By John Ramos

VALLEJO (KPIX 5) — A Memorial Day service was held Monday at the Mare Island Naval Cemetery in Vallejo.  It honored those who died but it also celebrated new life for the oldest naval cemetery on the West Coast.

Very few have been buried there since World War I, so the cemetery became a largely forgotten place.  But Monday morning, a small group of socially-distanced visitors kept alive a Memorial Day tradition that has been unbroken for the last 149 years.

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“We have never missed that celebration – ever,” said Vallejo Mayor Bob Sampayan. “And I think it’s fitting that we’re here.”

The small ceremony, held in front of about 30 visitors, included a color guard, speeches and a flyover from the Coast Guard helicopter.

The cemetery is the final resting place of Anna Key, the daughter of Francis Scott Key who wrote the Star-Spangled Banner. But the old graveyard has deteriorated badly, especially after the Navy base was shut down in 1996.  Some of the weathered headstones have broken or fallen over.

Ralph Halford’s great grandfather, William Halford, is one of three Medal of Honor winners buried there. “We’ve come over here for years and it’s been so run down and when the government left it even got worse,” said Halford.

For years, the federal government refused to fix the place up, but recently the 801st Engineering Company of the US Army Corps of Engineers took up the challenge. Old, sick trees have been removed, most of the picket fencing was taken away to be restored later, and gravestones darkened with age, are being cleaned and repaired.

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Soon, a drainage problem will finally be fixed that is literally causing some of the headstones to be swallowed into the earth.

“These guys fought in the wars overseas for our great nation from the War of 1812 to WWI and they deserve as much respect as all of our veterans,” said retired Colonel Nestor Aliga.

Aliga has been one of the driving forces behind the restoration and believes, now that the individual names have passed into history, it is the cemetery itself that preserves the memory of their contribution to the nation.

“On Memorial Day we remember our heroes,” he said, “and we need to set an example that the past, the history, does matter.”

The cemetery is part of the Mare Island Shoreline Heritage Preserve, which was closed to the public after a wildfire last summer. Monday, following the ceremony, the preserve was reopened and will once again be accessible to the public Fridays through Sundays from 8am to 5pm.

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