Beyond the Beaches: Serenity and History in Hawaii

Posted By Mike Padgett

May 30, 2011

HONOLULU – The history of Hawaiian royalty and a U.S. military cemetery in an ancient crater overlooking Honolulu grabbed our attention. For us, they were unexpected discoveries.

We arrived too late to visit the USS Arizona Memorial. The parking lot was packed, and this was our last opportunity this trip. Bummer. So we shifted to another plan.

We drove to ‘Iolani Palace on King Street in downtown Honolulu. Built in the 1880s, the Palace was the home of the Hawaiian royal family. It also is the only official residence of royalty in the United States. The Hawaiian monarchy existed from 1796 to 1893. In 1898, the Republic of Hawaii was annexed by the United States. Hawaii became the 50th state in 1959.

The regal ‘Iolani Palace is a substantial building with high ceilings and deep verandas. © Photo copyright by Mike Padgett

Etched glass and sheet glass for doors and windows and cast iron columns for the veranda arrived from San Francisco. A quarry in Pennsylvania provided slate for the roof.

Plumbing designs for the building were lavish, according to a booklet sold in the gift shop. The second floor had four bathrooms. King Kalakaua’s “copper-lined bathtub was 7 feet long, 2 feet wide and 2 feet deep,” according to the booklet, “’Iolani Palace.”

Visitors carry audio wands on self-guided tours of the palace. To protect the wood floors, visitors must wear cloth booties over their shoes. Photographs of the palace interior are forbidden. For interior photos and more history about the palace, visit

Serenity landscaped

We also visited the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific. The 112-acre cemetery occupies a volcanic crater formed about 100,000 years ago. It was designed as a burial site for the remains of thousands of soldiers who died in the Pacific Theater in World War II.

Each year, more than five million visitors stop by the serene National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific, making it one of Oahu’s most popular attractions. © Photo copyright by Mike Padgett

The afternoon we parked to pay our respects, there weren’t many other visitors. Which gave us more time and space to wander and wonder at the peace and the beauty created in the wake of mind-numbing brutality.

Cemetery opened in 1949

The cemetery has records for 35,224 interments. According to the Department of Veterans Affairs website, the first interment was on Jan. 4, 1949. Six months later, “the cemetery opened to the public on July 19, 1949, with services for five war dead: an unknown serviceman, two Marines, an Army lieutenant and one civilian – noted war correspondent Ernie Pyle.”

The cemetery’s landscaping is meticulous. The expansive green lawn dotted with headstones is bordered and divided by ancient trees. © Photo copyright by Mike Padgett

Several months ago, the cemetery landed on my list of places to visit after I learned Pyle was buried there. Pyle was one of the original “embedded” journalists. He spent time in the trenches with soldiers across Europe and throughout the Pacific. World War II was a few years before television, and several decades before the Internet, so newspapers and radio were the only connections readers and listeners had with news about the war.

By traveling with and writing about American GIs, Pyle became one of the nation’s most popular journalists. His crisp writing, with short sentences, is easy to read. He often mentioned soldiers’ names and hometowns in his columns, making him popular with soldiers and their families.

Killed by sniper

In 1944, Ernest Taylor Pyle received a Pulitzer Prize for his war reporting. Pyle, who served in the Navy in World War I, was killed in World War II. On April 18, 1945, he was hit by a Japanese sniper’s bullet on an island off Okinawa. Pyle’s decision to return to the war front, again, after a rest at home became his tiger behind the door.

Pyle’s writing style is easy to read. He was judicious with his words. Several years ago, I visited the Albuquerque house that Pyle and his wife Jerry called home from 1940 until his death five years later. The former Pyle home has been a city branch library since the city in 1947 accepted it to be maintained as a memorial to Pyle and as the city’s first branch library.

The simple and unpretentious clapboard house with shake roof on Girard Boulevard sits on two lots. The house was designated a National Historic Landmark in 2006.

Pyle has been criticized, according to the historic register nomination of his house, “for his unwillingness to question the conduct of the war or to reveal all the horror of combat.”

However, the nomination continued, “even his critics concede that he was the most important interpreter of the war to the American public.”

