Diana L. Chapman
That’s the somber chill that floats in the air on a brisk sunny day at the Fort MacArthur Museum at Angels Gate Park. The angels aren’t appearing; but vandals are.
Disrespect abounds in a large, rectangular grassy area – which sadly battles to remain a military graveyard for animals, mostly dogs, that years ago protected us during the Cold War. But visitors, instead of offering dignity, settle down at the site, have picnics and leave trash behind. Dog owners allow their animals to do a dirty business on top of the graves. And worse, vandals have stolen a dozen plaques that once honored the dogs -- heroes as far as I’m concerned -- after their deaths. Which is why Dorothy Matich, 71, brought me here in the first place – to tell me about her latest quest.
She wants these animals to have the honor they deserve “as veterans” and simply started raising funds -- $7,500 so far -- to restore the graveyard and bring it back to the beautiful simplicity that once existed there. She believes acknowledging the efforts of the canines to protect us -- with a little bit of extras, including a six foot iron fence to help guard the site and an arched gateway -- is a must for our community.
Unless Dorothy has her way (which I believe she will), the site evidently will remain the sad, down location that currently reflects it today -- a grass area with a broken down white fence that surrounds it . Extinction appears near without Dorothy's efforts.
Gone now from the site were the only honors left, bequeathed to sentry dogs like: Jack, E939, who lived from March 1958 to December 1969; Lothar, 7A55, 1963-1973; Cheetah, K060, March 1965 – March 1973; Pancho 466E, Dec. 1960 to October 1968; Baron, 3F57, Dec. 28, 1957 to July 1970; and many others, including “Sam Pace, a beloved Navy Dog who lived 12 years,” and Perky, a cat owned by Col. N.H. Barnhart.
Also disappearing from the graveyard was what some believed to be a bronze sculpture of a German Shepherd, said museum curator Stephen Nelson, who picks his words carefully when he begins to steam about the damage vandals have caused. In an attempt to recreate that sculpture, the curator now asks if anyone in the community has photos of the stolen piece to contact him. He’d like to have a new one made for the restoration, unless a miracle happens and the original appears.
“I don’t even know what it looked like,” Stephen explained as we toured the site. It was stolen before he landed the job several years ago. “People should have a little more respect and contemplation for what we have here. People were literally prying up the markers. If it wasn’t your dog, why would you take it? It’s a real study in humanity.”
Yes, it is. And that’s what’s so crushing.
He also appealed to those in the community who might know the whereabouts of the original markers to return them; No questions will be asked.
As for Dorothy, who has no dogs of her own currently but helped raise her children’s dogs and who has a large heart for canines, defined what her mission’s about in one word: respect.
“I just feel like these dogs are veterans and they protected our coastline,” Dorothy told me. Many “had to be put down because they were trained killers. I get the chills when I think about it. It bothers me that so many people are disrespectful.”
If you know Dorothy, you understand she has the most dogged determination to bring back dignity to honor the veterans buried at this site; I agree they deserve more than the brownish patch of land and sorry-looking fence that surrounds the graveyard. As you possibly know from reading my past columns, I also strongly believe what we teach our kids about animals eventually translates to the relations they will have with humans.
Respect these creatures who respected and cared for us. If we can’t teach children that simple concept, then we are not doing the right thing.
As soon as Dorothy and her husband, Matt, both avid supporters of the museum who, unveiled the idea to revamp the cemetery, the director jumped at the chance. An architect was hired and the simple plans map out refurbishing the site by surrounding it with the fence, two strips of grass on either side, divided in middle by a path of decomposed granite.
The site would be surrounded with plants such as California sage brush, California buckwheat and red flowering current amid swirling ocean winds.
Of the 34 of steel plate markers, which honored the animals (mostly German Shepherds except for two cats) , so many of the plaques were stolen that the disillusioned curator finally removed and stored the remainders.
At the museum, not only has the curator collected the remaining markers, but was ecstatic when military veteran Paul Acosta visited a few years ago, saw the markers and cried out: “Those were my guard dogs,” referring to Lothar and Cheetah. He immediately turned over to the curator the dog's belongings that he kept -- their leather collars, an inch wide and nearly a half inch thick, which showed how powerful the beasts could be. He also donated to the museum a 20 foot long “working leash,” a six foot long handling leash, their stainless steel food bowls and a water bucket – the size of a kitchen pail.
While all of these items and the markers are languishing, hidden away treasures tucked in a museum with no place to display them, the current proposals will at least bring back some of the great dignity that once prevailed at the historic site, when it was a military post from 1914 to 1982 – the guardian of our harbor. The dogs arrived around 1941 to protect us first during World War II and then returned later in it it’s aftermath – the Cold War. The fort, which became a museum in 1986, was considered the first “base to use canine sentries as an integral part of its defensive plans,” the curator and his fellow author, David K. Appel, wrote in their book, Fort MacArthur.
The projected costs to refurbish the cemetery are about $20,000. Dorothy has raised thousands in several ways – her latest is selling $5 tickets for the sing-along Sound of Music playing at the Warner Grand on Sunday, May 6. The museum will receive $2 for each ticket sold.
As far as curator is concerned, this restoration project is a gesture that would dignify the deceased dogs, enhance the property, and it’s such a unique feature in the area, “it can be a feather in the cap for the whole community.”
Most of all, I believe it will be a great lesson for our children – to honor the canines that served and later died for us.
To purchase tickets from Dorothy, please call (310) 831-2803 or e-mail her at email@example.com.; Tickets can also be purchased at the Corner Store. 1118 W. 37th Street, (310) 832-2424. Also, to report any information to the museum curator regarding stolen plaques or to supply photographs of the German Shepherd statute that once graced the cemetery, call (310) 548-2631. The museum is located at 3601 South Gaffey Street. For more information about the fort, visit www.ftmac@org.