Small and tucked away in the Benicia Arsenal, the Benicia Post Arsenal Cemetery is a well-tended spot graced with history. On Memorial Day, the oldest post cemetery in the country will be the venue for a patriotic service that draws hundreds to pay their respects with wreaths, elegiac music and symbols and displays.
Honoring American Soldiers
The national holiday honors American soldiers who have perished in past wars, as well as those fighting in Iraq, Afghanistan and other parts of the world today. Put on by the Benicia Historical Society, the service is part of “a day to remember the sacrifices people have made for our way of life. We want to recognize all the people who have made the ultimate sacrifice for their country and to recognize all veterans currently serving,” said event coordinator Wally Stephens, historical society board vice president.
This year’s service will be particularly poignant:
- Several elderly World War II veterans will be present for special recognition.
- Each day, more WWII veterans pass away, leaving fewer behind
- Benicia WWII veterans attending the service include Harold J. Bray, who survived the sinking of the USS Indianapolis; Peter Caggiano Sr., a mechanic who served in France and Germany; and Robert Hitchcock, a radio operator who took part in 32 air bombings and survived a crash landing.
- The family of WWII veteran Ethelbert Morgan also plans to attend. All will get a place to sit with their families
The Memorial Day Service began with a handful of people attending, but continues to grow and evolve. Former coordinator Kerry Carney said the event has become well known, and beloved for many. This year between 400 and 500 people are expected. “It’s a really nice small town feel. We put everything up the night before and we do a little dress rehearsal. We try to make it so we are really honoring the veterans,” she said.
Care goes into incorporating symbols and honorific acts:
- A traditional gun salute will be performed by the Military History Preservation Society members who wear military uniforms.
- A bugler will play “Taps;” a musician with a set of bagpipes plays “Amazing Grace”
- The Diablo Regional Band will perform a rendition of “America the Beautiful”
- A Color Guard is provided by the American Legion VFW Post 3928 and American Legion Post 101
- The National Anthem will be sung; the Pledge of Allegiance will recited
- A prayer will be given and Benicia’s Poet, Laureate Johanna Ely, will read a poem
- This year’s speaker is Col. Lawrence T. Brown, Commandant of the Presidio at Monterey, and the Emcee is Benicia veteran Larry J. Miller. A Travis Air Force Base flyover has been requested, but not yet confirmed, Stephens said.
Raising of the Flag and Flowers on Graves
Prior to the 10am service, Benicia Boy Scouts will raise an enormous garrison flag and put flowers on all of the graves. Founded in 1849, the cemetery is the final resting spot for soldiers and civilians, including women and children, plus eight German and one Italian POWs and several military dogs. The last burials occurred in 1958. “A lot of people don’t realize we have a military cemetery here. It’s quite a beautiful and amazing place,” Stephens said. The cemetery has a caretaker who tends to and maintains the grounds and headstones. On Memorial Day, parking at the cemetery is at a premium so people are advised to come early, or take a shuttle from the nearby Amports parking lot courtesy of SolTrans, added Stephens.