By A. R. Graham
Mount Soledad sits high above the Pacific Ocean with a breathtaking 360-degree view of San Diego. A concrete cross measuring 29-feet tall and 14-foot wide was installed in 1954 as a war memorial.
As I walk around the towering concrete monolith, an air of solemn reverence is present. Five minuets earlier, an army of media had assembled to broadcast a live report about the most recent ruling from the San Francisco Supreme Court; and once again, it has been deemed, “illegal to display a religious symbol on public land.” In 2001, a non-profit 501c corporation, Mount Soledad Memorial Association, added a memorial wall, where thousands of black granite plaques have been installed in memory of the fallen.
It is now no longer a lone cross since the wall was added. This brought a more human side to the equation. Before it was a memorial of the countless and faceless souls who died in battle. Now, the plaques tell of great heroes who sacrificed their lives for the nation. A gentle wind is blowing, and the morning sun illuminates the giant white cross. As if reciprocating in kind, it reflects billions of fragmented sun rays onto the wall below. As I descend the steps with the warm sun at my back, I am almost overcome with a great sadness at such loss. The flag’s giant shadow caresses the wall. The faces on the plaques reflect back at me telling me where, when, and how they all died. I am sure that there will always be an effort to remove the cross; but at the same time, I feel that it will always be there beaconing high on “Solitude Mountain”.
The original wooden cross on Mount Soledad was erected in 1913 by private citizens living in La Jolla and Pacific Beach, but was stolen in 1923. Later that year, it was affixed back in the ground in Mount Soledad Natural Park only to be burned down by the San Diego chapter of the Ku Klux Klan.
The second cross was erected in 1934 by a private group of Protestant Christians from La Jolla and Pacific Beach. This sturdier, stucco-over-wood frame cross was blown down by blustery winds in 1952.
Beginning in 1989, the cross had been involved in a continuous litigation regarding its legal status. According to the interpretation of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and the “No Preference” clause of the California Constitution by the opponents of the cross, it is illegal to display a religious symbol, such as a Christian cross, on public land, as it demonstrates preference to a specific religion and thus violates the separation of church and state. Judges have sided with plaintiffs on multiple occasions and ruled that the cross is illegal and had to be removed or sold to the highest bidder. Defenders of the cross explored several options for preserving the cross. The land under the cross was eventually transferred to the federal government. Critics of the cross allege that, even if the transfer itself is legal, it does not solve the fundamental problem of the argument that the cross is not legal on any government-owned property.
The American Civil Liberties Union proposed ways to resolve the situation such as the cross may be dismantled or the cross may be sold to a third party and physically transferred off the public land. An Episcopal church, located within a few hundred feet from the present location of the cross, has agreed to place it on its property. Another option is the government may hold an auction and sell the parcel of the land with the cross to the highest bidder.
Defenders of the cross saw all these options as unacceptable and were determined to find a way to leave the cross intact in its present location. A cross has been on the site since 1913. Architect Donald Campbell designed the present Latin cross in recessed concrete with a twelve-foot arm spread in 1954. In 1998, after the sale by the city of the cross and the land it stands on to the nonprofit Mount Soledad Memorial Association, the cross was transformed into being the centerpiece of a newly erected Korean Memorial.
Original Dedication Ceremony on April 18, 1954
Besides all of its controversy, the cross and its site provides a rich part of San Diego history. Having been first used as a Memorial Park in 1914, it went onto be used by the Lindbergh’s for glider flights in the 1920s. It was part of the military’s early-warning defense system in WWII. The 29-foot cross was dedicated on April 29, 1954 to honor Korean War veterans; and has been long used by planes and ships for navigation. It was transferred to the federal government on August 14, 2006 as the National Veterans Memorial.
Mount Soledad also holds the last home lived in by Dr. Seuss. His widow, Audrey Geisel, still resides atop Mount Soledad in a lavish home that includes “The Cat in the Hat” and an observation tower that is referred to as the “Seuss House” by the locals.
There is also an urban legend that in the 1930s, a group of little people who earned money in Hollywood by appearing in movies such as The Wizard of Oz, came to San Diego where they built miniature houses on Mount Soledad. The legend gained support due to the fact that several houses were built on steep slopes overlooking the Pacific and, as you drove or walked by, it was easy to believe, due to optical illusions, created as you looked down at the houses from the road that the doors and other features were smaller than normal. If you actually walked up to the houses, it was easy to see that they were normal sized. Most of the supposed, “Munchkin Houses” have been remodeled and the effect is no longer present. “We’re off to see the Wizard, the Wonderful Wizard of Oz…”
Current status of the cross: At the beginning of our new year, 2011, a federal appeals court ruled that a veterans’ memorial featuring the 43-foot cross on Mount Soledad is unconstitutional. “The use of such is distinctively Christian symbol to honor all veterans sends a strong message of endorsement and exclusion,” wrote Judge M. Margaret McKeown for the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. “It suggests that the government is so connected to a particular religion.” The decision that the La Jolla, California memorial violates the Establishment Clause reverses a lower court ruling does not determine what will happen to the cross. “This does not mean that the memorial could not be modified to pass constitutional muster, nor does it mean that no cross can be part of this,” McKeown concluded. This case has wound through the courts for two decades. Its future is still beknownst.
The Memorial Today
The memorial and cross are presided over by the Mt. Soledad Memorial Association, a nonprofit California 501(c)3 corporation, who purchased the land in 1992. Their mission statement is: To enhance and preserve the Mt. Soledad Veterans Memorial honoring veterans who have served our country and to educate the general public about service to our country and the sacrifice that veterans make to preserve the freedoms we enjoy as Americans. In August 2006, the Memorial was officially transferred to the Department of Defense and is now managed and operated by Commander, Navy Region Southwest located in San Diego, California.
The walls that have been constructed ultimately hold 3,200 black granite plaques which can be purchased by donors and engraved with the names and photos of war veterans. Currently, more than 2,700 are in place. Each plaque tells the story of a veteran’s military service or that of a group’s military service. It includes members of all military services: the U.S. Army, Navy, Marine Corps., Air Force, Coast Guard, and also the Merchant Marines who served during World War II. A large American flag flies over the Memorial. The brick pavers honor veterans and supporters as well. The Mt. Soledad Veterans Memorial is open to the public and docents are available as well as volunteer opportunities exist.
Where Thousands Gather to Honor Our Veterans