Pūowaina (hill of placing [human sacrifices]) was formed some 75,000 to 100,000 years ago during the Honolulu period of secondary volcanic activity. A crater resulted from the ejection of hot lava through cracks in the old coral reefs which, at the time, extended to the foot of the Ko‘olau Mountain Range.
A 1916 article in Scientific Monthly described it: “The Hawaiian name for this venerable crater is Pu-o-Waina and it has a tragic significance. The original form, from which the modern spelling is abbreviated, was Puu O waiho ana, literally the hill of offering or sacrifice.”
The people “were dominated by the dreadful tabu system that once ruled all Polynesia. The penalty for any violation of its intricate regulations was death. Pu-o-waina was one of the places near Honolulu where the bodies of the offenders were ceremoniously burned” (the penalty for any violation of kapu.)
Later, during the reign of Kamehameha dynasty, a battery of two cannons was mounted at the rim of the crater. “There were only three men in the fort … The guns were mounted on a platform at the very edge of the precipice that overlooked the harbor and town.”
“They were thirty-two pound caliber. … The situation is very commanding, and notwithstanding the distance, the battery would be formidable to an enemy in the harbor.” (Lieutenant Hiram Paulding, USN, 1826)
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 (the military references to uses include Reservation, Punchbowl Battery or Fort Kekūanaō‘a.)
Punchbowl Battery under King Kalākaua consisted of six four-pounders, though the “fort” was no longer manned; an observer noted that upon this “novel promontory…a few rusty old cannon slumber in the ruins of what may have been once considered a fort.” (Hemenway 1887)
During the late 1890s, a committee recommended that the Punchbowl become the site for a new cemetery to accommodate the growing population of Honolulu.
The idea was rejected for fear of polluting the water supply and the emotional aversion to creating a city of the dead above a city of the living.
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 Hawaiʻi offered the Punchbowl for use as a national memorial cemetery; 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.
Initially, the graves at National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific were marked with white wooden crosses and Stars of David; however, in 1951, these were replaced by permanent flat granite markers.
The National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific was the first such cemetery to install Bicentennial Medal of Honor headstones, the medal insignia being defined in gold leaf. On May 11, 1976, a total of 23 of these were placed on the graves of medal recipients, all but one of whom were killed in action.
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 – most commemorating soldiers of 20th-century wars, including those killed at Pearl Harbor.
More than five million visitors come to the cemetery each year to pay their respects to the dead and to enjoy the panoramic view from the Punchbowl.