Hundreds of people gathered Monday at the West Hawaii Veterans Cemetery in North Kona, where they paid tribute to Americans who have given selfless service to our country in times of war and peace.
During the annual Veterans Day service, veterans of all eras were recognized with regalia, patriotic pomp and circumstance and genuine gratitude. Special attention was given this year to the more than 80,000 American service members who are prisoners of war or missing in action.
“The families of those still missing from past American wars have wounds that are slow to heal. For them, there were no joyous reunions, not even the solace of certainty of a flag-draped casket and the solemn sound of taps,” said Disabled American Veterans Kona Chapter 7 Adjutant Richard Highley. “There have been no graves to visit and no peace from the gnawing questions that last a lifetime. For them, there has been only the long, and sometimes, fruitless search for answers. To them, the term, POW/MIA, is not merely an issue or a symbolic figure on a black and white flag. It is a brother, a husband, a father or a son, a sister, a wife, a mother or a daughter.”
Now these families and the public will have an official place at the cemetery to remember and reflect on these service members. During Monday’s service, Kahu Danny Akaka Jr. performed a blessing and dignitaries broke ground for the POW/MIA Memorial Garden.
Located in the scattering garden, the memorial will have a water feature, benches and a bronze plaque with the national POW/MIA symbol. It was spearheaded by Awapuhi Huihui-Graffe and Paul Graffe in honor of those who protected and continue to serve our country. Among them is Graffe’s father, an Army captain of 225th Aviation Co., 223rd Aviation Battalion, 17th Aviation Group, 1st Brigade, who departed from a South Vietnam airfield for an infrared surveillance mission in 1969. His aircraft never returned.
The effort was propelled by the community and various veterans organizations, as well as county, state and federal agencies. Individuals, groups and businesses donated roughly $7,000 toward the $22,000 project. The remaining money is slated to come from North Kona Councilwoman Karen Eoff’s district contingency fund and is expected to be received by year’s end.
The memorial will serve as a visible reminder that not everyone is home and no one is forgotten.
Among the flowers and lei placed at the site were the boots from David Dukevares, a Kona resident and former Marine. Wanting to give back to those who made the ultimate sacrifice, Dukevares donated his footwear, worn last in Afghanistan, for the display, Huihui-Graffe said.
During his remarks about those service members still unaccounted for, Highley stressed remembrance.
“As a group, they appear in our memory — somewhere on a stone or a flag. But for the families of those missing, they are remembered every day,” he said. “They are remembered in what they meant to family members, what was lost, and the lack of a final resting place.”
Highley also spoke about how the imprisoned must resist their captors while not giving in to self-pity or despair. Besides courage and camaraderie, he said prisoners of war possess “pride, dignity, an enduring sense of self-worth,” as well as “that inexplicable mixture of conscience and self-determination called personal honor.”
Nearly 70 years ago, keynote speaker Wesley Wells of Kailua-Kona was a ball turret gunner with the 379th Bombardment Group, 526th Bomb Squadron, 8th Air Force, when his last mission proved not to be the milk run he’d hoped for.
His crew was tasked with bombing a viaduct at Arnesberg, Germany, from 25,000 feet elevation with 1,000-pound bombs. Shortly before reaching the bomb site, the plane lost an engine and the pilot consulted the crew whether to abort or go on. Wells said everyone wanted to continue. More problems occurred and the plane left formation to make a forced landing.
The plane crashed and his crew was greeted by members of the German air force, firing rifles and burp guns over their heads. The crew surrendered, becoming prisoners of war. Wells survived interrogations, solitary confinement, and Adolf Hitler’s orders to kill Allied prisoners, to be liberated April 29, 1945.
Remarks were also given by Akaka Jr.; Eoff; Jay King, former Marine Corps infantry sergeant and Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard’s congressional liaison; Gov. Neil Abercrombie via his West Hawaii representative Barbara Dalton; Barbara Lewis of Kona Beth Shalom; and Disabled American Veterans Kona Chapter 7 Commander Adrian Yurong.