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The hill of sacrifice: "Punchbowl" cemetery caretakers lay to rest those who have served

  • Published
  • By Orville F. Desjarlais Jr.
  • AIrman Magazine
The eruption of hot lava through the cracks in old coral reefs more than 75,000 years ago in Honolulu created a sight many enjoy visiting and even more want to be their final resting place, a place known as the "Punchbowl" cemetery.

When Senior Master Sgt. Jvanne Hoelscher visited the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific, she fell in love with the "Punchbowl."

Under the shade of trees that line a road, she saw that on plot D 109 lay to rest the noted World War II correspondent Ernie Pyle.

On either side of him are buried two unknown Soldiers. She noticed that in that place of reverence, the famous are laid to rest next to the unknown.

The indiscriminate cemetery is nestled in central Honolulu inside the pocket of a volcano's crater. It's as if the Koolau Mountain Range had cupped its stone hands to form a place for the cemetery. Its ancient trees, lush grass and manicured shrubs provide a carpet of greenery that masks the lava foundation.

It exudes a feeling of peacefulness and security. It was exactly what Sergeant Hoelscher was looking for because she was dying of breast cancer and seeking a final resting place.

She told very few people about her condition, not even those in her Air Force Reserve Unit, members of the 624th Regional Support Group at Hickam Air Force Base, Hawaii.

But, coworker Tech. Sgt. Jonathan Bussey knew.

Room in the cemetery

She told Sergeant Bussey of her condition because she needed his help. He's a cemetery caretaker at the Punchbowl when he's not pulling Reserve duty as a heavy construction equipment operator.

"She asked about the Punchbowl and how to get interred there," Sergeant Bussey said. "Sergeant Hoelscher was curious about how veterans and families are still being interred at the Punchbowl when it's considered to be a closed cemetery."

"Closed" means that although no room remains in the cemetery to bury people in caskets -- except when a husband, wife and their children can be buried at the same gravesite -- cremated remains are still accepted. Unlike other national cemeteries that sprawl out over a countryside, allowing room for headstones as far as the eye can see, the inside of the crater is only 111.5 acres. So far, nearly 50,000 people are laid to rest at the Punchbowl, where a funeral is held almost every day.

Sergeant Bussey explained to her about all the burial rights for veterans and their families.

"Sergeant Hoelscher was always telling me that Punchbowl cemetery was a beautiful place and that she'd like to be interred there," Sergeant Bussey said.

On April 4, 2004, her wish came true. At 3 p.m. that day, she was interred in the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific. At age 51, she died of a disease that claims the lives of 40,000 women in the United States each year.

Her untimely death shocked her Reserve unit because so few knew of her illness, said Sergeant Bussey, who reacted differently. Although saddened by her death, he knew more needed to be done.

"I assisted the family with additional arrangements to make the interment less stressful for the family," Sergeant Bussey said.

The Committal Service

It was another beautiful day in Honolulu when Henry Hoelscher first stepped foot into the Punchbowl for his sister's funeral. Right away, he noticed the cemetery's rainforest lushness. While his hometown in Stillwater, Minn., was still recovering from a bleak winter, the cemetery was alive with colorful flowers, buzzing bees and chirping birds.

"I've been to a number of military cemeteries, and while they are places that move the heart by the sight of honored graves, the Punchbowl is much more," Mr. Hoelscher said. "The walls seem to wrap around you and provide a sense of seclusion and peace."

A small group of family members attended Sergeant Hoelscher's funeral -- including her father, mother and brother.

The cemetery staff requested an honor guard who presented an American flag to the parents. After the ceremony ended, the small group strolled to the interment wall, Sergeant Hoelscher's final resting place.

For Mr. Hoelscher, that was the most memorable part of the funeral.

"The walk from the pavilion to the interment committal court was peaceful," he said. "We were surrounded by family and friends in a warm, loving and beautiful space."

Although her unit had provided a formal ceremony in her honor, Sergeant Hoelscher's family felt that the Punchbowl's simple ceremony still remains as a special tribute to their daughter and sister, thanks, in part, to the efforts of Sergeant Bussey.

