The Punchbowl Crater: Beyond the Cemetery

November 24, 2016

As one of the most notable landmarks of the island of Oahu, a visit to Punchbowl National Cemetery is an incredible journey through time. Most notably, you’re brought back through the conflicts of the United States, starting with World War II, as you pay tribute to the many American heroes laid to rest in the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific.

Ironically, prior to becoming a national cemetery for fallen military heroes, the area of Punchbowl had been proposed as a general cemetery as the population of Hawaii grew. Though the request was denied, in 1943 the Hawaiian governor offered Punchbowl when Congress sought to establish a national cemetery somewhere in Honolulu.

How It All Began

Before it became historically important to the United States as a national cemetery and monument to fallen US service members, Punchbowl existed for some 100,000 years. How does a crater come to exist in solid ground to later become a revered landmark? Somewhere between 800,000 and 30,000 years ago, the island of Oahu experienced what’s known as the Honolulu Volcanic Series. 100,000 years ago, lava erupted from under ancient coral reefs that ran all the way to the Koolau mountain range. The result is the tuff cone we know as Punchbowl.

Known nationally as Punchbowl Crater, the Hawaiian name for the formation is Puowaina, a reference to its sad history meaning the "Hill of Sacrifice." The crater is believed to have been used as an alter for human sacrifices to the Polynesian gods and as a place for punishing those who violated the strict cultural prohibitions of the time, known as Kapu.

Punchbowl Cemetary of the Pacific

During the 18th and early 19th century, the crater was used by Kamehameha the Great, who mounted cannons on the formation’s ridge. While commonly used as a means of defense, these cannons were used as a means of saluting guest arrivals and signifying important occasions. By 1880, the slopes of the crater became open land for settlers to inhabit.

The first military involvement for Punchbowl came in the 1930s, when the Hawaii National Guard installed a rifle range there. At the height of World War II, tunnels were dug throughout the crater’s rim to implement shore batteries that guarded Honolulu Harbor and the edge of Pearl Harbor. As the war came to a close, activity within Punchbowl Crater slowed until 1948, when construction on the cemetery finally began.

The Pearl Harbor Memorials

Today, the crater remains as the national monument that complements the Pearl Harbor memorials of Oahu. Every trip to this magnificent island should be accompanied by a journey through the struggles of World War II and the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Before paying tribute to the fallen soldiers of the United States military at Punchbowl National Cemetery, the World War II Valor in the Pacific National Monument and Pearl Harbor Memorials allow guests to trek through time, starting with the very start of the attack.

Museum fo the Pacific

The USS Arizona Memorial gives travelers a chance to learn about the trials and tribulations of the soldiers who gave their lives during the December 7th, 1941 attack, and the Bowfin submarine and Battleship Missouri give a glimpse of life at sea during World War II. At the conclusion of your Pearl Harbor tour, Punchbowl National Cemetery is a somber drive through history.

Find a Tour


Remember Pearl Harbor Tour from Waikiki

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Pearl Harbor & Honolulu City Tour from Waikiki

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Official Passport to Pearl Harbor


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