Honoring the fallen
The Marine Corps Air Station was established in 1942 and 1943, and though named after the nearby town of El Toro, the land is in the heart of Irvine. During World War II, the base was the center of aircraft squadron formation and unit training prior to combat in the Pacific. MCAS El Toro continued serving the country as a training facility in peacetime and a staging area for support of overseas military missions in times of conflict.
Decommissioned in 1999 after 57 years of service, it’s now the Orange County Great Park. Nearby, what would become Marine Corps Air Station Tustin, better known today as the Blimp Hangars, was established at the same time. The base played an important role in naval aviation for 50 years, first housing blimps, then helicopters for the Pacific region.
John Wayne Airport and the OC Fairgrounds are on land that was part of the huge Santa Ana Army Airbase, which saw some 150,000 pilots and other servicemen and women pass through during the war, and was where some 80,000 veterans were posted as they departed the service after the war.
Many of the veterans who had spent time training or based in Orange County during wartime returned. Aerospace and defense industries grew, fueling the growth of the local economy and the need for more housing. The city of Irvine was planned and grew, in part, to respond to that postwar growth.
Today’s high tech and computer industries evolved out of the aerospace and defense industries, and the great former bases in Irvine and Tustin are destined to continue as the center of life in Orange County for generations to come.
At the Great Park, proposals for a veteran’s cemetery are being negotiated. FivePoint, the master developer of the Great Park, recently offered to trade land with the city of Irvine to facilitate establishing the cemetery on the south side of the park rather than the north — a site which has been opposed by some nearby residents. The Irvine City Council will likely address the offer this month.
Irvine residents needn’t wait for the cemetery issue to be resolved. We can honor those who gave their lives serving their country by visiting the Gratitude and Honor Memorial at Northwood Community Park, which commemorates those who made the ultimate sacrifice in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Since 2003 the Northwood Gratitude and Honor Memorial has been the nation’s only memorial dedicated exclusively to honoring by name all of America’s Fallen from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. The names of all those killed between October 2001 and December 2014 are engraved in the memorial’s granite panels.
The memorial started informally, when Irvine resident Asher Milgrom began building wooden crosses for each service member killed as the Iraq war began in 2003. Milgrom and his family placed the memorials at Northwood Community Park, and soon the candlelit commemoration grew as the community supported and embraced it. As the overseas conflicts continued, more individual memorials were added. Soon, a groundswell grew to make the memorial permanent. Spearheaded by Irvine resident Andy Zelinko, the movement for a permanent memorial grew with community donations in the hundreds of thousands of dollars, and a $150,000 contribution from the city of Irvine.
The permanent memorial was dedicated in August 2013, honoring by name each American who died in Afghanistan and Iraq, according to official casualty lists. The Northwood Gratitude and Honor Memorial is described in an OC Register story at the time as including “five sentinels with four panels on each that included the engraved, sandblasted names of the fallen. The sentinels, along with a monument near a flagpole, would become lit at night.
The ground underneath the flagpole would have four words inscribed: Sacrifice. Honor. Courage. Valor.”
Memorial Day is May 30, and is a particularly apropos time to visit the Northwood Gratitude and Honor Memorial. But while at the park for recreation or play, or even when passing by on Bryan Ave. or Yale on the way to work, give some thought to those who fell overseas in all the country’s conflicts.
The Northwood Gratitude and Honor Memorial
Northwood Community Park
4531 Bryan Ave., Irvine