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ALR416 finds a lost WWII cemetery

Posted in Legion Riders

Here is my story about a forgotten cemetery that was discovered after a long search:

Feb. 20, 2011: Approached by an American Legion Rider from Post 555, I, Chuck "Machine" Johnson, Post 416 Encinitas, Calif., was asked to find an abandoned World War II cemetery that has not been maintained in over 50 years. A daunting task as that desert in California is HUGE! After numerous tries, I failed to find it. Eight months pass. Then once again heading out to the desert, I decided that instead of walking dusty hillsides looking for an impossible small cemetery, I needed to network more. Here are some of the problems I was having:

1. Most World War II vets from this area of unpaved roads were buried in family plots not in a cemetery.
2. Most cemeteries (of this era) were within 100 yards of a structure.
3. Most memories (of this era) of this area are suspect and inaccurate.
4. Most cemeteries (of this era) are distinguishable by a road or worn tracks up to the site.
5. Most cemeteries (in this area) are Native American and thus unapproachable.
6. Most cemeteries are marked by borders, most of this era are borderless.
7. Most cemeteries are marked on a map (somewhere) but not in this era.
8. Most cemeteries have been clearly identified by law enforcement (not in this era).
9. Most cemeteries have known recipients. But, this has been forgotten.
10. Most cemeteries are in the archives of newspapers, federal or state archives (not in this case).
11. Most people would be willing to talk to someone who is searching for an old WWII cemetery, But, not in this case.
12. Most cemeteries have stones, markers, wooden crosses, etc. We haven't found any yet. We have been told
these are only markers and no stones or wood remain.

So, we are faced with tremendous problems finding this site. Weeds, grass, thistle, gourds, crysote, sage, manzanita groves and cactus abound in the area. Old home sites, ranches, outrider cabins, mines, etc., are easily found, requiring intense search.

Oct. 13, 2012: "Well, the search is over. Today, I located the cemetery that the WWII vet was so upset over. Here is the background on this: A WWII vet approached an American Legion Rider member and told him about a WWII cemetery that for over 50 years has been ignored and abandoned. Completely lost to the public. He passed by it almost every day and it finally got to him that no one cared. So, he asked the Legionnaire to help find someone who cared. That Legionnaire approached me and I took the challenge up. Unfortunately, the WWII vet passed on before I could talk to him. With only scant details known, I was faced with a tremendous task. Searching a swatch of land 7 miles long and 1 mile wide with 40 to 50 years of growth on it and only markers not tombstones nor crosses to locate (or so I was told). After an initial contact with the local authorities (sheriff) and numerous conversations with the locals and old timers (some very uncooperative), I was back where I started. No one had a real clue as to the location.

I went out and conducted a search in one area that was suggested by an old WWII vet. After hours of searching in the desert heat, no luck. Had fun though. Reminded me of my old SERE days teaching (Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape) to United States Air Force students. I took pictures and basically messed around with ideas of what to do and where to search next.

Let me tell you, that desert is BIG! I got up this morning determined to put in several miles of search pattern out there. Then on the way out my better sense got a hold of me and told me to network more. So, instead of backpacking, I stopped in at the local fire station, then at the local tribal headquarters, then at the security department for the local ranches, and finally at my last stop for this trip, I stopped at a local cafe. As I was relating to the bartender the story, a guy sitting next to me said he knew exactly where it was. More then a little skeptical, I asked how he knew. He told me he was from Cal fire department more then a decade ago and they were tasked to find all the cemeteries in the area in case of a fire and determine how well they would survive. He agreed to guide me to the cemetery. Off a side road, on a dirt track, upon a small knoll, there it sat. At some point in the past, the county had maintained it, but now it was abandoned and American flags were strewn around the area on the ground and faded in glory. Litter was scattered around. Basically, the county had abandoned it. Fortunately, the site was not as I had imagined it, overgrown with trees, cactus, etc. Now to schedule a clean up. Maybe even get a sign made.

Dec. 28, 2012: Well, I've been blocked by the county of Riverside from having a cleanup on the cemetery. Seems they lost some kind of lawsuit more than 50 years ago and ownership is in question. It may belong to Native Americans. But, due to this suit, which we do not know the outcome of, no further maintenance has been accomplished. I'll keep trying.

On June 22: ALR416 to Lost Cemetery & ALR200: Leaving Post 416, we travel to Rainbow Oaks Cafe, on Old 395 in Fallbrook for some great friends and terrific breakfasts. Then off to clean up an old abandoned cemetery and then a quick visit to the American Legion Post 200 in Lake Elisinore, Calif., and finally up to Hell's Kitchen on the Ortega for lunch and then home.

Finally, after so much time and effort, we were able to restore this old site and to mount a flag on every WWII grave site and to mark the old graves lacking markers. We left and have since decided to return, with several other posts, on a rotating basis and keep the place clean.

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