Vets win big in Irvine
Medal of Honor winner Colonel William E. Barber is buried at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia, having served in WWII, Korea, and Vietnam. There’s a park named in his honor in Irvine, the city where he lived during the latter years of his life.
Tibor Rubin, a Holocaust survivor and Korean War hero, lived in Garden Grove until his death in 2015. The Medal of Honor winner is interred at Mount Sinai Memorial Park in Los Angeles.
These 11 veterans with connections to Orange County are just a few of the countless OC veterans who have served their country with honor. They all should have the option of an honorable burial at an official veterans cemetery in Orange County, if they so chose. But they have not had that option.
Soon, they will.
The Irvine City Council, in a special meeting June 6, the 73rd anniversary of D-Day, approved the “strawberry fields” near the 5 and 405 freeways as the site of the future Southern California Veterans Cemetery.
As the city clerk announced the 3-2 vote in favor of the “strawberry field” site, veterans leader Bill Cook and a large contingent of veterans stood, cheered and applauded.
Mayor Don Wagner and council members Melissa Fox and Christina Shea voted to move the proposed cemetery from a site north of the Great Park to the alternate site near the intersection of the 5 and 405 freeways, south of the park. Mayor Pro Tem Lynn Schott and Councilmember Jeff Lalloway opposed the action.
Councilmember Melissa Fox spoke passionately in favor of the alternate site, saying, “We owe this to our veterans and I will fight to make sure that it is done.” She added, “When we do that (move the cemetery site to the strawberry fields) we save the city $38 million.” Fox noted that the funds saved could fund other amenities in the city and that building the cemetery at the new site would be “a beacon of honor for this city.”
“The Irvine council’s decision is a win-win-win for the city at large, our communities and, most importantly, our veterans who deserve a special place to honor their own that is worthy of the service they have given this country,” Emile Haddad, chairman and CEO of FivePoint, said in a statement after the vote.
The debate over which of two sites is the best location for the cemetery has been ongoing for 18 months, with one contingent, led by councilmember Jeff Lalloway and former mayor Larry Agran, pushing hard for the original ARDA site. That location, with more than 70 structures, portions of remaining runway and underground utilities, would have required extensive demolition before construction could begin. The total cost to build a cemetery at the ARDA site was estimated to be nearly $80 million. In contrast, the “strawberry fields” site is currently used only for farmland. No demolition is required and construction could begin immediately upon approval and at much less cost.
FivePoint owns the freeway-adjacent farmland on the alternate site. After being approached by Councilmember Shea and the Orange County Veterans Memorial Park Foundation almost 18 months ago with a proposal to exchange the land at the ARDA site for the alternate site, the company agreed.
Statements in favor of the freeway-adjacent alternate site near the El Toro Y were entered into the record from Orange County Board of Supervisors Chairwoman Michelle Steel, Congressman Lou Correa, State Senator Josh Newman and Assemblyman Steven Choi.
As the OC Register Editorial Board put it in an opinion piece after the vote:
“The FivePoint proposal, for which the company has volunteered to fund the first phase, is spread across as much as 125 acres, fittingly straddles Marine Way and contains a host of proposed amenities for honoring our fallen men and women in uniform.
“The site would include a veterans memorial on the side facing the I-5 freeway. Its proximity to the freeway allows ease of access for visitors and a solemn reminder of the price of freedom to those passing by…. This alternative site has the support of both residents and the veterans group formed to push for a cemetery. It makes better financial sense, too. The state announced late last month that it would only contribute $30 million for the project at the other site, leaving Irvine residents to cover a $50 million difference.”
Bill Cook, a veteran and chairman of the Orange County Veterans Memorial Park Foundation, reminded the council that, “Today is the 73rd anniversary of D-Day.” He told the council that a vote in favor of the “strawberry fields” site would be history making. “Today… you have the unique opportunity to create hallowed ground,” he said.
2nd Calvary in South County
There are military veterans buried in Orange County, of course. Andrew Thompson, a Civil War-era veteran, is buried in El Toro Memorial Park. Thompson died in 1939.
He was 95.
Thompson was born in Canada in 1844, where his family was visiting from their home in New York, grew up in Minnesota and enlisted in Company M of the 2nd Calvary in 1864. After the war he moved to Ventura County, and in 1876 bought land for a ranch in Laguna Canyon. Later, he lived many years in El Toro, where he was a preacher and a deputy county clerk.
Thompson is one of nearly 800 Civil War veterans buried in Orange County. Some 701 of them fought for the Union, and 89 for the Confederacy. The majority are in cemeteries in Santa Ana, Fullerton and Anaheim. His is the only one known in South County.
Thompson’s grave, though, is only 3.5 miles from where veterans that served after him will be interred over the next century or so.
Given the county’s illustrious history as a bulwark of democracy, especially during and since World War II, it’s about time that OC had an official veterans cemetery, a place where veterans can be laid to rest with honor.
Now, there will be.