This year marks the 30th anniversary of Riverside National Cemetery, one of the nation’s largest national cemeteries. It is also one of the busiest.
Located along I-215 just west of March Air Reserve Base in southeastern Riverside, the 921-acre cemetery is the final resting place for nearly 180,000 veterans, former service members and their spouses from all branches of the U.S. Armed Forces. Currently, the cemetery averages 150 services per week, totaling about 8,000 per year.
Riverside National sits on the former grounds of Camp William G. Haan, which served as an anti-aircraft training facility during WWII. In 1946, Camp Haan was absorbed into March Air Force Base and remained part of the base’s sprawling western landscape before being transferred to the VA in 1976 for the then-planned 740-acre national cemetery.
The initial phase of 96 acres cost $5 million and opened on Veterans Day, Nov. 11th 1978. The first interment was local WWII hero and Medal of Honor recipient, Ysmael R. Villegas, whose family allowed re-burial from Riverside’s Olivewood Cemetery to the newly-christened national cemetery. Within the first month of operation, the facility performed 355 interments, 163 of which were re-burials.
By 2003, when the Air Force transferred an additional 181 acres to the cemetery, the total overall acreage reached 921, with current development covering approximately 300 of those acres. With future development, the total number of interments is projected to reach well over 1 million.
Among those buried at Riverside National are two other Medal of Honor recipients — Com. John H. Balch, WWI; and Col. Mitchell Paige, WWII / Korea — as well as several distinguished persons, including Col. Aaron Bank (the father of the Army’s Green Berets) and Capt. Lillian Kinkela Keil (an Air Force Flight Nurse Pioneer, who’s one of the military’s most decorated women). Also of note are several members of the Tuskegee Airmen; Ofc. James F. Van Pelt Jr., navigator during the dropping of the atomic bomb over Nagasaki; and Thomas Ross Bond Sr., best known as “Butch” in the ‘Little Rascals’ comedies.
Two lakes, an administration building, a small amphitheater and several monuments are scattered about the grounds, which ranges from gently rolling hills to wide open spaces. (Unfortunately, the newest portions tend to be a bit thin with regards to mature trees, a condition that with increased VA support, we hope changes sooner rather than later.)
Among the memorials is one of four nationally recognized National Medal of Honor sites, which was built in 1999. Other monuments include a Veteran’s Memorial and the National Prisoner of War/Missing in Action Memorial. On the immediate horizon is a replica of the Vietnam Wall Memorial with several others representing the Civil War, WWI, WWII and Korea planned for the future.
Though far from being the “Arlington of the West” as first envisioned by its chief proponent and longtime civic activist David Goldware, Riverside National Cemetery has come a long way in a short 30 years. With the right guidance, diligent local support — and kind Congressional budgets — the cemetery may very well become the Arlington for a new generation of veterans.
- Riverside Press-Enterprise – Riverside National Cemetery on track for record number of burials (June 15)
- Riverside National Cemetery
- Riverside National Cemetery Support Committee
- Los Angeles Times – Riverside National Cemetery: Where a nation says farewell (May 2008) | Video: Honoring the fallen at Riverside National Cemetery (May 2008)
- Riverside Press-Enterprise – Tributes to servicemen, women ring out (May 2008)
- CNN (AP) – Veterans’ burials nonstop at national cemeteries (May 2008)
- KNBC-TV, Los Angeles – On The Road: Riverside National Cemetery (Oct. 2007)
*Photo courtesy of Robert F. Gallagher
Sources: Riverside National Cemetery, March Air Reserve Base, March Field Museum, U.S. Dept. of Veterans Affairs, The Press-Enterprise, WikiPedia