VALLEJO, Calif. –
The Mare Island Naval Cemetery had been neglected for nearly 30 years when retired Capt. Ralph Parrott, Supply Corps, U.S. Navy, and his wife visited in 2017 after becoming stranded in California on their way to Malaysia.
Throughout the years erosive forces of water and dirt flowed down the cemetery hillside knocking down headstones, destroying a perimeter fence and allowed vegetation to flourish wildly. “I had never been to Mare Island Naval Cemetery,” explained Parrott. “It was a disgrace. That’s what started the chain of events to repair it.”
“When I first saw the cemetery it was overgrown with weeds and trees. It was dark due to the overgrowth,” explained Maj. Douglas Hayes, S-3, Officer in Charge (OIC), 397th Engineer Battalion, Marina, California who also serves as the OIC of the Mare Island Innovative Readiness Training (IRT) project. “IRT projects are sponsored by the Department of Defense. These projects give back to the community while allowing Soldiers the opportunity to practice their skills.”
The 801st Engineer Construction Company (ECC) Vallejo, California, and the 322nd Engineer Vertical Construction Company (EVCC), Sloan, Nevada, provided the Army Reserve Soldiers while senior members of the 416th Theater Engineer Command staff in Darien, Illinois, assisted the city of Vallejo,
California, with completing their application for the IRT project.
Then the Soldiers went to work to restore the cemetery. “We cut down a lot of trees and ripped a lot out of the ground using bulldozers. It’s open now. There’s more sunlight. It’s not overgrown anymore,” said Hayes. Headstones were restored by Soldiers scrubbing them with bristle brushes and industrial strength cleaning fluid to remove moss and mold that had been growing on them.
An essential part of protecting the grave from erosion and saturation is repairing the drainage system that fell into disrepair. "Saturation from the water was making the grave stones settle. I had a geotechnical survey done and there is a layer of clay that runs underneath the top soil that basically prevents the percolation of water. So all that stuff either sits or flows there and it gets soggy; so when you have everything contribute to that water share it gets a mess and that's all being corrected," said Paul Sensibaugh, city of Vallejo, Consulting Engineer and Project Manager.
The overgrowth of bushes caused by the drainage system was another problem for the Soldiers to solve. “Poor drainage caused the retaining walls to deteriorate,” explained Parrott. “The Soldiers cut drainage ditches with bulldozers and cleared up debris from the drain.”
“We reshaped the natural draws around the cemetery,” explained Sgt. Joseph Woods, heavy equipment operator, 801st ECC. “There will be an actual concrete drainage ditch placed above the cemetery to redirect the water around the cemetery to prevent erosion.”
Restoring the cemetery is extremely tough physical work. “When we removed the old retaining wall we were trying to save as many bricks as we could. All those had to be cleaned by hand. There was a lot of work with chain saws and dragging brush down to the draws where it was pushed down the hill by bulldozer,” said Wood.
Woods said the Soldiers he worked with went above and beyond in their efforts to restore the two and a half acre cemetery which is the final resting place for three Medal of Honor recipients and the daughter of Francis Scott Key, composer of the Star Spangled Banner.
“It’s not just we have a mission. It’s we have an important mission. The Soldiers put a lot of their own time and off the clock work into this project to make it happen,” he said.
And now there is a new development. The cemetery may be designated a National Historic landmark. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D) and Congressman Mike Thompson (D), both of California, introduced an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act which, if passed, would turn the cemetery over to the National Cemetery Administration, which is part of the Department of Veterans Affairs, for perpetual care and maintenance.
“In all likelihood the amendment will pass. This is super good news. We have been working on this for the past three years,” explained Parrot.
Senator Feinstein and Congressman Thompson deserve a lot of the credit, according to Parrot. “They did a lot of ‘heavy lifting’ to get this done,” he said. “They had to do a lot of work persuading their colleagues to get this done.”
And a lot of credit goes to the Army Reserve soldiers who spent countless hours working on the project. “Nobody ever dreamed they (Soldiers) could do everything they have done at the cemetery. They have done some extremely great work,” said Parrott.
“A lot of sailors, naval officers and their spouses are buried here. It’s important to restore the cemetery out of respect for the families,” said Hayes. “The United States military is at its best when we are operating in direct support of the American people. We are getting the cemetery back up to standard so that everyone in the Vallejo and Solano county area can be proud of it and we are also helping the American people understand who they are and where they came from.”