Tahoma National Cemetery penetrated to his core . . . and that was two years before the facility opened.
And even then, it came about wholly by chance.
It was in the middle 1990s.
They had been in Ellensburg visiting their granddaughter, a student at Central Washington University.
Edward Claplanhoo and his wife, Thelma, were driving back to their home in Neah Bay on the far northwest coast of Washington State.
As they were motoring along on Highway 18 near Maple Valley, a road sign caught their eye. It was announcing the future home of a new national veterans cemetery under construction. Ed, as he was affectionately known to his family and friends and he a Korean War-era veteran, instantly recognized the significance of such a resource for those having military service.
With their curiosity aroused, Ed and Thelma opted to delay for a bit their arrival back in Neah Bay. Pulling off the main road, they began searching out the site of the cemetery.
“We had an awful time finding it,” Thelma recalls today. “Ed just kind of wandered around until he found the place where they were working.”
The decision was not made then, but so taken was Ed with what he heard and with what he saw and also with what he would come to know over the passage of the next several years, that he would choose the national cemetery that would be named “Tahoma” as the place of his own final rest.
To those closest to him, that came as no surprise.
Edward Claplanhoo was reared and nurtured in a family that instilled in him a keenly felt sense of patriotism and respect for military service. Born in 1928 and growing up in the vibrant fishing community of Neah Bay on the Makah Indian Reservation he had, in his father, Arthur Claplanhoo (1895-1973), the benefit of an exceptional role model.
In the family’s front yard on the beach overlooking the bay, the elder Claplanhoo had a pole erected from which, Thelma says, her father-in-law “put his flag out every day.”
Arthur had not served in the military, but he was, according to Thelma, “extremely patriotic.” It therefore must have come as a source of great pride (and understandable trepidation) when his son, in his junior year at Washington State College (now University) and already enrolled in the ROTC program there, received his draft notice. On the day that he was scheduled to report Ed, with a friend who was also a draftee, caught a bus from Port Angeles to Fort Lewis where, at 1:30 in the afternoon on November 17, 1950, they raised their right hands and were sworn into the United States Army. (Ed would return to Pullman immediately after his discharge and gain distinction as the first member of the Makah Tribe to graduate from college.)
Ed was mustered into the 369th Engineer Amphibious Support Regiment, Boat Battalion. Rising in rank to sergeant first class, he was assigned to duty stations at forts Lewis and Worden in Washington State; Coronado, Presidio, and MacArthur in California; Thule, in Greenland; and, Rochefort, in France.
”I gave the Army two years and two days of the best days of my life,” Ed would later recall, “but as I grew older, I look back and think those were wonderful years. I got to go to see places I would have never seen.”
After returning home from the Army, Ed dedicated himself to helping others, especially those who, like him, had served in the military.
For example, he never missed Veterans Day and Memorial Day ceremonies conducted at the city cemetery in Neah Bay. On those holidays, he also hosted breakfasts and luncheons for Neah Bay and Port Angeles veterans, and he could be counted on as an invited speaker at school assemblies and in classrooms.
When his duties during the three terms he served as chairman of the Makah Tribal Council called him away to Washington, D. C., he was on more than one occasion a visitor to Arlington National Cemetery. Those fields of honor, Thelma remembers, “always greatly impressed him.”
Ed and Thelma immersed themselves as well in another form of outreach, assisting residents of Neah Bay in making final arrangements at the nearest funeral home in their area, which was located 75 miles away in Port Angeles. It was in that way that Ed got to know the employees there who kept him informed of the requirements of interment at Tahoma National Cemetery in Maple Valley.
Thelma recalls her husband’s unabashed enthusiasm for Washington State’s only national cemetery. “He just thought it was the greatest thing to be buried at Tahoma,” she recounts, “and from the first time he saw the grounds there in all their splendor and beauty, he simply fell in love with the place.”
According to Thelma, Ed “kept going back to the guys at the funeral home and he’d come home and announce, ‘I found out more things about Tahoma.’”
