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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Saturday, July 13, 2002

Gold Star Wives honor lost veterans

By William Cole
Advertiser Military Writer

Ellen Blissenbach got off the bus at Punchbowl and made a beeline to the memorial for U.S. Army soldiers missing from the Korean War.

Secretary of Veterans Affairs Anthony Principi lays a wreath at the National Memorial Cemetery at Punchbowl. The cemetery's director, Gene Castagnetti, stands behind with the president of the Gold Star Wives, Aseneth Blackwell.

Bruce Asato • The Honolulu Advertiser

"I was 2 1/2 months pregnant when he left Fort Lewis on June 27, 1950," the Madison, Wis., resident and Gold Star Wives member said, looking up at her husband's name etched into the white wall.

Sgt. 1st Class Joseph August Blissenbach, who was with the 38th Field Artillery Battery, 2nd Division, was captured in Kun Ri in North Korea and died in 1951 as a prisoner of war at Camp 5 in Pachon.

He was suffering from pneumonia and dysentery at the time. His wife received a "missing in action" telegram Christmas Eve, 1950. His body is still there.

"I'm going on July 26 for a briefing in Washington, D.C. (on recovery efforts)," Blissenbach said. "I've gotten some closure so far, but not a complete closure. My prayer is that I can get his body back from North Korea before I go — because at 75, who knows. I'd like to have him buried at Arlington National Cemetery."

The group of more than 75 Gold Star Wives who lost a husband in war, while on active duty, or to service-related disabilities placed a wreath yesterday for those already laid to rest at cemeteries such as the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific at Punchbowl and in memory of missing soldiers like Sgt. 1st Class Blissenbach.

U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Anthony J. Principi, who will be the keynote speaker tonight at the Gold Star Wives' 57th annual convention being held this year at the Ala Moana Hotel, said he was "deeply honored and very, very humbled" to be with the group.

Principi also placed a wreath at the Dedicatory Stone near the steps of Punchbowl during the service that included a 21-gun salute and taps.

"I'm reminded of the enormous sacrifices men and women here made to save the world, and the sacrifices of those who remain behind," Principi said.

Principi yesterday said that ensuring the nation has enough national burial space for veterans "is a continuing challenge," and that many national cemeteries are almost at capacity, although five new cemeteries are in the planning stages.

More than 1,000 World War II veterans die each month, and veterans from the Korean and Vietnam wars are aging, creating an increasing need for burial space.

Pauline Bartsch, left, and daughter Carolyn visit the final resting place of famed World War II correspondent Ernie Pyle.

Bruce Asato • The Honolulu Advertiser

Principi said veterans affairs has a "very, very aggressive" program to partner with state veterans cemetery programs. The opening of Hawai'i State Veterans Cemetery in Kane'ohe in 1991, which has space for 65,000 veterans, coincided with the closing of Punchbowl for casketed burials.

But Punchbowl is expanding its columbarium space for interred ashes. Cemetery director Gene Castagnetti said the five "courts" with space for the remains of 5,000 veterans in 10-by-14-by-18-inch spaces will be expanded by another 4,160 inurnment niches.

Construction on the $1.5 million project, planned for several years, is expected to begin Oct. 1.

"We'll be able to move fast-track with prefabricated niches, so we'll be able to start burying before the completion date in December of 2003," Castagnetti said.

"I know that's of great concern to the veterans and their families here in Hawai'i — that we have adequate interment space at this national shrine," Principi said.

Castagnetti said about seven months is left before the existing columbarium is full at the current rate of about 36 cremated interments per month.

"When we finish in court number five, we'll be able to do interments in the next court," said cemetery spokesman Jim Messner. "This is going to enable us to provide interment for veterans and their spouses for at least another 10 to 12 years."

Principi also said that Veterans Affairs wants to ensure the aging veteran population has access to VA healthcare systems, and hundreds of outpatient clinics have been opened in recent years.

But Principi noted concern with Veterans Benefits Administration.

"We have an enormous backlog of claims for disability compensation and pensions, and it's taking much too long to decide those claims," Principi said.

At President Bush's request, Principi said he's "declared war" on the backlog, and created a "Tiger Team" to deal with the claims of veterans over 70 who have been waiting more than a year to have their claims decided.

Reach William Cole at wcole@honoluluadvertiser.com or 525-5459.