HONOLULU — For more than two decades, word was that the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific at Punchbowl was at capacity for in-ground burials.
The grand veterans cemetery atop an extinct volcanic cinder cone was established in 1949 and contains 29,342 grave sites for burial of caskets, 3,994 for in-ground cremated remains and 11,380 spaces in columbarium walls for inurnment of cremated remains, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs, which oversees Punchbowl.
But the reality is, Punchbowl has 99 open in-ground grave sites — information never shared by the VA with local veterans service organizations such as the Veterans of Foreign Wars, American Legion or the 100th Infantry Battalion and 442nd veterans clubs, officials said.
Those organizations could have spread the word to their members around the nation that some Punchbowl graves were open, officials said.
The graves have become available through the ongoing disinterment and identification of Korean War "unknowns," families relinquishing plots and the removal of dead trees on the cemetery's grounds, which has freed up burial space.
"We are puzzled and disturbed that these casketed gravesites were not made known to us," said William Thompson, president of the 442nd Veterans Club, in a Dec. 31 letter to Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki.
The veterans group said it had no idea, until recently, that the grave sites were open.
Thompson added that it "seems that such information has been deliberately withheld from us and other veteran organizations" by the VA and that former cemetery Director Gene Castagnetti, who retired Sept. 30, was prevented by higher-ups from disseminating news of the graves' availability.
"I am certain that the families of recent veterans of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team who have died would have chosen one of these open casketed gravesites had they known of this," Thompson, 89, said in the letter.
Castagnetti declined to comment on the situation.
The 100th Infantry Battalion and 442nd Regimental Combat Team of mostly Japanese-Americans, many from Hawaii, became the most decorated units for their size in Army history in World War II for valor at a time when the nation questioned their loyalties.
Most of the surviving nisei veterans, some of whom live on the mainland, are in their upper 80s and 90s.
Brad Phillips, West Coast director of the VA's National Cemetery Administration, said word of the grave openings was passed to Oahu funeral homes over the summer but to no one else.
"Our thought was that broader communication in the (veterans) community would have led to a misperception that the cemetery was open to all burials — which wasn't in fact the case," Phillips said.
What is generally known to still be available at Punchbowl are "niches" for cremated remains.
"At the time, also, we felt that the local demand for the grave sites would quickly overcome the available sites," Phillips said by phone from California.
That thought was bolstered, he said, by a smaller number of in-ground grave sites — 52 — that were available in May.
Phillips also said the notification to funeral directors was more than the VA had done in the past.
There was no rush to secure open grave sites — perhaps because the veterans groups didn't know about them — and as the number of available graves has grown, so has the controversy.
"We ask that you take immediate and firm steps to correct the present situation," Thompson said in his letter to Shinseki. "A hallowed ground such as the (National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific) should not operate in secrecy or become someone's personal domain."
U.S. Sen. Mazie Hirono and U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, two of Hawaii's congressional delegation members, were informed and also started asking questions.
"Punchbowl serves as a memorial to honor those men and women who serve in the United States Armed Forces, and those who have given their lives in doing so," Hirono said in a statement. "If more gravesites are made available, people should be aware."
She said her office has urged the National Cemetery Administration to advertise the availability of in-ground sites "more broadly, and in the coming weeks, we hope to coordinate with the NCA to help share this information."
Gabbard, an Iraq War veteran, sent a letter dated Friday to Joan Mooney, assistant secretary for congressional and legislative affairs with the VA, in which she noted the concerns being raised and asked the agency to conduct a review of the process used to select veterans for burial at Punchbowl.
Gabbard also asked for additional information, including the guidance used by the National Cemetery Administration to determine the number of in-ground sites reserved at Punchbowl for active-duty service members killed in action.
Phillips said Friday the VA is reviewing the in-ground graves issue.
"We are working with the congressional delegation on perhaps expanding our outreach, and we should be completed with that soon, with possibly a new outreach strategy for the Punchbowl," Phillips said. "I'm not sure what the strategy will be."
Several years ago, when the Iraq and Afghanistan wars were at their height, casualties from those conflicts occasionally received in-ground casketed burials at Punchbowl using the handful of graves that became available as a result of efforts by the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command to identify Korean War veterans buried as "unknowns" at the cemetery.
Those identified individuals often were reburied by families in their hometowns.
JPAC, as it's known, has stepped up those efforts and now exhumes between four and eight sets of Korean War remains a month from Punchbowl, an official said.
The military command, based at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, would like to exhume and identify more than 330 crew members who died on the battleship USS Oklahoma on Dec. 7, 1941, and are also buried as unknowns.
Of the 99 in-ground graves that are now available, 63 would accommodate a full-casket burial, Phillips said. The remaining 36 represent 3-by-3-foot plots for cremated remains, he said.
Phillips confirmed that approval for use of the in-ground sites has to come through him or the National Cemetery Administration's central office — rather than from Punchbowl's director. But he said there is no "special consideration" given to Iraq or Afghanistan veterans.
Special burial accommodations are made for service members killed in action, however.
"It is our policy to provide a burial site for all of the soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines who were killed in action at the cemetery of their choice — even if it's a closed (to additional burials) cemetery," he said. "These members have given their last measure of devotion, and they deserve this honor."
The 442nd's Thompson volunteered for duty when Americans of Japanese ancestry were no longer classified as "enemy aliens" in 1943, and saw action in 1944 and 1945, when the war ended in Italy. He said many veterans would prefer burial rather than inurnment at Punchbowl.
"It was our understanding for a long time that only inurnment sites are available, with special burial sites available only to special distinguished military personnel," the Honolulu man said.
Added Thompson, "These open grave or burial sites should be available on a first-come basis to all veterans with no special favors to veterans of the different wars."