It’s first thing in the morning, and there are no visitors but us to the sweeping United States National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific. Half a dozen groundsmen with weed-trimmers move slowly between the concrete headstones laid flush in the ground.
If you stood at ground level, you might not at first realise there were thousands and thousands of graves here; nothing rises above the top of the trimmed grass blades, except in the distance.
There, the sides of the cemetery curve up like the rim of a bowl, and it is there that the more recent graves lie, the odd one honoured by two or three long-stemmed red flowers in a vase.
Not many though: most of the young men and women who lie in these graves died in the Pacific, far from their homes in the midwest or on the eastern seaboard of the mainland USA. If any family still remember them, they visit rarely or not at all.
This cemetery for the American war dead is beautiful and austere. It is a far cry from how we in the Cook Islands remember our dead, and keep them close.
But make no mistake: the Americans respect their dead just as much as Cook Islanders do. Just in a different way.
Late last year the New Zealand Chief of Defence announced that six Cook Islands army privates would be added to the New Zealand Roll of Honour, and their graves on Rarotonga, Atiu and Aitutaki restored and maintained as Commonwealth War Graves.
This recognition of Privates Nga Naeiti, Taria Tearii, Rangi Tiaure, Mareto Tima, Banaba Tipe and Terongo Tuakeo has caused us to consider how we remember our war dead, and indeed, all our loved ones.
They join 26 other Cook Islands World War 1 dead who lie in graves around the world: Belgium, France, Israel, Egypt, England, Australia and New Zealand. Many more returned home to die in the years after the war, physically and emotionally scarred by what they saw in battle.
The recovery and restoration of the Nikao war cemetery, which was overgrown and crumbling into the lagoon, has been a defining change.
One by one, with the help of a dedicated group of researchers led by Paula Paniani, Cate Walker and Bobby Nicholas, graves have been found and identified and restored; loved ones have once more been able to gather round the last resting places of grandfathers and grand-uncles, to laugh and cry and talk and lovingly lay flowers.
This has meant a great deal to families like the descendants of World War One veteran, husband and father Polinahe Alapai. His grave had been lost, like many graves in the Nikao cemetery, as a result of years of erosion caused by storms and wave action.
After members of the Nikao cemetery restoration team discovered a piece of a headstone with the words “aged 50” written on it, Apapai’s granddaughter Dr Neti Herman, asked the New Zealand Ministry of Defence if they could help find out whose grave it was from.
With only the broken piece of headstone to go by, they were able to use old records and verify that the grave was in fact his.
Herman said Alapai served in the war, described at the time as “the war to end all wars”, as part of the third Rarotongan contingent for four years from 1914. He died in 1946 at the age of 50.
Alapai’s headstone was unveiled in 2018. Opening the ceremony, Reverend Tuaine Ngametua (a descendant of Alapai) said finding the grave site was special because it was somewhere for his children and their children to come back to and remember their grandfather and great-grandfather.
Four generations of his family from Rarotonga, Australia, New Zealand and Hawai’i were present for the colourful unveiling. They prayed, and played ukuleles and sung. “This is a milestone in our life,” said great-grandson Temu Okotai. “Our children can see where they come from.”
In Hawai’i, Western and Polynesian traditions in remembering the dead lie alongside each other, sometimes uncomfortably.
There was great discomfort among native Hawai’ians, when Government and Defence announced plans to build a cemetery in the 100,000-year-old Punchbowl volcanic crater,
The crater is known in the native language as Puowaina, or the Hill of Sacrifice. It was used as an altar where Hawaiians offered human sacrifices to their gods and killed violators of the many taboos. Later, during the reign of Kamehameha the Great, a battery of two cannons was mounted at the rim of the crater to salute distinguished arrivals and signify important occasions.
In the 1930s, the crater was used as a rifle range for the Hawaii National Guard, then, nearing the end of World War II, tunnels were dug through the rim of the crater for the placement of shore batteries to guard Honolulu Harbor and the south edge of Pearl Harbor.
When Puowaina was first proposed as a cemetery, in the 1890s, the plan had been rejected for fear of polluting the water supply and the emotional aversion to creating “a city of the dead above a city of the living”.
But in 1943, the governor of Hawaii offered the Punchbowl for a national cemetery. And in 1948, with Congress and veterans’ organisations placed pressure on the military to find a permanent burial site for the remains of thousands of World War II servicemen on the island of Guam, construction began at Punchbowl.
More than 53,000 war dead are interred at Punchbowl. Over past decades, unknown remains have been progressively identified, enabling them to be reinterred closer to their families’ homes on mainland USA – and also opening up space for the burial of more recent war dead.
The United States has established an agency, part of the military, to bring home the nation’s war dead from World War II, Vietnam, Korea, from battlefields around the world. There were 111,606 US Army ground troops dead or missing in the Pacific and southeast Asia in World War II, with another 253,142 wounded.
The Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency uses soaring language to describe its task: “a sacred mission, a moral imperative”. Both the rhetoric and the very imperative sound unfamiliar to our ears: few other people place so much emphasis on returning their war dead to their homeland. The countries of the British Commonwealth, instead, honour their dead in cemeteries where they fell in Europe, South-East Asia and the Pacific.
But while the ways we remember our dead may differ, the importance we place on holding them close is very similar.
Talking with the Agency’s director, retired Major-General Kelly McKeague, the big, tanned 34-year air force veteran starts to tear up as he talks about identifying and reuniting soldiers’ bodies with their families.
On May 19, 1967, Colonel Roy Knight was shot down during a strike mission on the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Laos. The Air Force initially listed him as missing in action, then in 1974 declared him dead.
Last year, the Agency’s scientists used a dental analysis to identify Colonel Knight’s remains this year. Knight’s son Bryan had been just five years old when he said goodbye to his father for the last time, at Love Air Field in Dallas, Texas.
Fifty-two years later, Bryan Knight – who had followed his dad’s footsteps into aviation – piloted a Southwest Airlines flight to bring back the remains of his father to the same airport where he had bade him farewell.
“These missions evoke a lot of visceral responses,” McKeague admits. And there’s a slight tremble in his voice.
The thing is, though a big cemetery like Punchbowl may seem austere, that’s because to a certain extent it isn’t the final resting place for some who are laid there. Just like Cook Islanders, the families of these Americans want to bring them home.
Once an unknown soldier is disinterred from Punchbowl, to begin the forensic and historical research needed to identify him, the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency will not rest. They will not give up and reinter him again as an “unknown”. They will keep working to identify him.
When this happens, most families will choose to reinter their rediscovered father or uncle or brother in a grave close to their home – usually on mainland USA.
Which is much like what is done here in Cook Islands. It’s part of our Maori custom, says Paula Paniani.
“Over here in the Cook Islands we have our own family or tribal land that we can bury loved ones,” she says. “Both my grandparents are buried on our family land right close to the family house.
“There are also the reserved cemeteries. The rest of our family is buried on our tribal land cemetery site.
“We the generation of today learn from our elders. It is passed from one generation to another generation.”
She says having the chance to remember one’s loved ones, close to home, is “just beautiful”.
“It’s all from your heart.”
Jonathan Milne travelled to Hawai’i as a guest of the US State Department.