April 29, 2012

Friendship takes High Desert couple to Supreme Court over controversial cross

Yucca Heights resident Henry Sandoz holds a painting of J. Riley Bembry's encampment, which was several miles away from his World War I memorial cross. His wife, Wanda, holds a painting of the cross. (Jim Steinberg/Staff)

Jim Steinberg, Staff Writer
Redlands Daily Facts

YUCCA HEIGHTS - It was 1974 when two dune buggies with frames made of pipes and powered by Corvair engines roared into a remote encampment in the Mojave Desert where the travelers heard an elderly man lived.

When the recluse in the cabin came out, he was invited to join the group for hamburgers.

"I haven't had a hamburger in six months," said the man, J. Riley Bembry.

And thus began a friendship that would span a decade for Henry and Wanda Sandoz.

Little did the young couple from the tiny community of Mountain Pass southwest of the Nevada state line know that because of this relationship, they would later be enveloped in a legal dispute that would take them into the chambers of the U.S. Supreme Court.

Nor did they have an inkling that Henry would be awarded the highest honor from the U.S. Veterans of Foreign Wars, something that happened last summer at the VFW's annual meeting in San Antonio.

Bembry wanted to be known by his middle name, Riley, not his first name, John, "because he said it was more distinguished," Henry said at the couple's home in Yucca Heights, an unincorporated area near the city of Yucca Valley.

Bembry was an Army medic during World War I, and by some accounts, he also taught soldiers how to use explosives, a skill he would later use to develop mines in the Mojave Desert.

After the war he initially was a butcher in Los Angeles and several neighboring cities. He frequently traveled into the Mojave Desert and over time became hooked on prospecting.

Around the time of the Great Depression, he was living full time in the desert, and an encampment of other World War I veterans grew around his cabin.

Many of them had come to the desert to heal from the various forms of physical and emotional damage caused by the war, the Sandozes said. And in the Great Depression, gold fever wasn't hard to catch.

In 1934, Bembry and some of his neighbors, mostly veterans,put a seven-foot tall wooden cross on a rock outcropping a few miles from his cabin. The site was a granite rock outcropping near Cima Road, about 15 miles south of today's 15 Freeway and 80 miles east of Barstow.

A sign below the cross said, "To honor the dead of all wars erected 1934 by members of Veterans of Foreign Wars, Death Valley Post 2884," according to a history compiled by the office of Rep. Jerry Lewis, R-Redlands.

Death Valley Post 2884 no longer exists.

Last week, an 11-year battle with the American Civil Liberties Union over that cross monument came to an end.

U.S. District Judge Robert J. Timlin in Los Angeles signed an order ending the ACLU lawsuit and paving the way for the original memorial site to be transferred from the federal government to the Veterans of Foreign Wars.

The ACLU had alleged that a cross on federal land violated the separation of church and state.

To make the legal settlement happen, Henry is giving up five acres of Mojave Desert land he has owned for decades in exchange for the one-acre site of the cross on Sunrise Rock, which will ultimately be transferred to the VFW.

"We have been at this a long, long time," said Lewis, who in 2003 championed legislation authorizing the land swap. "People from World War I started this. And people like Wanda and Henry Sandoz and many other marvelous people have stepped up to support this memorial."

Lewis also said, "Few people these days have any idea what the World War I veterans went through in those horrendous times."

Henry recalls the first time he saw the cross in the 1960s. At the time, a railroad boxcar that served as a clubhouse was at the base of the hill. The remains of a concrete patio, once used for dances, were alongside it.

A few miles away, Bembry's compound included an assay office, to determine the quality of his gold and silver samples, and a powder magazine, for dynamite.

He had a propane-powered refrigerator but few other conveniences in his cabin.

Wanda recalled that on that first picnic, she forgot to bring mayonnaise.

Bembry volunteered his opened mayonnaise jar, which had been kept unrefrigerated and was seven or eight years out of date.
"Obviously, we didn't have any," Wanda said.

A "pet" badger lived beneath his cabin for a time, the Sandozes said.

Bembry also fed rabbits, chipmunks and other critters that frequented his cabin, which included a "picture window" made from the windshield of a 1920s Studebaker.

The couple reminisced that once their oldest daughter drove Bembry into Barstow to renew his license for high explosives and to buy more dynamite. And that Bembry's skills as a butcher were appreciated by many during deer season.

Bembry didn't speak much about World War I, Henry said. About the only thing he can recall is that Bembry said he saved soldiers' lives when the 1918 flu pandemic hit camp by giving them whiskey and Bromo Quinine.

Not one soldier taking his "medicine" died in the epidemic, which claimed between 50 million and 100 million people worldwide, Henry recalls Bembry telling him.

Bembry, who took his own "medicine," did not contract this highly contagious flu, even though he cared for many soldiers infected with it, Henry said.

As two roadrunners and numerous quail raced across their backyard, the Sandozes recalled how in the spring of 1983, Bembry showed up at a previous residence near the Molycorp mine where Henry worked, saying he wanted to stay with them for a while because he wasn't feeling well.

"He ended up staying a week," Wanda said.

They didn't realize until much later that Bembry had probably suffered a small heart attack.

In the fall of 1984, Bembry became ill and asked a neighbor to drive him to his daughter's home in Norwalk. The Sandozes kept thinking he would recover, but he never did.

His daughter brought the cremated remains to the Mojave Desert cabin, where more than 100 attended the funeral.

Many at the funeral believed it was time to bring back the sunrise services on Easter, which had been a tradition for decades but had lapsed.

That tradition has continued most years since Bembry's death.

"As a little girl, my wife remembers going to Easter services there," said Pastor Larry Craig, 58, a missionary based in Newberry Springs who for some 27 years has traveled 110 miles to conduct sunrise Easter services at Sunrise Rock.

Although Bembry may not have attended Easter services at the cross he helped install, ranch hands, miners and others from a wide area across the Mojave Desert had a long tradition of attending Easter services at the World War I memorial site, Craig said.

Reflecting on the journey in the long battle to retain the memorial site veterans created in 1934, Henry, 72, said giving up the land wasn't an option.

"I owed it to Riley and to the veterans for all their sacrifices," he said.