Honorable Few – Capt. J.J. Harris

Marine Corps League Detachment #1302

How did over 100 military gravestones end up at a house in Hawaii?

A Palolo resident found over 100 grave markers at her house that seem to be from the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific, also known as Punchbowl, but nobody seems to know how they got there.

The grave markers memorialize soldiers who served in conflicts such as World War I and the Vietnam War, as well as their spouses and minor children.

Homeowner Yujing Shentu’s father discovered them while doing yard work in 2019. She said they were flipped over and being used as stepping stones at the time, and that her parents called her down when they saw the names engraved on the other side.

“This is definitely not common stepping stone,” she remembers her parents telling her.

Grave markers in Shentu’s yard memorialize people such as Thomas J. Scully, who died at the age of 25 just days before World War II ended in the Pacific; Rear Adm. Fred Wallace Connor, who served in both world wars and died in 1963; Henry Cobb, who was born in 1901 and died at 53; and Georgina Freitas, who died in 1956 at the age of 60.

Nobody knows how or when the grave markers got there. In at least some cases, the ones in Shentu’s yard appear to be duplicates.

The Department of Veterans Affairs did not oversee the cemetery when these markers were made, Punchbowl spokesperson Gene Maestas said. He added that this is the only instance of misplaced grave markers of which he’s aware.

Possible duplicates

Shentu said that they discovered the markers around late April 2019. Within a couple months, she had contacted the cemetery and staff came to her house to retrieve about 56 of the markers. About 60 markers remain, according to Punchbowl cemetery director Jim Horton in an emailed response.

Many of the remaining grave markers are difficult to remove. They’re visible underneath the property’s concrete driveway and even as part of the house’s foundation. Engineers are working to figure out how to most effectively proceed, Horton wrote.

“This process has taken longer than expected due to the complexity of the situation and delays caused by Covid but is moving forward,” he wrote.

Horton confirmed that the grave markers in Palolo were either meant to be temporary or were replaced by other grave markers at Punchbowl.

The National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific — often called Punchbowl, after the crater it resides in — opened in 1949 amid a vast need for cemetery space following the end of World War II.

Tens of thousands of people are buried there. Among them are former U.S. Sen. Daniel K. Inouye, former Gov. John A. Burns and Norman Keith Collins, the tattoo artist better known as “Sailor Jerry” who helped popularize nautical designs like ships and sharks from his shop in 1930s Honolulu.

The U.S. Army oversaw Punchbowl until 1973, when Congress created the National Cemetery Administration within the Department of Veterans Affairs. The grave markers at Shentu’s house appear to be from when the Army was still in charge, Maestas said.

Punchbowl officials aren’t sure how the grave markers made their way to Palolo. The markers in Palolo seem to be duplicates of markers that are already at Punchbowl.

This could be because of a typo engraved into the stone or because the deceased person received an updated grave marker. If a spouse dies later and is buried with the deceased, the original grave marker will be replaced by one that says both of their names, Maestas said.

These original grave markers are in Shentu’s yard.

For example, Connor’s last name is spelled wrong on his grave marker in Palolo. But his name is spelled correctly on a grave marker at Punchbowl, and that updated one includes his wife Geralde Smith, too.

Similarly, Oscar Joseph Peltier’s grave marker in Palolo is broken in half. But an intact one that includes his wife Josephine can be found at Punchbowl.

That still doesn’t explain how the grave markers ended up in Palolo. Under current policy, grave markers set for disposal are supposed to be crushed beyond recognition, Horton wrote.

He said that the markers Punchbowl retrieved in 2019 were properly disposed, and that corresponding permanent grave markers have been in place for a long time at the cemetery.

The house’s previous owner said that she noticed the grave markers after moving there in the mid-1990s but didn’t think much of them at the time.

“I’m a Hawaiian. I’m not going to dig up something,” Faith Martin said. “If it’s there it’s there. And I see nothing wrong with it. We didn’t see nothing wrong with it. It never bothered us at all.”

The house’s current owner was more concerned.

“There’s a soul in every stone … we need to treat this with respect,” Shentu said.

She earned a Ph.D. in political science from the University of Hawaii in 2019, and said that she hopes the grave markers can be a reminder to think about the legacy of war and the importance of peace.

“I just feel this is very meaningful,” she said.

This story was originally published by Honolulu Civil Beat and distributed through a partnership with The Associated Press.