FIELDS OF HONOR
A vintage photo of Sgt. W. J. (Bill) Cook, circa 1968, serving with his U.S. Marine Corps Air Support Radar Team in Phu Bai, Vietnam.
"The site is part of MCAS El Toro, the place where thousands of young American boys last stood alive on American soil. As far as we’re concerned, that is Gettysburg in Orange County."
Bill Cook, Chairman of the Orange County Veterans Memorial Park Foundation, standing at the potential future site of the Southern California Veterans Cemetery in Irvine on the former MCAS El Toro.
A final resting place for veterans
Marine Corps veteran Bill Cook helped lead the successful effort to establish a 125-acre military cemetery in Irvine on land that was part of the MCAS El Toro base
Kedric Francis |October 27, 2017
Bill Cook joined the Marine Corps in 1964. He served four years, including 13 months in Vietnam. In 1968, his communications unit was stationed on the first hilltop to be attacked during the Tet Offensive. After leaving the Marines as a sergeant, Cook settled in Orange County where he’s lived ever since.
Cook, who will soon turn 71, has been a leader among veterans joined in the quest to establish a veterans cemetery in Orange County, a place for military servicemen and servicewomen who answered their country’s call during times of war and peace to be buried, with honor. Orange County has long been a center of military service, drawing individuals, institutions and industries dedicated to the defense of the United States, its citizens and global freedom, but while many local cemeteries include graves of military veterans, Orange County has never had an official veterans cemetery.
Cook sees that about to change.
In September, the Irvine City Council approved a land transfer that, once finalized and subject to design approval and funding, would set the scene for what Cook and many other men and women who served in the armed forces have long sought: the establishment of the Southern California Veterans Cemetery on land that was part of the Marine Corps Air Station El Toro. The 125 acres near the confluence of the 405 and 5 freeways, now used for agricultural purposes, is known as the Strawberry Fields cemetery site.
Cook answered questions on the day he visited the land where, if all goes as he hopes, as many as 210,000 veterans may be interred over the next 100 years, including the former Marine himself.
Q: How did it feel walking the grounds of the potential future site of the Southern California Veterans Cemetery?
A: The site is part of MCAS El Toro, the place where thousands of young American boys last stood alive on American soil. As far as we’re concerned, that is Gettysburg in Orange County. And that is the proper and fitting place for any memorial. We’re in the heart of Orange County next to busy freeways and office buildings, and there’s 125 acres of strawberry fields with nothing built on them? It’s almost as if the place was protected by providence as OC’s hallowed ground for veterans. It’s still a little hard to grasp that this is where hundreds of thousands of veterans may find our final rest.
Q: Why is it important to have a veterans cemetery in Orange County?
A: Because there isn’t one. People want to be buried where they’ve lived, and where they served. We have something like 132,000 veterans living in Orange County, and the nearest veterans cemetery is in Riverside. It can be a challenge for often-elderly spouses of veterans and their families to get from OC to Riverside for funerals and to visit. Anyone who has driven the 91 knows that. And there is a military heritage here that we should honor.
Q: With that many veterans in Orange County, is there a sense of urgency to see the first phase of the new cemetery dedicated?
A: I’ve had widows tell me they’re holding their husband’s remains until they can be interred in Orange County. Others say they’re going to disinter and move their veterans already buried elsewhere to the new cemetery as soon as they can. The Veterans Administration told us early on they expect this to be one of the busiest veterans cemeteries in the country, with 15 to 20 interments a day. We’ve had veterans in their 80s and 90s come to meetings and city council sessions speaking in favor of finalizing the agreement to have the cemetery at Strawberry Fields. We need to honor them by getting it done as quickly as we can.
Q: Is it true there are factions still fighting against having the veterans cemetery located at the Strawberry Fields site instead of the ARDA site?
A: Yes. Unfortunately. But the politics and all the people and personalities involved—including me—will soon be forgotten. Especially once people see a beautiful cemetery.
Q: How do you envision it, if everything goes as you hope?
A: People driving on the freeway will see an enormous American flag. Eventually, they’ll see thousands of standing headstones, rolling across the hills. There will be a beautiful wildlife corridor down the middle of it, a touch of nature. It’s not a park; there will be no jogging trails or picnickers. It will open at dawn and close at dusk. It will be a place for memorial ceremonies and remembrances, where veterans, kids and volunteers will come to place American flags on every grave.
Q: After years of fighting for the right to be buried in Orange County, what do you and your fellow veterans feel about it finally being so?
A: Well it’s… emotional. I’ll quote Abraham Lincoln, “It is altogether fitting and proper that we do this.” He said that at Gettysburg. We believe Orange County will become emotionally attached to this cemetery and recognize it for the truly honorable hallowed ground it will become.