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Eternal flame for Hawaii’s veterans and fallen snuffed out

The American flag. (U.S. Air Force Photo/Master Sgt. Scott T. Sturkol)

Since at least Dec. 23 the Hawaii State Eternal Flame War Memorial, which burns to honor all Hawaii residents who have served in the armed forces, has not been burning.

In 2022, local Vietnam War veterans revived a long-­standing tradition of gathering at Korean and Vietnam war memorials. The pandemic had stopped the gathering for two years. As part of the tradition, they would go to the flame, situated opposite the state Capitol on the mauka side of Beretania Street, to light candles to usher in Christmas Eve and remember lost comrades.

Vietnam veteran Allen Hoe said that for 28 years he would light a candle with the eternal flame with his children and make a “small presentation about the significance of it from one generation to another.” But before the most recent gathering, he got a call from his secretary telling him the flame wasn’t burning. “I went there early that evening just to check, and sure enough, it was out, ” Hoe said.

With the new year now underway, it’s still not burning.

The state Department of Accounting and General Services, which is responsible for maintaining the memorial, said the propane-­fueled burner is in need of repairs. “The burner has been damaged due to trash being thrown in on the burner. … Some individuals in the area tend to litter, ” said DAGS spokesman Tony Benabese. “(We ) have a team working on it, but it’s real specialized. So they’re trying to get the parts to get it done.”

Benabese said that because of difficulty in finding the needed parts, DAGS has no timeline for when the flame will burn again.

Hoe said this isn’t the first time he has found the flame snuffed out. On Dec. 23, 2004, both of Hoe’s sons were serving in the military. One of them, 1st Lt. Nainoa Hoe, was deployed to Iraq at the time. When Allen Hoe and his son Nakoa went to the flame to prepare for the ceremony, they found it unlit. Allen Hoe told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser that he asked officials about it.

“I didn’t make an issue of it ; I just raised the question, ” he said. Hoe said officials suggested that he must have been mistaken or that it must have been a temporary outage—that all records indicated the flame was burning that night. Their answers frustrated Hoe because that night has stayed etched in his memory—a month after, on Jan. 22, 2005, a sniper killed Nainoa Hoe during combat operations in Mosul, Iraq. “Then subsequently, every year following that, it was back on, ” said Allen Hoe. “Until this year.”

Hoe got emotional when during December’s holiday ceremony when he recalled the experience as he addressed fellow veterans at the candle lighting. Retired Army Col. Walter Ozawa, who has regularly attended the gathering, was present for the most recent ceremony.

“Obviously, it’s disappointing. … It’s called the eternal flame and it’s not eternal—it’s out, ” said Ozawa. “Most people may not even realize that there’s such a thing as an eternal flame across from the state Capitol, next to the governor’s home, and people walked by it every day.”

Designed by Kauai-born sculptor Bumpei Akaji, the eternal flame memorial was dedicated on Oct. 28, 1972. The flame is intended to burn as a tribute to all men and women of Hawaii who have served in the armed forces over the years. People from Hawaii have been documented serving in the U.S. military since as early as the War of 1812. Most recently, Hawaii residents have served in Afghanistan, Iraq and other conflicts around the globe over the past two decades, after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks.

In August 2021 U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan ended in the chaotic evacuation of civilian from Kabul in which 13 American troops and more than 150 Afghan civilians lost their lives. The next month President Joe Biden proudly proclaimed to the United Nation that “for the first time in 20 years, the United States is not at war. We’ve turned the page.”

However, U.S. troops have continued combat operations. In December, U.S. Central Command announced that U.S. troops in Iraq and Syria carried out 313 missions in both countries over the course of 2022, during which at least 686 suspected ISIS fighters were killed. This year the Hawaii National Guard is scheduled to deploy about 100 troops for an unspecified mission somewhere in the Middle East.

Ozawa, in addition to his military service, spent years serving in Hawaii government, with stints as director of Honolulu’s Parks and Recreation Department as well as heading the state’s Veterans Services. He said he has seen countless challenges in maintaining facilities around the islands. “The new governor and the new administration is going to have to address a lot of delayed or neglected maintenance, ” said Ozawa.

Ozawa said the Korean and Vietnam war memorials on the grounds of the Capitol have fallen into a condition he considers “concerning, ” but said that he knows firsthand the challenges—and sometimes thankless responsibilities—of ensuring proper maintenance.

“You get no publicity for maintaining something well, ” said Ozawa. “But we should all recognize that building something new immediately establishes a requirement, a commitment that it will be maintained appropriately. … (This) is kind of a reminder that government has a responsibility for all of its facilities.”


(c) 2023 The Honolulu Star-Advertiser

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