptions, even tattoos were the most reliable methods.

Far worse was matching body parts for burial. The initial ceremony consisted of an honor guard lined up on two sides of a large trench. The firing squad and bugler were on the third side while three chaplains, repre­senting the Protestant, Catholic and Jewish faiths, were placed on the fourth..

If a Soldier's denomination was known, that chaplain conducted the interment. In most cases, there was no idea about the preferred faith so all three chaplains came forward. A brief scripture was read, and each chaplain offered a prayer in English, Latin and Hebrew. They were determined to give every man in death what had been his choice in life.

One chaplain later wrote, "The God of the universe heard the prayers of us all."

Akamine and co-worker, Darwin Garrett, arrived around. 7 a.m. on Dec. 7, 1941, at the Wahiawa Naval Radio Station where they were installing electrical lines.


Following Hawaiian tradition, Sailors honor men killed during the 7 December 1941 Japanese attack on
Naval Air Station Kaneohe, Oahu.  The casualties had been buried on 8 December.  This ceremony took
place sometime during the following months, possibly on Memorial Day, 31 May 1942.


Because it was Sunday, the area was qui­eter than usual. Shortly after starting work, they heard what sounded like Army maneuvers. The crew shrugged it off until another worker happened to turn on his car radio and learned Pearl Harbor was under attack.

"Jim, another employee, ran to the office to tell the boss about the assault," said Akamine. "The boss told him that if he wanted to go home and drink, that was fine, he didn't have to make up stories. It wasn't until Jim insisted that the boss come to listen to the radio that he believed it was true."

Akamine and his supervisor headed to the radio station's commandant. His reaction to the breaking news was also one of disbelief. He even accused the men of lying until his repeated phone call attempts all went unanswered. Once again, a radioprovided the essential proof.

The commandant ordered all the workers to a bomb-proof building. For almost four hours. Akamine sat with nearly 50 civilians, Navy personnel, and dependents in the underground facility for protection against further attacks. Most were still in shock, and they waited in silence.

"When nothing had happened by noon, we were ordered to hook up teletype machines. That was the only type of communication working since the radios weren't prepared yet," said Akamine. "We stayed up all night getting them operational with no time out for sleeping or eating."

      The men were finally allowed to leave the next afternoon, but only for showers and a change of clothes."

Garrett asked for permission to check on his brother, Robert, stationed at Hickam Army Air Field. Accompanied by Akamine, the two men rode in foreboding silence, anxiously wondering what Robert's status might be.

When the guards refused Garrett and Akamine entry, Garrett pleaded with them to contact the barracks. No answer or connec­tion could be made and the two men were ordered to leave.

Akamine continued working on the radio station for the next two weeks. Afterwards, he was sent to install electricity in the mess hall. A few days later, a Caucasian officer came by and ordered Akamine off the job yelling, "No Japs!"

       "I happen to be Nisei, a second genera­tion Japanese American. So I didn't care for the remark, but I didn't let it upset me because in my heart I knew I was an American," said Akamine. "And the Caucasian workers that took over did a terrible job. The refrigerator compressors and lights burned out. We had to eat canned food until they were able to fix the problem. There were accusations of sabotage, but we Niseis knew we were not responsible because we were. forbidden to work on that job."

       A few days after Dec. 7th, Garrett re­ceived a telegram from his mother informing him that his brother was killed during the Japanese attack:

       Told his brother had been buried in the temporary cemetery at Schofield Barracks, Garrett went to the area where crosses were still being placed into gravesites.

There he found the cross with his brother's name on it. Bursting into tears, Garrett knelt in front of it.

Garrett learned what had happened to Robert when he was finally given access to the barracks where his brother had been quartered.

Bullet holes were everywhere on the sides of the building where Robert's unit had been asleep when the attack began.

Thunderous noise had awakened the Sol­diers. When they ran outside to see what the commotion was, the men were gunned down and killed.

The 2,335 servicemen and 68 civilians that included Americans and Japanese killed , in action, were buried in temporary graves around the island.

After Punchbowl Cemetery was built in 1948 and dedicated a year later, 776 casual­ties ties from the Pearl Harbor attack, including Robert, were reburied there.

Darwin Garret had left to join the Army Air Corps, but Akamine had returned home to Honolulu after serving with the 100th Infantry Battalion in Europe, and attended Robert's graveside committal service.

Although Robert's interment was over half a century ago, the memory has never left Akamine.

That image, and the call for volunteers at Punchbowl for the 50th Pearl Harbor anniversary, motivated Akamine to volunteer.

His duties include answering questions, training new recruits, and helping visitors looking for gravesites like Ernie Pyle's, the famous World War II correspondent who is buried there.

There's also interest in the late Senator Spark Matsunaga and Ellison Onizuka, the first astronaut from Hawaii who perished in the Challenger disaster.

Additionally, Akamine shares stories about his friends interred there and visits Robert as well. Every year the 100th veterans and their families decorate the gravesites of the Killed in Action and those who have passed away in recent years with floral offerings.

"Sometimes, when people learn I served with the l00th Infantry Battalion in Europe, they ask how I could fight against my own brothers. I answer, `I was and am American, fighting with my brothers and for my country.

Harry Fox (left), who worked with Bernard Akamine and Darwin Garret [sic], at the final burial of Robert R. Garret [sic]
at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific, also called the "Punchbowl."  Robert R. Garrett was killed on
Dec 7, 1941, during the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.

After the 50th anniversary, Akamine re­alized that the Visitors Center was open daily, but the main office was closed on Saturday and Sunday, leaving visitors without any assistance on the weekends.

Akamine decided continuing to volunteer would be a good cause for his 100th Infantry Battalion Veterans Club, especially since their motto is "For Continuing Service."

"Luckily, the club president agreed, and we were able to recruit more volunteers like the 442nd Regimental Combat Team Veterans Club," said Akamine. "This was a real blessing since a lot of us are aging and have to drop out."

Akamine still remembers the bittersweet celebration when word came on May 2, 1945, that the war in Europe was over.

Jubilation soon changed to sorrow as the Soldiers began thinking about those who died and those who were severely wounded. Aware of the sudden mood change, the battalion chaplain called all the Soldiers together. He explained and reassured the unit that God had a purpose for everyone; the purpose of those who were killed was to die for their country.

The purpose of those who survived was to look forward to going home, starting families and careers, and rebuilding communities by being good citizens.

      “I can still hear those comforting words today,” said Akamine.  “That sermon and my work here at Punchbowl help me remember those who died so that their sacrifices were not in vain.”


- Printed by permission.  “Punchbowl Cemetery”, December 22, 2006, “The Monmouth Message”