Amid the graves, tourists joke Cemetery in Hawaii often misunderstood.

December 05, 1991|By Knight-Ridder

HONOLULU -- The foreigners joke. They laugh. They take pictures of companions making funny faces. They use washrooms as bathing areas. They stamp out cigarettes on burial markers. They picnic on the graves.

This is the spectacle most mornings at one of America's most solemn sites: the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific, burial grounds for thousands of U.S. casualties from World War II, Korea and Vietnam.

At sunrise Saturday, President Bush and 5,000 survivors of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor will gather at the cemetery -- often called Punchbowl for the extinct volcanic crater in which it sits -- for a 50th-anniversary memorial ceremony.

But most other days, the green, cultured grounds are crowded with bus loads of Japanese and other foreign tourists who have little interest in being at a memorial to U.S. war dead and often show it.

And so, mourners and others there to pay their respects are accosted by scenes like this, witnessed this week:

Makato Shizukushi, 23, tells his wife, Maki, 21, to snap a picture of him. As she does, he jumps up, legs and arms outstretched, face distorted in what is supposed to be a funny face. She snaps and laughs. He laughs also.

He jumps, and she takes pictures, and they laugh several times in front of a memorial that bears these words:

"In proud memory of the achievements of her sons and in humble tribute to their sacrifices, this memorial has been erected by the United States of America.

"These men were part of the price that free men have been forced to pay to defend human liberty and rights. To these men, we owe a debt to be paid with grateful remembrance of their heroism."

That is what is written on the memorial mocked by Makato and Maki Shizukushi, who are Japanese and understand little English but say they know this is a military cemetery.

Punchbowl, a place that should always be profoundly moving, is filled almost to capacity now -- 36,474 graves and niches for cremated remains. Too many wars; too many deaths.

But cemetery director Gene Castagnetti, a combat veteran himself, says his problem is not too many dead people. His problem is too many live people. His problem is these foreign tourists, and he is not afraid to say so.

He calls it "people pollution."

The people in question are temporarily dumped at the cemetery because they arrive in Honolulu too early to take possession of their hotel rooms. Their tour guides like the place because it is big and open -- and free.

Tourists can stretch their legs and roam or sometimes stretch out on the turf and nap. Many use the place like a park or beach. Not all of the foreigners misbehave -- but many do.

"It's like having a bunch of small children in your living room," said Castagnetti, 53, a retired Marine colonel who survived two tours in Vietnam. "It's very disruptive.

"They use it as a backdrop for picture-taking, and they get noisy and boisterous, which is disturbing to the next of kin who are sitting next to a grave and reflecting about their deceased relative.

FTC For long moments, when the tourists are gone, the only sound is the chirping of birds as they rest in frangipani, monkeypod and banyan trees and in the rest of the lush vegetation.

A memorial complex includes a 32-seat chapel, mosaic maps detailing major battles of World War II and in Korea, and a long, wide stairway bordered by eight marble walls called the Courts of the Missing.

On those walls are engraved the names of U.S. men and women "who gave their lives in the service of their country and whose earthly resting place is known only to God." In 1980, two half-courts were dedicated at the base of the stairway to honor those missing in Vietnam. In all, the names of 28,745 men and women are listed.

Over the years and through the wars, Punchbowl became so busy, so full that now it can accommodate only cremated remains of veterans and the bodies of spouses and children of veterans already buried here.

It also has become so "popular" with tourists that more than 6 million people visit the place each year, making it Hawaii's No. 1 visitor attraction.

Not all of them want to be here.

Castagnetti: "Some look at it as a national park. It's not a national park. It's a national cemetery. This was never intended to be a tourist attraction."

He said he was working with tour directors to find another way for tourists to kill time. Meanwhile, tour operators have installed a sign that says, in Japanese:

"We welcome you to these hallowed grounds. To preserve the dignity, beauty and serenity of this national shrine, we ask you to observe our prohibited activities."

These include "boisterous actions" and "disrespectful conduct."

Some visitors read the sign, take a picture and then make a joke.

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