Punchbowl Grave Dedication

PB dedication 1953

J. T. Hunt, father of Sgt Quince A. Hunt, USMC, at grave site with Gen. J. W. O’Daniel, Admiral S. S. Murray, Gen. F. A. Hart standing. 10/21/1953

On October 21, 1953, a memorial ceremony was held at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific at Punchbowl in Honolulu to mark the mass burial of 178 Americans killed on Wake Island in World War II. Fourteen marine survivors attended, as well as some family members of the deceased and officials and dignitaries. An actual recording of the Wake mass grave dedication ceremony has recently become available at the AFRTS Archive website. See end of this post for more information on the recording.

The late morning sun bore down on the attendees, unshaded by the magnificent banyan trees that now line the drives and dot the grounds. Newspaper photographs show the stark landscape of the new cemetery in the crater above Honolulu which had opened to interment of the war dead in 1949. The four-ton, ten-by-six foot granite slab covering the Wake grave was so large that it had to be been lowered into place by “resting it on ice blocks which allowed it to settle as they melted.” Below the plaque lay the collective remains of the Wake dead.

The grave dedication ceremony opened as a contingent of marines and bluejackets carried an American flag to the grave site, escorted by two companies of marines as the Marine Barracks band and drum and bugle team rendered a funeral march. At the grave, three chaplains representing Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish faiths offered committal statements and prayers in turn. A firing squad from the escort contingent then fired three volleys, after which a Marine bugler played Taps. Lieutenant General Franklin A. Hart, Pacific commander of the Fleet Marine Force, accepted the folded flag for the USMC and delivered a message from the leader of Wake’s defenses, Congressman James P. Devereux, who was unable to attend. The solemn ceremony closed and family members approached the grave to touch the raised names of their loved ones. Most families were unable to attend at the time, though many have paid their respects at the site in the decades since.

The engraved plaque overlaying the mass grave contains the names of 178 Americans killed on Wake Island, including 47 military and 131 civilian names. Forty-eight servicemen actually died in the siege and battle of Wake Island, including Captain Henry T. Elrod and Lt. Carl Davidson. Elrod’s remains were among the very few Wake casualties to be identified after the war: the Medal of Honor recipient is buried in Arlington National Cemetery. Lieutenant Davidson’s plane was lost at sea in one of the final air battles over Wake, and he is officially listed as MIA. The addition of PFC Alexander Venable, who died on Wake in early January 1942 (after capture) of his injuries, accounts for the final number on the plaque. The Wake defenders honored at the Punchbowl site include three USN and forty-four USMC personnel.

As I discussed in a January 2013 post, Honor in Death, the 131 civilian names on the Punchbowl plaque include all of the names of the 98 who were killed by their captors on Wake in 1943 and 33 others. Of the 34 American civilians who died during the siege and battle of Wake Island, 32 are listed on the plaque: two others, George F. Gibbons and Ralph Higdon, were positively identified after the war and are interred in individual graves elsewhere in Punchbowl cemetery (as is William Miles who died of natural causes in captivity on Wake in July 1942). The name of Julius Hofmeister, executed on Wake in May 1942, brings the total to 131.

John Miller, [my error: not the John Miller who was a member of the 2013 Wake Island DXpedition team and webmaster of the K9W website], recently acquired a recording of the mass grave dedication service at Punchbowl in 1953. The record was in its original shipping package showing that it was sent to Mr. and Mrs. Silas Marshall of Pueblo, CO. The Marshalls were the parents of PFC Gordon Lee Marshall who was killed in the Battle of Wake Island on December 23, 1941. (Presumably the recording was also sent to other families of the deceased, although this is the first I have heard of it. The record bears the imprint of the United States Marine Corps, which suggests that copies may have been sent to families of the Marine casualties, but not to the civilian families. This record was found at a garage sale some years ago and recently purchased online by Miller.) We confirmed that it is a true recording of the Punchbowl service by comparing it to content and quotations found in contemporary news accounts of the event.

The Armed Forces Radio and Television Service (AFRTS) Archive created a digital copy of this recording and here is the link again: AFRTS Archive. Click on the link at the words Wake Island ceremony – 1953 just below the photograph of the original record to hear the full ceremony. The recording is about twenty-six minutes long, including the introduction and explanation of events by on-site U. S. Army reporter Lt. Edward Fernandez.

We are grateful to John Miller and Thomas Whetston for bringing this recording to light. Listening to this scratchy but deeply moving tribute, we too are there to honor the Americans who lost their lives on Wake Island.