Veterans of Foreign Wars pay tribute to Hawaiian Civil War veteran

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May 7—Members of the Veterans of Foreign Wars spent Saturday morning at the grave of Pvt. J.R. Kealoha, a veteran of the American Civil War buried at O 'ahu Cemetery and Crematory in Nuuanu.

Members of the Veterans of Foreign Wars spent Saturday morning at the grave of Pvt. J.R. Kealoha, a veteran of the American Civil War buried at O 'ahu Cemetery and Crematory in Nuuanu. The veterans cleaned up the site and adorned the headstone with lei as part of the VFW's Day of Service.

Wayne Yoshioka, commander of VFW Post 8616, said more than 6, 000 VFW posts and auxiliaries worldwide participate in the Day of Service by undertaking projects that benefit their communities. The local Post 8616 chose to honor Pvt. J.R. Kealoha "by refreshing his final resting place and conducting this graveside service."

When the Civil War broke out, King Kamehameha IV declared the Kingdom of Hawaii's neutrality. Nevertheless, many Native Hawaiians and others from Hawaii found themselves fighting in military units aligned with the states of the Union or the Confederacy.

They fought on land as soldiers and at sea as sailors. Historians believe as many as 119 citizens of the kingdom fought in the war, but Kealoha is the only one with a known gravesite in the islands.

"Ultimately, he came to represent the legacy and contributions of all of Hawaii's Civil War veterans, " said Yoshioka.

Little is known about Kealoha's life before the war, but he enlisted in the Union Army in 1864 in Pennsylvania.

Many Native Hawaiians sympathized with the Union cause. The Hawaiian kingdom had close cultural and economic ties to New Eng ­land through the whaling industry and the missionaries who settled in the islands, and accounts of slavery in the American South horrified many Hawaiians.

"Ships would come from Massachusetts and all of that area, they would read the newspapers, they would see that people were suffering, " said VFW Post 8616 acting chaplain Frank Ocalvey. "They went over thousands of miles of ocean. There was no canal then, they had to go around ... so it took a lot of sacrifice."

Kealoha served with the 41st Infantry Regiment, a unit made up mostly of Black troops from the then-segregated Union Army. Most Native Hawaiians who served in the Union Army were assigned to "colored regiments " due to their own dark skin and the segregationist policies of the time. In military records they were often registered as "kanakas " with "Sandwich Islands " listed as their place of origin.

Kealoha saw combat during the Siege of Petersburg and by some accounts was present at the surrender of Confederate Army Gen. Robert E. Lee to Union Army Gen. Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Court House on April 9, 1865. Sometime after the war, he returned to Hawaii and died March 5, 1877.

Kealoha was buried in an unmarked grave in Section One, Lot 56 of O 'ahu Cemetery, but his military service and burial site were recorded by the United Veterans' Service Council, a precursor of the present day Department of Veterans Affairs.

In 2011, the Hawaii Civil War Round Table, a local group of Civil War history enthusiasts, found Kealoha's military records at the Hawaii State Archives and discovered there was no headstone or grave marker at his burial site. The Round Table and the VFW petitioned the VA for an official military headstone, but the request was denied on grounds that none of them were relatives of Kealoha.

VFW Post 8616 decided to "adopt " Kealoha and make their own headstone. It was dedicated Oct. 25, 2014, in a traditional Hawaiian ceremony.

"The marker came from Maui ; we had it engraved over there. Matson was nice enough to ship it over here for free, " said Ron Lockwood, who was Post 8616's commander at the time. "This place was packed in 2014. We had reenactors, American Legion, motorcycle guys and VFW."

Ocalvey, a Native Hawaiian, said it's important to recognize Kealoha's service, as well as the service of all from Hawaii who fought in the Civil War and every other American war alongside those of other races. He motioned to the assembled group of veterans at the gravesite saying, "Look at all the colors here today ; there's no prejudice."