By Marisa Petrich, Northwest GuardianMarch 9, 2012
JOINT BASE LEWIS-MCCHORD, Wash. -- There's been a lot of life on JBLM Lewis Main and Lewis North in the last 95 years. Since they began as Camp Lewis in 1917, the stories of thousands of service members and their Families have played out on the installation as they did everything from going to school to going to war.
Just under 1,000 of those stories are marked by headstones on JBLM Lewis Main. The Fort Lewis Cemetery, which is as old as the installation itself, is closed for all intents and purposes -- there is only space for three to four cremation plots, and the requirements for getting one are stringent -- but its significance to JBLM is still relevant.
"The whole history of the base is here," JBLM architectural historian and veteran Duane Denfeld said while touring the small graveyard on a rainy morning last week.
He and JBLM Public Works employee Gary Stedman are history enthusiasts, and find the stories that happened to end here no less important than the others. In fact, Stedman, also a veteran, brings Boy and Girl Scouts, JBLM Soldiers and other community members to the site every Memorial Day to clean and decorate the headstones with flags.
The cemetery itself is smaller than one might expect, considering the number buried there. Neat rows of headstones are arranged in four quadrants and surrounded by an iron fence. Outside the gates, the entire area is surrounded by trees, which are certainly tall enough to date back to the installation's beginnings and before.
"It's very sobering when you stand there and look at it," JBLM's Casualty Assistance Center chief Patricia George said.
George and her colleagues manage the Fort Lewis Cemetery. Though there are a handful of spaces left, most are spoken for. In order to secure a slot there these days, one has to be a retiree or active duty Soldier, or possibly a direct relation of someone already buried.
For the most part, burials don't take place there at all anymore, save for those whose plots were already reserved.
The markers themselves span from then Camp Lewis's very beginnings to just a few months ago, but many of the stories can be difficult to discern without a guide.
The first headstone ever to be placed in the cemetery, for instance, isn't even marked with a date. It belonged to Lee Whalen, a Soldier who was training at Camp Lewis in 1917. The Seattle Daily Times reported that he died in October of that year after a brief illness, and was survived by a father and two sisters -- but all his headstone will tell you is his name, and that he belonged to Company B of the 347th Machine Gun Company.
Other residents are less mysterious. Among them is Maj. Gen. David Stone, the man who came to Washington in May of 1917 with orders to find a location for and build a National Army Camp.
Once the location was determined construction began in June, and 90 days later 1,500 wooden buildings, 105 miles of roads and working sewer system made up the brand-new Camp Lewis.
Stone returned to what had become Fort Lewis in 1936 to briefly serve as the installation's commanding general. After his Army career ended, Stone and his wife returned to the area until their deaths in 1959 and 1994, respectively.
Both are buried at the cemetery -- and by that time standards had evolved to include religious affiliation, rank and birth and death dates on the headstone.
Among the least-expected lives to be commemorated at the cemetery are those of three German prisoners of war from World War II. The men had been held in POW camps that were on the installation at the time. All the men who died while being held prisoner were buried on the installation, but most were posthumously repatriated back to Germany after the war.
Three are left. On Memorial Day, Stedman places German flags on their graves.
Slightly more than half of those at the cemetery are Family members, but even they add to the picture of life on base at the time. A number of children were buried at the site in the early 1950s, perhaps reflecting the thousands that died of polio at the time. Among them is the unnamed son of a Maj. J.W. Blessings. In front of his headstone is a pair of leather baby shoes, there so long they've grown a layer of moss.
Each marker represents a person and a life -- and a bit of history.
For Denfeld and Stedman, who they were and how they died is interesting, but the crucial element is remembering that they lived.
"It's important to remember people that have sacrificed their lives in support of this country, and it's important to remember the people that supported those people," Stedman said.