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NEWS | May 27, 2024

Memorial Day at Punchbowl National Cemetery - Speech 2024

By Adm. Stephen Koehler Commander, U.S. Pacific Fleet

Good morning and Aloha.  Thank you Mr. Mayor for inviting me to speak on Memorial Day, in this memorial of heroes that is the Punchbowl National Cemetery.  Thank you to Governor Green, thank you Lieutenant Governor, members of the Hawaii Congressional delegation, members of the State Legislature, our Gold Star families, and welcome to Sergeant Major Kellogg. Thank you all for joining us to honor the fallen. 

Every morning, the sun climbs over the walls of this ancient crater and pours its brilliant light over the names of those who rest here.  This morning, we are here to shine our own light on their collective service and sacrifice.  I would like to illuminate for you just one of their many incredible stories.

In honor of his outstanding Naval service, exemplary service to Hawaii, and in honor of Asian American Native Hawaiian Pacific Islander Heritage Month, I will tell you the story today of Gordon Chung-Hoon.

Gordon Chung-Hoon was born in Honolulu in 1910, as the fourth of five children to a Hawaiian mother and a father of Hawaiian and Chinese ancestry.  Some of his family still live here today.  His niece, Punana is sitting next to me today and it’s a pleasure to see you today.

He graduated from Punahou in 1929 and was nominated to attend the Naval Academy.  At Annapolis, he played football and directly contributed to breaking an eleven-year losing streak against West Point.  Sports Illustrated would later feature him as an All-American football star.  In 1934, he became the first Asian American graduate of the Naval Academy.  He embarked on a Naval career that would last over thirty years and include service with distinction during World War Two and the Korean War.

As a junior officer, he served onboard the cruiser USS INDIANAPOLIS and then several ships stationed here in Pearl Harbor, including USS ARIZONA.  After surviving the attack on Pearl Harbor, he completed various wartime assignments and was then selected to command his own ship.  In 1944, he assumed Command of the USS SIGSBEE, a destroyer, which he commanded for the rest of World War Two.

While operating in the Western Pacific, between 17 March and 10 April, then-Commander Chung-Hoon led SIGSBEE in offensive actions against enemy aircraft.  His efforts led to the destruction of twenty enemy planes.  Subsequently attacked by six enemy planes, he directed his crew to shoot down an approaching dive bomber before it could penetrate the formation and attack other Allied ships.  For his courage, he was awarded the Silver Star.

It was only a few days later, on 14 April, USS SIGSBEE was attacked by enemy forces during the Battle of Okinawa.  During the attack, an enemy plane struck the stern of the SIGSBEE, causing major damage, a raging fire, and total loss of power onboard.  The ship also lost steering and one of her main engines.

The situation was dire, with SIGSBEE taking on water and in serious danger of sinking.  Commander Chung-Hoon reacted with calm and resolve.

His superiors directed him to abandon ship, but he responded by saying, “No. I have kids on here that can’t swim and I’m not putting them in the water.  I’ll take her back.”

Gordon Chung-Hoon chose to continue the fight and save his ship.  He carried out defensive maneuvers and directed his anti-aircraft batteries to return fire against the enemy aircraft.  He rallied his crew to deliver prolonged and effective counter fire against the ongoing aerial assault.

After successfully defending his ship, he supervised damage control efforts and repairs and saved his ship and made it seaworthy again.

The next day, Commander Chung-Hoon led a burial at sea service for his fallen crew members.  One crew member who witnessed the ceremony later said of him, “I often remember that the only man tough enough not to duck, was also the only man tender enough to cry.”  SIGSBEE later returned safely to port.

For his gallant fighting spirit, courage, and unwavering devotion to duty, Commander Chung-Hoon was awarded the Navy Cross.

His loyal and unwavering service did not end with World War Two.  He commanded the destroyer JOHN W. THOMASON during the Korean War and he led that in patrols of the Korean coast and bombardment of enemy positions ashore.

In 1959, he became the first Asian American to reach the rank of Rear Admiral.  After retirement from the Navy, he continued his service to the State of Hawaii as Director of the Hawaii Department of Agriculture.

In 2004, the Navy commissioned the Arleigh-Burke class destroyer USS CHUNG HOON in Pearl Harbor.  She remains in service today.  Her motto ‘Go, Forward, Sea Warriors.’

The USS CHUNG HOON is a living reminder and memorial of the incredible life and legacy of Gordon Chung-Hoon.

He now rests here in the Punchbowl, behind you in section ‘M’, near the entrance.  His story of heroic service is just one of thousands of such stories held here in this sacred place.  Every one of the stories of sacrifice in the Punchbowl is different, but all of them have one thing in common.

Every individual buried here, over 60,000 people, dedicated their lives to a cause greater than themselves.

That cause is our freedom.  Freedom is personified behind me by the towering statue of Lady Columbia.  She stands on the bow of a United States Navy aircraft carrier, which represents our resolve to defend that freedom, and the price of doing so.  As I speak to you today, U.S. Navy aircraft carriers just like that one are patrolling the world’s oceans.

They do so because no victory is permanent.

They do so because freedom isn’t free.

They do so because the American way of life, and the democracy it enables, must be guarded with unwavering vigilance.

They do so because of the sacrifices of the heroes in the Punchbowl National Cemetery and all of our nation’s memorial cemeteries around the world.

Their legacy drives us to serve.

Their legacy guides us as we continue to serve.  Their legacy upholds the ideals of our nation and the finest military the world has ever seen.

We march forward today on their shoulders.  Because of them, we never lose sight of why we are here—that when directed we take the fight to the enemy and WIN.  We face every challenge with courage, commitment, and resolve because our greatest strength is people like them, and the support of our families and communities.

They laid down their lives in all quarters of the Earth, so that others might be freed from oppression.  Because of them the light of liberty burns brightly today.  For them, we shall continue to carry that light forward.  Time will never dim the glory of their deeds, or our solemn obligation to ensure their sacrifices were not in vain.  Thank you very much and Mahalo.





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