Vets seek repair of abandoned Philippine cemetery

American war veterans in the Philippines are urging the U.S. Congress to pass a bill that would require Washington to repair and maintain a cemetery north of Manila where the graves of thousands of American servicemen and dependents have been covered in ash since a 1991 volcanic eruption.

The head of an American veterans' group, Retired Army 1st Sgt. John Gilbert, said Wednesday that the neglect of Clark Veterans' Cemetery is a disgrace to the memory of more than 8,000 U.S. servicemen and their dependents who are buried there.

The U.S. Air Force hastily abandoned Clark Air Base, where the cemetery is located, after Mount Pinatubo's eruption. In 1994, American veterans were shocked to find the seven-hectare (17-acre) cemetery had become an ash-covered jungle of weeds, overgrown grass and debris with half of its old steel fence looted. They cleaned up the graves and have since struggled to maintain the cemetery through volunteer work and donations. Although the cemetery looks tidier today, about a foot (30 centimeters) of ash still covers it, partially burying tombstones and obscuring names, dates and epitaphs.

As America marked Independence Day, the U.S. veterans renewed their calls for Washington to fund and take charge of the cemetery's upkeep and for U.S. lawmakers to pass recently proposed legislation requiring a U.S. agency, the American Battle Monuments Commission, to manage it.

The "Remembering America's Forgotten Veterans Cemetery Act," which was introduced by New Hampshire Sen. Kelly Ayotte and Sen. Mark Begich of Alaska, has received the backing of several other senators.

"We have a solemn obligation to care for our fallen," said Gilbert, whose group includes hundreds of American veterans who have settled in villages outside the former Clark Air Base. "That is not happening in the case of the Clark Veterans' cemetery."

Gilbert appealed to Americans to help prod the U.S. government to "right a wrong," adding many of his fellow veterans, including those who help care for the cemetery, were getting old. Several die each year and are buried at the Clark cemetery, he said.

Philippine officials have authorized the veterans' group led by Gilbert to manage the Clark cemetery up to 2030, and have said they are open to allowing any U.S. agency to manage it.

Another veteran, former Navy Capt. Dennis Wright, said many Americans have provided support to the cemetery in heartwarming ways. Students in two California grade schools have donated small amounts to buy hundreds of small American flags to be used in adorning the graves, and a 10-year-old boy in Indiana has been collecting signatures in malls and public places to urge Washington to take care of the cemetery.

Several American veterans' organizations have also expressed support for the bill, he said.

The Clark cemetery was developed between 1947 and 1950, when it was used to collect the remains and tombstones from four U.S. military cemeteries as American officials sorted out their dead from World War II and previous wars.