By April 1943, Pyle’s columns were published in 122 newspapers with a combined circulation of nine million. Later that year, 143 papers were publishing his column. Pyle was popular because he focused on the soldiers, not politicians.

Pyle didn’t judge the correctness of the war, and he didn’t judge governments responsible for decisions that led to war. He wrote about grimy, unshaven soldiers facing death 24/7.

A clerk in the cemetery office pointed me toward the section where Pyle is buried. That part of the cemetery is under renovation.  Finding Pyle’s headstone, I found myself humbled. He was a journalist who made the ultimate sacrifice while writing about everyday Americans on the front lines living in mud, some splattered with blood.

On each side of Pyle’s headstone are others inscribed, Unknown. © Photo copyright by Mike Padgett

Next to Pyle’s headstone during our visit were a bouquet of flowers in a black plastic pot and a familiar blue-and-white Portage “Professional Reporter’s Notebook.” The notebook’s pages were rippled from the humidity.

On one page, someone had scribbled a note about Pyle’s popularity linked to his cynicism.

I couldn’t tell if the notebook was added by cemetery staff or bus tours (a charter bus stopped at the site while I was at Pyle’s headstone), if it was a prank, or if a journalist placed it there.

Standing at Pyle’s grave, and while reading the headstones as I walked in the military cemetery, I thought about my father, who died many years ago. During World War II, he spent 22 months in the Army in New Guinea. Part of that time was aboard fuel tankers dodging the enemy. He lost a brother to combat in Italy.

That’s all he shared about his war experiences. He didn’t like war movies. I was in the Air Force but I never saw combat. I have no concept of the wartime experiences of my father and the uncle I never knew.

Hawaii’s other treasures

This was our first trip to Oahu. We’d traveled to Hawaii years ago – twice to Kauai and twice to Maui, each for a week at a time. Staying in one place for a week allows plenty of time to unwind and explore a region’s more remote areas. On Kauai, we drove around the island as far as we could in each direction. The road does not go completely around Kauai because of the rugged Na Pali Coast.

On Maui, we drove the circle road around the island, along the way visiting Hana and the island’s more isolated countryside. And the drive to the top of Haleakala, at 10,023 feet, where visitors drive through the clouds to temperatures that drop to freezing after sunset, was breathtaking. Temperatures at the summit vary, depending on weather, but they typically are about 30 degrees cooler than at the beaches, according to the National Park Service. It was about 45 degrees during our visit. Pack a sweater or light jacket.

Oahu, for me, is too civilized. I’m sure it’s because of the size of Honolulu, which is the state capital, and because of the commercialization of the city. High-end retailers and rush-hour traffic on an exotic island are not for me. But in Oahu’s favor are its beaches (away from Waikiki) and the importance of the Hawaiian historic sites and the U.S. war memorials.

A friend drove us around the island of Oahu. After a lunch of steak for him and grilled mahi mahi for us, we headed east from Waikiki. We drove through some exclusive neighborhoods where many of the high-dollar homes have ocean views. The neighborhoods reminded us of California residences in La Jolla and Coronado.

We passed the Stairway to Heaven (Google that name if you want more information) and a tiny beach our friend says was used in the movie, “From Here to Eternity.”

He drove us past several more beaches as he looped around part of the island. After about an hour, we eventually entered the west side of Honolulu.

Oahu has much to offer visitors, including hotels in Waikiki on and near the beach, a variety of restaurants, and Technicolor scenery. © Photo copyright by Mike Padgett

We prefer less-populated scenery, like the ‘Iolani Palace and the National Cemetery of the Pacific. If we’d had more time, we would have checked out the North Shore, which we learned is a mellow, must-see part of the island.

One last thing: In the April/May issue of Hana Hou!, the magazine of Hawaiian Airlines, is a clever photo essay featuring dogs that ride surfboards with their masters in Hawaii. Here is the link: Enjoy.

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May 30th, 2011

One Comment to 'Beyond the Beaches: Serenity and History in Hawaii'

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  1. Carol Romley said,

    Hi Mike:
    I am jealous, your trip sounds so fantastic.
    Rick and I also visited Maui right after his first campaign. We drove up to Haleakala also. It was quite the site, being up in the clouds, and you were right, cold. Great story,.

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