The caretaker

When some people discover what Sergeant Bussey does for a profession, they sometimes make fun of him by calling him an undertaker or a gravedigger. He takes it all in stride, because he knows what he does is important.

"When I tell them what I do, I also encourage them to come out to the Punchbowl for a visit. When they do, the place gives them a different outlook on life," Sergeant Bussey said.

He said working at the national shrine in the Pacific theater gives him a humble sense of dignity that can never be replaced.

Many who work at the Punchbowl have a connection with the military. James Messner was a reporter for the Pacific Stars and Stripes and retired after 30 years of naval service. Alan Sumitomo recently retired from the Air Force. Sergeant Bussey was once on active duty, having been deployed to Southwest Asia from April 2005 to January 2006.

HIll of sacrifice

The Punchbowl's Hawaiian name is "Puowaina," translated as the "Hill of Sacrifice." The first known use was as an alter where Hawaiians offered human sacrifices to pagan gods and killed those who violated ancient laws and taboos. 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, leasehold land on the slopes of the Punchbowl 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.

During the late 1890s, a committee recommended the Punchbowl become the site for a new cemetery to accommodate the growing population of Honolulu. The idea was rejected for the emotional aversion to creating a "city of the dead" above a "city of the living." Fifty years later, Congress authorized a small appropriation to establish a national cemetery in Honolulu with two provisions: the location be acceptable to the War Department, and the site would be donated.

Prior to the opening of the cemetery for the recently deceased, the remains of Soldiers from locations around the Pacific Theater -- including Wake Island and Japanese prisoner-of-war camps -- were transported to Hawaii for final interment. The first interment was made Jan. 4, 1949. More than 13,000 Soldiers and Sailors who died during World War II were laid to rest in the Punchbowl.

The National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific contains a memorial pathway that is lined with a variety of memorials that honor America's veterans from various organizations. Sergeant Bussey has taken this path many times. Not only has he had the honor of helping inter heroes, but he has met a few living ones as well.

Most memorable moment

Sergeant Bussey has observed visits of VIPs such as Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf, former combatant commander of the U.S. Central Command; and former U.S. presidents William J. Clinton and George H. W. Bush.

However, Sergeant Bussey's interment of Sergeant Hoelscher affected him the most.

"The most difficult aspect of the job is to know that you have to inter a fellow employee or their family member," Sergeant Bussey said.

For Sergeant Bussey, some of his rewarding moments are when he provides assistance to cemetery patrons.

"In my mind, I have a mental picture of some of them when I provided a helping hand over the years," he said. "Overall, I know those individuals who were laid to rest have served this country well and with honors. My job involved doing one final thing -- providing compassionate direction, advice, guidance and assistance in all operational aspects. I also ensure the dignified and timely delivery of burial benefits to our nation's veterans."

Sergeant Bussey said his work at the cemetery has changed his life.

"I know that the 49,102 -- as of Aug. 19, 2008 -- interred here all made sacrifices so that everyone can have the freedom we strive for daily," Sergeant Bussey said. "And, let's not forget those who are still in Southwest Asia, putting their lives on the line to validate our cause for freedom. Working here has made me realize that freedom is not free."

Remembering a sister

What Mr. Hoelscher remembers most about his sister was her love of flying, her work with the Air Force and being a pilot for a local airline company.

"Lynn enjoyed the flying, the people, the mission, the travel, the experience and the sense that she was part of a meaningful organization," Mr. Hoelscher said. "She always talked about the camaraderie in the Air Force."

He also remembers the assistance his family received from the Punchbowl staff.
"It would sound too simple to say that they took care of everything and our every need, but they did," Mr. Hoelscher said.

To this day, the Hoelscher family continues to take trips to the cemetery, which receives more than 5 million visitors a year.

Those who knew Sergeant Hoelscher realize the words engraved on her memorial marker are apropos. They are, "Fly with the Wind."

Unlike most of the people interred at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific, Sergeant Hoelscher knew of her impending death and realized she needed to select a final resting place.

Her love of Hawaii, her involvement with the Air Force and help from Sergeant Bussey, her coworker, ultimately led to her interment into the Punchbowl -- to her, an island of beauty; a place where she chose to spend eternity.