“A national disgrace.”
That’s how a 76-year-old retired Navy captain describes the state of a 160-year-old cemetery housing the remains of three Medal of Honor recipients.
Ralph Parrott and his wife discovered the decrepit Mare Island Naval Cemetery – and tombstones of 996 people buried there between 1856 and 1921 – while recently traveling through the San Francisco Bay Area.
Beyond a locked gate, where access is limited, cracks are visible in headstones; some are completely broken into pieces. Collapsed fences in desperate need of repair are adorned by unkempt foliage. In Parrott’s opinion, the grounds – on what was the first U. S. naval installation on the West Coast – appear to have not been maintained in decades.
The cemetery dates back to 1854 and was actually given National Historic Landmark status in 1975. When the Defense Department closed the shipyard in 1996, the property was acquired by the city of Vallejo. At that time, the Navy wanted to transport the buried elsewhere. Many interred there, though, were civilians, and the service was unable to obtain permission from their family members.
In addition to three Medal of Honor recipients – the last of whom was buried in 1900 – the cemetery is also final resting place of Anna Key Turner, the fifth child of Star Spangled Banner author Francis Scott Key.
Frustrated by the cemetery’s condition, Parrott reached out in July to officials of the Department of Veterans Affairs – asking if the VA could take responsibility for the run-down burial grounds.
“After my presentation, the discussion ventured into the jurisdictional complexities involving the Navy, the State of California, the City of Vallejo, the National Park Service, and the VA,” said Parrott. He says meeting participants agreed that those issues barred any easy path toward repairing the macabre state of the cemetery.
“I am a veteran of the Washington bureaucracy having served two tours of duty there,” said Parrott, “and I know the bureaucratic brush-off when I see it.”
“If somebody is comparing it to Arlington, then it is shocking,” says Myrna Hayes, president of the Mare Island Heritage Trust – a non-profit that works to maintain the former Naval Shipyard. But she adds that its condition is not unlike that of many other California cemeteries of the era.
The City of Vallejo has provided limited upkeep assistance. City officials visit the cemetery every seven to 10 days to prune trees and mow some grass, however some portions are overgrown with acacia trees and ivy.
The 996 headstones are rarely cleaned, though Hayes did clean the memorial for 15 USS Boston sailors who died in an 1892 naval ammunition explosion on the shipyard.
“It is a property just like anybody old, or anything old, overtime there is extra effort that needs to be put in to the property and there is no funding to do that extra effort,” says Hayes.
“If funding does not come from the federal government, it is not going to come from the city of Vallejo.” That seems unlikely, as the city filed for bankruptcy in 2008, three weeks after the public was granted access to the cemetery.
Ralph Parrott feels strongly that the VA should maintain the hallowed grounds.
Hays agrees. “It needs some way of being maintained, and not on the backs of our town alone,” she says.
“The National Cemetery Administration (NCA), has never had jurisdiction over the Mare Island Cemetery, which was transferred from the Department of the Navy to the City of Vallejo in 1996,” said a VA spokesperson.
“NCA is however, working closely with the Department of the Navy on the issue and has offered to replace damaged or illegible Veterans’ headstones,” said the spokesperson. They also will offer technical support to the city on cemetery maintenance and exploring the use of federal grants for its upkeep.
CBS Radio’s ConnectingVets.com has reached out for comment from the City of Vallejo.