Honored Heroes, Forgotten Dead

Photo by Steve LoweryNearly hidden in Irvine Regional Park is a tribute so obscure that most people don't know it's there. A park employee—a woman sitting 100 yards away, selling tickets to the Orange County Zoo—said she had never heard of it. Finally, after studying a park map for a moment, she recognized the symbol of a cannon, and her eyes brightened.

"We had a cannon," she said, "but I think it's out getting cleaned."

No, it's back on a path by the pond, aimed out over the water: one very clean Confederate Army Civil War cannon. Standing above the cannon, surrounded by ancient oak trees, is Orange County's monument to the Spanish-American War.

I was taking this in on Jan. 10, the day after Marine Gunnery Sergeant Stephen Bryson had become the first Orange County casualty in the Afghanistan war. He was killed along with six other Marines when his plane, a KC-130 air-refueling tanker, crashed in Pakistan.

I didn't know about Bryson when I went looking for the monument. I had been driving around the park for at least 15 minutes with the windows rolled down to enjoy the beautiful day.

The park seemed empty—a few people at the stables, my friend in the ticket booth—and it didn't appear the monument had drawn much of a crowd for some time. In keeping with the rustic setting, the main structure of the monument is a tall tapered column of river boulders. The stone column holds two plaques, the larger of which is the full "Muster Roll of Company L," listing every Orange County veteran who served during the Spanish-American War. One hundred and four years later, the 106 names of Company L, Seventh California Volunteer Infantry, are as anonymous to most of us as Stephen Bryson's was before Jan. 9.

The smaller plaque, cast from salvaged metal of the USS Maine, singles out four of the men of Company L for special recognition:

In Memoriam:
Louis W. Baker
Guy W. Halladay
Constantine L. North
William P. Northcross
Gave the utmost

The USS Maine exploded and sank in Havana Harbor on Feb. 15, 1898, killing 260 men, an event as upsetting to Americans then as Pearl Harbor or the World Trade Center would be later. But the inclusion of four OC infantrymen on a memorial to the USS Maine is misleading: none was involved in that tragedy.

Nevertheless, it's clear the four "gave the utmost."

At the time of the explosion on the Maine, Spain and the U.S. were not yet at war, though even the residents of small-town America were determined to drive the evil Spanish from Cuba. The Santa Ana Standard ran a front-page article on Jan. 1, 1898: "At present, we are at profound peace with the world . . . but I wish to call your attention to Cuba . . . oppressed by a cowardly European despotism for centuries . . . struggling for its freedom and the God-given right to govern itself. The Spaniards have fought for extermination of the oppressed. The butcheries by Spanish troops have no parallel in history."

Just two months after the explosion, the United States and Spain were at war. Santa Ana's National Guard unit, Company L, joined other California forces to become the Seventh Regiment, sworn in at the Presidio in San Francisco on May 9, 1898. They were quickly trained, relocated to nearby Camp Merritt, and scheduled to sail into action a month later.

Meanwhile, the war moved quickly. Spanish resistance was so weak that the urgency for additional troops subsided, and the Seventh Regiment's departure was postponed time after time, giving the troops training in the art of patience.

On Aug. 12, 1898, Spain asked for an armistice and negotiations began. Bored and restless, the men of Company L passed the hat among San Franciscans for donations to buy a piano; the cash was instead spent in local bars. They organized a cockfight with the Tennessee Regiment.

The Treaty of Paris ended what Secretary of State John Hay called a "splendid little war," giving America the rights to Guam, Puerto Rico and the Philippines, plus a military base at Guantanamo, Cuba. On Dec. 2, 1898, Company L was discharged and returned to Orange County, never having been to war. But the war had cost them nonetheless. While in San Francisco, Louis Baker died of pneumonia, Guy Halladay of meningitis and Constantine North of typhoid.

William Northcross survived Company L's waiting game during the war, joined the 35th Regiment in 1899 and sailed with them to the Philippines, where many Filipinos were upset about having simply traded Spanish rule for American.

Northcross died there along with thousands of other American soldiers—far more than had perished in the war with Spain. How he died—disease, battle, bar fight—no one knows. For now, Northcross' legacy is limited to a plaque on a monument that most people don't know exists. How Stephen Bryson's legacy, or that of any other casualty of the War on Terror, comes to be remembered remains to be seen . . . or not seen.

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