When American Legion Chaplain Bill Cook peered through the chain-link fence at the windswept landscape — a broken runway, scrubby fields and green foothills in the distance — he remembered the Phantoms.
The fighter jets were once a regular sight, slicing through the air over what was for decades a bustling military base.
"The jets would just roar," he said on a recent afternoon at the old U.S. Marine Corps Air Station El Toro.
Now the Vietnam veteran is leading the charge to transform a small piece of that land into a final resting place for Orange County's veterans.
Cook and others have been pushing for a veterans cemetery here since El Toro closed in 1999, but the idea is finally gathering steam as the old base is transformed into a sprawling park and neighborhoods of new homes.
The proposal has gained the support of legislators, county supervisors, city officials and veterans groups, though some have worried about a sustainable funding source.
But the most daunting hurdle may well be placing a cemetery next to planned tracts of homes that are being marketed to Asians.
The developer who is building the thousands of homes on the rim of the Orange County Great Park has consulted a feng shui master to review the names of streets, the bends in the roadways and the design of the homes to ensure a proper flow of energy.
In a city that is already 40% Asian, it is expected that the new homes — many which will hit the market with listing prices over $1 million — will be sold to buyers arriving from Asia.
And a cemetery is simply bad feng shui.
In the early 1940s, when the base was teeming with soldiers training for war, the airfield was isolated among vast orange and avocado groves.
But as the high-end suburbs of South County fanned out, the base became hemmed in by tract homes, schools and shopping centers. The Marines finally left in 1999.
What they left behind was an enormous stretch of land, about 4,600 acres dotted with abandoned barracks and hangars and crisscrossed with runways. The transformation into parkland, sports fields and homes follows years of legal disputes and political wrangling.
Bill Sandlin, a member of the Orange County Veterans Memorial Park Committee, believes there's still room here for those who served their country.
"I want to do all I can to make sure this place maintains some of its Marine identity," said Sandlin, who transported Marines headed for the brig between the base and Camp Pendleton in the early 1960s.