August 1, 2009
Memory rests lightly on Los Angeles. Part of the city’s laid back charm is that its denizens seem to the outside world forever to be cruising Sunset Boulevard in a convertible, in the happy superficiality of continual newness. But turn east from Sepulveda Boulevard just north of Wilshire onto Constitution Avenue, and you immediately recede from the goings and comings of the eternal present and enter a sanctuary of remembrance. My father used to bring me here when I was a boy, and when he did, he always had a quietness of soul about him that I felt but was too young to understand.
Now I stop by on my own when I’m in the neighborhood, around August 15, if possible—V-J Day. The main gate is opened each morning at 5:30 and closes again at 5:00 p.m. except on Memorial Day when it is open until seven. Visit on an ordinary weekday morning and there isn’t a soul stirring except you and one or two of the groundsmen. The traffic of the 405 freeway will continue to hum behind you, but a sacred local silence takes you in, to the company of over 85,000 veterans and their families, some from as far back as the Civil War, who rest in peace here at the Los Angeles National Cemetery.
On a recent visit, I had the pleasure of meeting the director of the cemetery, Cynthia dela Fuente Nuñez, who seems to have been born for the job. She grew up in the Philippines and inherited a fondness and gratitude for American veterans from her father, Carmelito dela Fuente, who told her from her earliest years of the American liberation of the Philippines in World War II. She remembers him telling her when she was a little girl that “the kindest people on earth are the American soldiers.” He never changed his feelings, and after she fulfilled her childhood dream and became an American citizen in 1976, she sponsored him to become an American citizen himself. She has been looking after American veterans since 1978.
“Small world,” I told her. My father had enlisted like many other Los Angelenos a few days after Pearl Harbor. From July 1943 to September 1945 he was with the 145th Infantry Regiment of the 37th Infantry Division in the Southwest Pacific Theatre of Operations helping, among other things, to liberate the Philippines. As a boy I was interested to look at the shadows of shrapnel that he carried back with him along his shin bones. When I got older, we would sit for long spells over coffee and if I asked him he would tell me stories of the war. Years later, after he had passed away, I got a heavy package in the mail from a woman I had never heard of. It was a box of letters, scores of them, that he had sent to her from the Pacific Theatre during the war. She had never met him, I learned, but they struck up a correspondence because his bunk mate was dating her girlfriend when he was in boot camp back in Georgia. He had designated her on the required military form as the person to be notified in case he became a casualty, which it turned out he did.
The 114 acre rectangle of the cemetery stretches northwest to southeast along Sepulveda Blvd. on the west and Veteran Avenue on the east. Wilshire borders the southern edge, and the northern edge is flanked by a few backyards of neighborhood homes over whose ivy covered fences adventurous youngsters can—and apparently do—climb.
Constitution Avenue runs like a binding metaphor through the center of the grounds from west to east. Extending outward from it on right and left are battle roads, named from generations of America’s wars. On the south-east side: Toul, Chateau-Thierry, Marne, St. Mihiel, and Meuse Avenues. On the north-west side: Argonne, San Juan Hill, Antietam. Crossing or curving into these are more battle roads: Gettysburg, Shiloh, Belleau Wood Drive, Amiens.
On the flat and geometrical south-east side, columns of trees flank some of the battle avenues like an honor guard, with true lines and even spacing. Chateau-Thierry Avenue runs between pillars of ficus trees whose dark smooth leaves almost converge above it, making a tunnel with a strip of blue sky at the top. Camphor trees, with their lighter more delicate green, line the Marne in stately order. On the gently sloping north-west side, eucalypti, stone pines, pepper trees, jacaranda, and a stray palm or two are scattered at ease.
On acres of well-groomed lawns spread between the battle avenues are the tens of thousands of white marble headstones mustered with military precision in ranks or files depending on the angle from which you view them. The cemetery was dedicated on May 22, 1889, and the slow shifting of the earth over the years has caused some headstones to break ranks a little; a multi-year project is under way to place them all back in enduring order. It was Lincoln who spoke so beautifully of the mystic chords of memory that stretch from such patriot graves to living hearts across the broad land and across the generations, and Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address is inscribed on a bronze plaque in a memorial near the center of the grounds. The well-known words express most memorably for Americans what it is that consecrates such grounds. In the same breath, they tell the generations of the benefit they bestow upon themselves by remembering those who lie here.
San Juan Hill Avenue rises to a knoll in the northern part of the cemetery. At the top stands a grey stone obelisk, wide at the base and about 30 feet tall. On the side that is lit by the sun every morning is an inscription in a bronze plaque, all in capitals: IN MEMORY OF THE MEN WHO OFFERED THEIR LIVES IN DEFENSE OF THEIR COUNTRY. From the hill you see the high rises of Westwood to the south-east a mile away.
On the Saturday before this last Memorial Day over 2500 Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts came to the cemetery to place some 85,000 flags on the grave sites, each flag placed with ceremony and a salute. The theme of the Memorial Day program at the cemetery this year was “Letters from the Front.” Soldiers’ letters, from the Civil War to Desert Storm, were read aloud by a handful of Hollywood’s patriotic actors—Jon Voight and Robert Davi among them. As is customary, innumerable armfuls of flowers were brought to the cemetery for the day. Afterwards, a helicopter from the US Coast Guard picked the flowers up at the cemetery and flying over the nearby Pacific scattered them in honor of fallen heroes.
On the east side of the cemetery is a small pedestrian gate that is opened only on Memorial Day. The sign on the gate asks visitors to bear in mind that they are entering “hallowed grounds.” Yes. Even in L.A.
Christopher Flannery is a native of Los Angeles.