Veterans Day Service Honors Sacrifices
of Those Who Fought in World War I
Miramar National Cemetery Holds Remains of Two WWI Veterans
(Nov. 11, 2018) A bright orange sun was setting above Miramar National Cemetery as an audience of some 150 veterans, active duty military and family members gathered to honor those who fought and died in World War I. Dozens of others walked among the cemetery’s 16,000 headstones, placing flags or flowers on the graves of loved ones.
In opening remarks at the third annual Veterans Day service, Cathy Fiorelli, President and CEO of the Miramar National Cemetery Support Foundation which sponsors the service, said Americans should remember why Veterans Day is important, especially on the centennial of the end of World War I.
“One hundred years ago – on this very day in 1918 – a group of military officers gathered in a railway car…on the edge of a battlefield in France. The officers represented the German Army, and the Allied armies of France, Britain and the United States,” said Fiorelli. “For four long years, warfare had raged across the farmlands and forests of France, in the air above the battlefields, and on the seas, where Allied ships engaged German battleships and submarines.
“The officers were assembled to sign an Armistice, one they hoped would end a conflict that was called, “The War to End All Wars,” she said. “The Armistice took effect at 11 a.m., on November 11th. It was the eleventh hour…of the eleventh day…of the eleventh month…of 1918.”
Some 10 million military personnel were killed in WWI, Fiorelli noted, among them 116,500 Americans. Another 204,000 were wounded, and 4,500 taken as Prisoners of War or were missing in action. The remains of two Navy veterans of WWI are interred at Miramar: Chief Petty Officer Clyde Flynn and Chief Petty Officer Gasper Gaspellich.
“With this annual Veterans Day ceremony, we honor Chief Flynn and Chief Gaspellich,” Fiorelli said, “and we commemorate the sacrifices of all those men and women who gave years of their lives, and in some cases have lost their lives, in defense of the United States.”
Focus on POWs
The Veterans Day service also focused on the sacrifices of Prisoners of War. Retired Air Force Col. Ralph Kling led the Pledge of Allegiance. Kling was a prisoner of the Japanese during WWII.
Featured speaker at the service was retired Brig. Gen. Robert L. Cardenas, whose 34-year career in the Air Force spanned service in WWII, Korea, and Vietnam. During WWII, he was leading a bombing raid over Germany when the plane in which he was flying was heavily damaged by anti-aircraft fire.
“I was blown out of the aircraft and landed in Germany near Lake Constance, which separates Switzerland from Germany,” Cardenas told the audience. He decided to swim across the lake, which varies in width from about 1½ miles to 8.7 miles. “I had been a pretty good swimmer here in La Jolla, but when I went into the water, it was icy cold.”
He soon realized that the lake’s fresh water was only about half as buoyant as that of the Pacific Ocean’s salt water. “Just as I was at the point of drowning, a Swiss fisherman came along in his boat and picked me up.”
Switzerland was a neutral country during WWII, and Cardenas was interned as a Prisoner of War in one of three camps that held mostly Allied airmen who had flown their crippled planes into Swiss airfields, or had escaped from Germany. As a captain, he was placed in charge of the internees in a camp at Adelboden that held enlisted prisoners.
Taught Swiss Pilots
By that point in the war, some 40 damaged bombers of various types were being held by the Swiss, who had begun to repair them, and make them airworthy. The Swiss Air Force needed an Allied pilot to teach their pilots how to fly the planes, and Cardenas came to their attention. “I had the job of checking out the Swiss pilots in B-17s and B-24s,” Cardenas remembered.
He also had an opportunity to visit a POW camp at Wauwilermoos, a notorious camp commanded by a brutal Nazi sympathizer whose guards badly mistreated the malnourished prisoners. “There were no beds, just planks to sleep on,” he said. “No blankets, just straw.” Prisoners were subjected to physical abuse, starvation, freezing weather, and unhygienic facilities. He reported the conditions to American authorities, but the Swiss made no changes.
Eventually, Cardenas said, “I met a young Swiss lady who asked me if I wanted to leave the camp. I said, ‘Yes!’” A member of the French Underground, she smuggled pilots out of Switzerland. “She got me to France,” he said, and he arrived in Paris even before Allied troops reached the city.
Among his many accomplishments, Cardenas is credited as a prime mover in persuading the Veterans Administration to establish Miramar National Cemetery as an adjunct to Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery.
He was moved to action some years ago when he was approached by a woman who admonished him, “Instead of sitting around here drinking beer, why don’t you get us a new cemetery? I had to take my husband all the way up to Riverside National Cemetery for burial!”
Cardenas jumped into action and, along with a small group of San Diego veterans, began a years-long campaign for a new cemetery. They were successful, and Miramar National Cemetery was opened in January 2010.
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Story and photos by
Bill Heard, Public Information Officer
Miramar National Cemetery Support Foundation