It took a lot of work, but the transfer is now complete for the Mare Island Cemetery.
A press conference Saturday afternoon at the historic site signified the transfer process of the cemetery going from the City of Vallejo to the National Cemetery Administration. Speeches were given by U.S. Reps. Mike Thompson and John Garamendi as well as a representative for Sen. Diane Feinstein. Vallejo Mayor Robert McConnell and Vallejo Citiy Councilmember Pippen Dew were in attendance, as well as former Vallejo Mayor Bob Sampayan.
Also on hand were members of the military and the 801st Engineer Construction Company of Vallejo, which was given certification for Innovative Readiness Training at the Mare Island Naval Cemetery and in honor of the soldier’s engineering professionalism and devotion to duty in restoring it back in January.
Burials began at the hillside cemetery in 1856 and continued until 1921. The buried include six Russian sailors and the dog of a former commander. It is the oldest naval cemetery on the West Coast and has been designated as a National Historic Landmark. It has three Congressional Medal of Honor recipients — James Cooney, Alexander Parker and William Halford.
“Today marks the end of years and years and years and years of work — and that’s work on the part of the local government, city government, invested civilians and community members that knew this was important all the way up the line to Washington, D.C.,” Thompson said. “We worked it and worked it hard, including getting the support from every member of congress from the senate and every house member who represented a state or congressional district for one of the three congressional medal of honor members was originally from.”
Among those receiving the credit from Thompson were Feinstein and veteran and longtime cemetery advocate Nestor Aliga.
“She (Feinstein) was on this like a dog on a bone,” Thompson said. “She did not let up. When she gave you her word, it happened.
“Also, if it wasn’t for this former colonel (Aliga) we all wouldn’t be here today,” Thompson continued, while facing Aliga. “Nestor, I can’t tell you how glad my colleagues in Washington are glad this is done. I know it was on your dime, but you must have called four times a day.”
In March 2017, retired U.S. Navy Captain Ralph Parrott of Virginia visited the cemetery and was appalled at its dilapidated condition. Parrott and Dep. Asst. Secretary of the Navy Karnig Ohannessian assisted the City of Vallejo in applying for the Department of Defense Innovative Readiness Training.
“He told me his displeasure with the cemetery and then said, ‘How are we going to fix that?’” Sampayan said in a speech last year. “Those were literally his first words to me after he introduced himself. So without Raph Parrott’s tenacity, and I do mean tenacity, the cemetery wouldn’t look like it does today.”
Thompson first introduced the bill called H.R. 5588 in April of 2018, directing the Secretary of Veterans Affairs to seek out an agreement with the City of Vallejo, under which the city would transfer control of the Mare Island Naval Cemetery to the VA. The cemetery will specifically be placed under the purview of the National Cemetery Administration. That bill became law on Jan.1, 2021.
In September 2020, the Department of Defense’s Innovative Readiness Training (IRT) Program resumed construction at the Mare Island Preserve and the Naval Cemetery. The IRT project includes grading, installation of drainage systems, minor restoration of burial sites, and fence repair throughout the area.
Aliga had previously hoped that the Mare Island Naval Cemetery would transition to a VA National Cemetery by July 4 and would join the Benicia Arsenal Post Cemetery, which became a VA National Cemetery in 2020. The two are the oldest naval and army cemeteries on the West Coast, respectively, and will be managed by the staff of the Sacramento Valley VA National Cemetery in Dixon.
“It’s all here remembered in the headstones and remembered in the minds of families that they still have their former relatives here. It’s incredible,” Garamendi said. “For the City of Vallejo, it wasn’t easy getting this far along. It took your determination and took the work of Mike and his team and the 801 unit out there.”