VALLEJO (KPIX 5) – A veterans' cemetery in Vallejo is in bad shape and the city wants the federal government to take it back and fix it.
The Mare Island Naval Cemetery dates back to the mid-1800s, on what used to be a bustling military base.
"Many people don't realize that we have this little unique piece of history right here," Mare Island historian Peggy O'Drain told KPIX 5.
Tucked away behind closed gates, the cemetery established in 1858 predates the Civil War and is the oldest military cemetery on the West Coast.
"This one is unique. You won't find another one in the whole country, probably, quite like this one," O'Drain
Those buried at Mare Island include the daughter of Francis Scott Key, who wrote The Star Spangled Banner and her husband, Daniel Turner, who fought in the War of 1812.
Three men buried here were awarded the Medal of Honor and 15 graves contain sailors killed in a single horrific explosion on the USS Boston in 1892.
But despite all this history, the cemetery can be described in one word.
"I think it's deplorable," said Nestor Aliga of American Legion Post 603.
Broken branches cover some graves and many headstones are leaning or have collapsed completely. Drainage problems from the hill above are causing the earth to move and one headstone is actually sinking into the ground.
"These guys served our great country and they deserve same honor that all other folks that served our great country," Aliga said.
The City of Vallejo, which inherited the cemetery when the base closed, said it should have been transferred to the Veterans Administration.
Last week the mayor sent this letter to the Navy saying, "The City of Vallejo does not have the funds to restore the cemetery or maintain it to an appropriate level, commensurate with its historical importance."
By law, the VA pays to maintain military cemeteries but they can only give money to federal or state entities, not city governments.
So, Vallejo is taking the extraordinary action of asking the federal government to take back the land.
"Give it back to the Navy, a federal entity, so that one federal entity can administratively give it to another federal entity and follow public law." Aliga said.
Those who are fighting to save the cemetery hope public pressure on elected officials can get the government to do its duty, to those who died doing theirs.
More than 50,000 people have signed a nationwide petition, asking the Navy to take the cemetery back and preserve it.
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