POSTED: 1:30 a.m. HST, Oct 29, 2010
Lei Kahanu Girelli never gave up on the men she could not name but would not forget.
Every year, she would pack a lunch and take her grandchildren to the little cemetery on the hill to spend the day with the unmarked graves she knew were there. She put up a banner that said, "Don't forget Hawaii WWI veterans" and placed small flags all along the grass where she remembered the grave markers used to be. She did this on Veterans Day for years.
It started with childhood memories of visiting family graves at Puukamalii, in Alewa Heights. Girelli recalled walking through rows and rows of tall grave markers. The headstones were all alike and marked the graves of Hawaii men who had served in World War I. "When my mother died in 1979 and was buried here, that's when I realized the stones were gone," Girelli said.
That didn't sit well with Girelli, now 81. And then she discovered several broken grave markers that had been piled in a hole on the side of the property, and she really got upset.
Girelli collected a trove of research. She tried to find the names of all the soldiers who would have been buried there -- a nearly impossible task since, unlike at more formal cemeteries, records of burials at Puukamalii weren't kept.
Girelli wrote letters, spoke at meetings and found an ally in Solomon Kam of the VFW Diamond Head Chapter, who took her claims seriously. Kam contacted Sen. Daniel Akaka's office, and Akaka started the ball rolling. Within months there were meetings with the VA's Cemetery Administration, Punchbowl Cemetery, the Hawaii Office of Veterans Services and the state Department of Accounting and General Services.
Next month, Girelli's dedication to the unmarked graves at Puukamalii Cemetery will finally be rewarded.
A public ceremony for the unveiling of the WWI Veteran Group Marker will be held next Saturday, Nov. 6, at 10 a.m. at Punchbowl Cemetery (rather than Puukamalii because of parking, seating and restroom requirements). After the ceremony, the memorial stone will be taken to Puukamalii by DAGS to be installed by Veterans Day, Nov. 11.
Descendants of the four WWI veterans who could be identified will attend the ceremony. Their names will appear on the memorial: Cpl. Alexander Kahuli, Pvt. Punilei Moole, Pvt. John Palakiko and Cpl. George Kaninau. There is space on the stone to add more names as they are discovered. Until then the marker is meant to include them with these words: "To the memory of these individual sons of Hawaii who served in the Hawaii Infantry during World War I -- the location of their final resting place remains unknown."