Mojave Cross to be re-erected on Veterans Day

By BEATRIZ E. VALENZUELA | San Bernardino County Sun | Published: November 5, 2012

SAN BERNARDINO, Calif. — It's been a long legal battle that lasted more than a decade, but now, Henry and Wanda Sandoz of Yucca Valley will finally be able to keep a promise they made to a dying friend and veteran nearly 30 years ago.

"We really loved him," said Wanda in a phone interview. "It was really important for us to keep that promise to him. And to show we love our veterans and our country."

On Veterans Day, the Sandozes will be able to legally re-erect a simple 7-foot cross on Sunrise Rock east of Baker in the Mojave National Preserve.

The Sandozes met and became good friends with Riley Bembry, one of the World War I veterans who first placed the cross on Sunrise Rock in 1934 as a way to honor the veterans of that war.

When Bembry became ill and frail, he asked Henry to watch over the cross. Henry agreed.

Bembry died a short time later in 1984.

"It means very much to me, yes, and also to our veterans and our Lord and Savior," said Henry, 73.

The cross had become the focus of a legal case brought by the American Civil Liberties Union in 2000. The ACLU sued the federal government, asking that the cross be removed because the Christian symbol on federal land violated the First Amendment, prohibiting the government from endorsing any religion.

Soon the Liberty Institute in Plano, Tex., took up the cause for the Sandozes.

"If they hadn't come in on this we probably wouldn't have won," Wanda.

In 2002, the U.S. District Court Central District of California ruled in the ACLU's favor and the cross was encased in wood until an agreement could be reached.

In 2010, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned previous the ruling calling for the cross to be removed and sent the case back down to the U.S. District Court level.

A little more than a week after the ruling, the cross vanished. A replacement cross reappeared shortly after, but it was removed.

"We had people from all over the country offering us big granite crosses as replacements," Wanda said. "It was tempting, but we thought the cross should stay as the veterans wanted."

"Just a simple 7-foot white cross made of pipe," said Henry.

Earlier this year, a land swap was approved in which the Sandozes gave five acres of land to the Mojave Preserve in exchange for the one acre where the cross once sat. The land swap, putting the cross on private property, was finalized Friday.

"We're both just so happy that this is finally behind us," Wanda said. "It's been a 13-year battle. Henry had a big heart attack six or seven years ago and it's been a real concern that he was going to die before he saw this resolved."

For Henry, it's not only about keeping a promise to a friend, but honoring those who have served.

"Not having served, this is a way for me to give something back to them," he said.