Veterans Keep Memories Alive At Hawaiian Punchbowl

Author: Renita Foster
Punchbowl The Monmouth Message, 12/22/2006
Source: Puka Puka Parades, February 2007

Part 9 of nine articles featuring the experiences of Nisei soldiers during World War II. Part 9 details Bernard Akamine’s memory of those who died at Pearl Harbor and during World War II and how he pays tribute to them by volunteering at Punchbowl Cemetary

For the last 13 years, Bernard Akamine has volunteered his services at 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, December 7, 1941.

Akamine and co-worker, Darwin Garrett arrived around 7 a.m. on December 7, 1941 at the Wahiawa Naval Radio Station where they were installing electrical lines. 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 radio provided 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 December 7, 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 from the Pearl Harbor attack, including Robert, were reburied there.

Darwin Garrett 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 alsointerest 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. “Sometimes, when people learn I served with the 100th Infantry Battalion in Europe, they ask how could I fight against my own brothers. I answer, ‘I was and am American, fighting with my brothers and for my country’.”

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 weekend. 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.”