Even though there was no big Memorial Day ceremony with the mayor, and the usual sea of American flags and lei placed by Boy Scouts on every grave was missing due to COVID-19 concerns, Punchbowl cemetery was filled all day long Monday with arriving families who individually refused to forget the sacrifices of the veterans interred there.
“So many people that came out today,” observed Mai Huynh, who visited the grave of her 47-year-old Navy husband, Long Huynh, who died in a motorcycle accident in 2013. “I guess we make up for the flags — flowers making up for the flags.”
Henry Estorga, 41, was there for his Army “brother in arms,” Staff Sgt. David Torres, a Hawaii-based soldier who died in September. Both deployed out of Scho- field Barracks in Hawaii’s first big mission to Iraq in 2004.
“He kind of took me in, showed me the ropes when I first got assigned” to Scho- field, Estorga said.
Staff at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific — Punchbowl’s official name — had placed large U.S. flags on Puowaina Drive and along roads within the cemetery.
“It was nice to see because we had heard the same thing, that there was going to be no hoopla, no flags, the Boy Scouts weren’t going to be here, nothing,” said Brian Langstaff. “So it was nice that when we came up Puowaina, that you see the flags flying.”
Punchbowl is the final resting place for more than 55,000 veterans and their dependents. Langstaff came with his wife, Rene, to remember her father, Army Pfc. Manuel Canto, who died in 1976, and mother, Doreen.
At a Memorial Day observance in Baltimore, President Donald Trump said that in recent months the nation and the world “have been engaged in a new form of battle against an invisible enemy.”
“Once more, the men and women of the United States military have answered the call to duty and raced into danger. Tens of thousands of service members and National Guardsmen are on the front lines of our war against this terrible virus — caring for patients, delivering critical supplies and working night and day to safeguard our citizens,” he said.
Trump added that as “our brave warriors have shown us from our nation’s earliest days, in America we are the captains of our own fate. No obstacle, no challenge and no threat is a match for the sheer determination of the American people.”
Annual Memorial Day observances at Punchbowl and Hawaii State Veterans Cemetery were canceled due to COVID-19 and social distancing constraints.
But individual and some group efforts carried on at Punchbowl. The Pyramid Rock Young Marines out of the Kaneohe Bay base placed single roses of varying colors on the graves of 1,250 mostly World War II veterans in the center section of Punchbowl.
John DiGiovanni, unit commander for the age-8-through-high-school group that follows the Marine Corps ethos of honor, courage and commitment, and also emphasizes a drug-free lifestyle and citizenship, said five families each placed 250 roses at differing times to maintain social distancing.
Huynh said her husband retired from the Navy after 21 years of service. He had emigrated from Vietnam in 1987 and joined the Navy at about the same time, eventually becoming a U.S. citizen, she said.
He started out as a boiler technician and retired as a master at arms with the military police.
“He was proud to be a service member in the U.S. Navy,” she said.
Estorga, who was visiting Torres’ grave with his wife and two kids, said the Scho-field soldiers he served with got back from Iraq, and the battalion went its separate ways. But “me and David kind of kept in touch,” he said.
They linked up again at another duty station on the mainland, but in between stayed in contact with phone calls and occasional barbecues.
Torres was set to move to Fort Lewis, Wash., when he died.
“It’s not really known what happened to him,” Estorga said, adding it was “kind of a shocker to us. I had just talked to him a week prior. He had come over to the house.”
“It’s kinda hard,” he added solemnly. “He was one of my close buddies.”
Torres’ grave had been decorated earlier by his family with eight small U.S. flags, two bigger ones, three vases of flowers and multiple lei. A small bottle of Patron tequila also was left.
James Ponziano, 35, who is in the Air Force, came out to Punchbowl with his wife and three kids, ages 9, 8 and 4, to give his children a bit of a Memorial Day lesson. His 8-year-old son is a Scout who would have helped place small U.S. flags and lei on the graves.
“It was important for the kids, especially with everything going on, to have the opportunity to see that it’s not a four-day weekend,” he said. “There’s a purpose behind this. So by bringing them out, even though the Scouts couldn’t do their thing, it’s important to remember what this weekend is really about.”