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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Friday, May 27, 2005

All Hawai'i helps honor the fallen

By Will Hoover
Advertiser Staff Writer

Let 2 million blossoms bloom.

Anthony Brown, a Hawaii Job Corps landscaping-trades student, plucks plumeria blossoms at the Koko Crater Botanical Garden yesterday. The plumeria, strung into lei, will decorate the gravemarkers at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific for Memorial Day. It's a tradition dating back more than half a century, originally begun to honor soldiers who served in World War II.

Bruce Asato • The Honolulu Advertiser

Esther Crandall of the Platinum Seniors (a senior citizens' club) and city parks worker Clint Jamile (whose hands and feet are showing at right) also collected plumeria blossoms in Koko Crater yesterday for grave lei.

Bruce Asato • The Honolulu Advertiser

In less than half a week, millions of fresh flowers are collected from all across the state, carefully crated and shipped to Honolulu, and sewn into tens of thousands of Hawai'i's beloved flower necklaces.

To pull it off requires near perfect timing and the coordinated services of hundreds of school kids, educators, senior citizens, and everyday folk from more than two dozen government agencies and private organizations.

It could be the largest volunteer lei-making operation ever undertaken. And it happens every year for the Memorial Day service at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific at Punchbowl.

"We need 50,000 lei," said Chris Sabolsky, a city Parks and Recreation Department superintendent who coordinates the annual effort. "There are 40 flowers in a lei. That comes to 2 million blossoms.

"It's a huge operation, when you think a child in school in Kona, for example, will pick the flowers and then make the lei and take it to their school, and the school in turn gets it to the veterans coordinator on the island, and then they ship it to Aloha Air Cargo, which ships it free to us."

In a tradition dating back to May 29, 1950, scouts then put the thousands of lei on the graves at Punchbowl prior to the May 30 service.

"As far as I know, we are the only national cemetery, of the 120 across the land, that places floral tributes in the form of leis on every grave," said Punchbowl cemetery director Gene Castagnetti.

"The other national cemeteries place flags. And they let the flower tribute be something that only the next of kin do. We have a system where we're going to put leis on the 2,922 unknown graves where there are no next of kin.

"This way, every grave is decorated."

Today, most of the Honolulu lei should be collected and delivered to Punchbowl, said city employee Roger Watanabe, who coordinates the lei pick-up points on O'ahu.


The city parks department will accept fresh flower lei or ti leaf lei tomorrow from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. at the office of the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific and Sunday from 8 a.m. to noon outside the cemetery's main entrance. Lei should be 20 to 24 inches before tying, and tied. Floral sprays also are welcome.

Lei can also be dropped off at the following locations today.

Community parks, drop-off 9 to 11:30 a.m.:

• Ala Wai Community Park

• Halawa District Park

• Makua Ali'i Senior Center, 1541 Kalakaua Ave.

• Wai'anae District Park

• Wahiawa District Park

• Waiau District Park

• Waipahu District Park

• Kane'ohe Community and Senior Center

• Waikiki Community Center

Fire stations, drop-off 6 a.m. to noon: Kalihi, Waipahu, Waialua, Kane'ohe, Kailua, Waimanalo, Hawai'i Kai City parks department

Permit Section, drop-off 8 a.m. to noon, ground floor of Honolulu Municipal Building, 650 S. King St.

"And then the Neighbor Island leis start coming in" he said. "So, by Saturday most of the leis are already made and in the refrigerator containers."

Sometime tomorrow, the O'ahu Civil Defense agency will take the last of the lei to Punchbowl, just in time for them to be put on the graves the following day, Watanabe said.

"The leis and flags are placed on the graves by Explorer Scouts, Boy Scouts and Cub Scouts," said Joseph Vierra, coordinator of the lei placement effort sponsored by the Aloha Council of the Boy Scouts of America.

The Girl Scouts of Hawai'i are always there, too, he said. In all, some 2,500 Scouts will place the flowers on some 35,000 graves at Punchbowl Sunday.

"And we have in excess of 45,000 interments in those graves," Castagnetti said. "In other words, you've got more than one set of remains in some of them."

The Punchbowl cemetery was dedicated on Sept. 2, 1949. The following year, Oren E. Long, secretary of the Territory of Hawai'i, suggested that a fitting Memorial Day gesture honoring the men who died in World War II would be to put a lei on each of the 12,500 graves in the cemetery at the time.

But could such a huge number of fresh lei actually be made and delivered on short notice? Long put out the call. Island schoolchildren and helping parents were asked to make and contribute floral lei two days before Memorial Day.

The military promised to transport the finished products to the cemetery by Monday, May 29. It did. But what it delivered was three times what Long had asked for. Late that afternoon, 200 Boy Scouts placed three to four lei on every white wooden cross in Punchbowl.

The Memorial Day lei tradition had begun.

"For 56 years there has been a Mayor's Memorial Day Ceremony at Punchbowl," Sabolsky said.

And this year, as ever, a flower lei — the symbol of aloha — will adorn every marker.

Reach Will Hoover at 525-8038 or at whoover@honoluluadvertiser.com.