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Mt. Soledad National Veterans Memorial above La Jolla

Recognizing our military heroes with a memorial at San Diego’s highest overlook

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Offering spectacular panoramic views stretching from the horizon in the west to the mountains in the east, Mt. Soledad, the highest point on the San Diego coastline, is inextricably intertwined with the history of both San Diego and the U.S. military. In 1908, Mt. Soledad was the one place from which San Diegans could view the entirety of President Theodore Roosevelt’s Great White Fleet, anchored offshore on its round-the-world tour. During World War II, Mt. Soledad was an observation point with a radio transmission tower used to monitor for Japanese ships and broadcast Easter services to the troops here and abroad.

And, as most San Diegans know, beginning in 1989, the cross that sits atop the peak was the focus of ongoing legal battles over the First Amendment and the separation of church and state that were not settled until 2015.

The cross that stands today is the third cross to occupy the spot. The first cross, erected in 1913, was stolen by vandals. The second cross, erected in 1934, toppled in a windstorm in 1952. Both were placed for religious purposes, but the current cross, erected in 1954, was placed as a lasting memorial to the service members who gave their lives during the two world wars and the Korean conflict.

Fortunately, despite all the legal controversies, throughout the 1990s the Mt. Soledad Memorial Association, the nonprofit that operates what is now officially the Mt. Soledad National Veterans Memorial, got to work on a project to achieve its ultimate goal of honoring all veterans regardless of rank, race, religion, or creed.

In 2001, that effort resulted in the dedication of six stone walls radiating outward from an American flag in front of the cross. Each wall features personalized black granite plaques engraved with photos and information about the veteran or group of veterans honored thereon.

“There are Revolutionary War and Civil War soldiers next to World War II and Iraq veterans. There are generals next to sergeants and admirals next to seamen,” explains Neil O’Connell, a 35-year Marine veteran who took over as Executive Director of the Mt. Soledad National Veterans Memorial this past April. “In fact, this is the only national veterans memorial that honors veterans from all branches of the military, both living and deceased.”

Neil O’Connell, Executive Director, Mt. Soledad Memorial Association, in front of Mt. Soledad
Neil O’Connell, Executive Director, Mt. Soledad Memorial Association

Five walls were added to the original six in 2013, making room for a total of some 5,500 plaques, but with only 90 or so spaces left, the memorial has embarked on plans to add five extensions, making room for an additional 2,000 plaques.

It is a remarkable place for contemplation, and the circular design invites visitors to walk around and read about the extraordinary Americans who have kept our nation safe. 

“It calms the mind,” says O’Connell. “It’s very quiet, very tranquil. And as you read, you’re sure to recognize a name — someone from your neighborhood, your hometown.” A large volunteer staff also ensures there is a docent on site during daytime hours to offer insight and answer questions.

The association holds two legacy events each year, one on Memorial Day and one on Veterans Day. Memorial Day is reserved for service members who made the ultimate sacrifice, and this past May those gathered honored Megan McClung, the first woman Marine killed in combat during the Iraq War.

This month’s Veterans Day ceremony on November 5 celebrates the Navajo Code Talkers who trained in San Diego and were critical to victory in the Pacific. Between 400-500 Native Americans served in the Marines during World War II and their primary mission was to transmit secret messages, often on the front lines. Regan Hawthorne, CEO of the Navajo Code Talkers Museum, will be in attendance, along with representatives from local San Diego tribes.

The Mt. Soledad National Veterans Memorial is truly a national treasure, featuring four presidents (Truman, Eisenhower, Ford, and Reagan), 12 Medal of Honor recipients, Admirals James Stockdale and William Halsey Jr., Generals John Pershing and George Patton, and celebrity veterans Audie Murphy and Jimmy Stewart.

The memorial is also available for special events including weddings, reenlistments, military retirements, commissioning, and pinning ceremonies. soledadmemorial.org

Image Credits Photography by Vincent Knakal

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