In the last years of his life, Ed would reach the highpoint of his efforts undertaken on behalf of veterans.
It had been his dream to have public space in Neah Bay set apart for recognizing the military service of residents of his hometown both past and present. When land came to him through inheritance, there was no hesitation on his part to see his vision become a reality.
“When my dad passed away, my mother [Ruth] and I inherited this piece of property,” Ed recited in an interview. “Before she passed away, I said to her if you give me your share, I will build a veteran’s memorial to honor all the people who left Neah Bay to go to all the wars.”
His mother accepted his proposition and, when the time came, Ed set out to do exactly what he had promised he would do.
But his parent’s waterfront acreage was not just any property. It was the site of the first non-Indian settlement in the continental United States north of San Francisco and west of the Rocky Mountains. Spanish explorers had constructed a fort there, which they christened Núñez Gaona, over two centuries earlier in 1792.
The treaty negotiation that took place in 1855 between Makah leaders and territorial governor Isaac I. Stevens had also been held just off the site. Ed’s great-grandfather had been one of the signatory chiefs.
In collaboration with the government of Spain and the Honorary Vice Consul Luis F. Esteban, the Makah Tribal Council, the Office of the Lieutenant Governor of Washington State, Brad Owen, and Neah Bay area veterans and community members, six years of planning and construction culminated in the completion of Fort Núñez Gaona—Diah Veterans Park. Dedication of the hallowed site took place on Armed Forces Day, Saturday, May 17, 2008. Diah was the name of one of the five villages of the Makah Tribe and is today known as Neah Bay.
Designed in the form of a traditional Makah longhouse, the shrine recognizes nearly 300 Neah Bay veterans from World War I to the present day whose names are carved into a wall of black granite. Inscribed in the official program handed out during the dedication ceremony were these words: “This monument is dedicated to the honor of all veterans, active duty and retired military personnel from the Neah Bay Community who bravely served their family, community and country to preserve our freedom. Proudly We Served, We All Came Home.”
Three of the four finished and polished corner posts supporting the structure came from a 60-foot tall Port Oxford cedar tree that Ed and his father had planted on the property in the fall of 1937.
At the very location where the American flag of Arthur Claplanhoo had flown for so many years, the flags of the United States, Spain, the Makah Nation, the Nuu-chah-nulth Tribe, the state of Washington, and each branch of the United States military rose majestically over the shoreline fronting the Strait of Juan de Fuca.
His dream had been fulfilled, but precious little time remained for him to relish in the accomplishment.
Less than two years later, at the age of eighty-one, Edward Claplanhoo passed away on March 14, 2010. Heart failure was given as the cause.
In Neah Bay, and arriving from communities across the United States, well over one thousand mourners gathered to say goodbye. That morning, members of the Patriot Guard Riders motorcycle organization escorted Ed’s flag-draped coffin to his beloved Fort Núñez Gaona—Diah Veterans Park where the Inter-Tribal Warrior Society’s Honor Guard oversaw services that included a 21-ring salute, a 21-gun salute, the playing of Taps, and the folding and presentation of the American flag to his widow, Thelma Claplanhoo. Additional ceremonies were conducted in the Neah Bay High School gymnasium.
In keeping with Ed’s wishes, three days later, a hearse carrying his body, flanked by a patrol of the Patriot Guard Riders, followed a long procession of vehicles that departed the northwest coast on the five-hour journey that took them to Tahoma National Cemetery. There, only a short distance from the spot where, years before, he had questioned construction workers about the sacred grounds they were preparing for America’s veterans, Ed was laid to rest. His funeral, Tahoma staff informed the Claplanhoo family, was one of the largest attended in the history of the cemetery that had so completely captured his heart.
If Ed could address the forty thousand men and women of the United States Armed Forces surrounding him at his gravesite at Tahoma National Cemetery, he would surely communicate a message along the lines of “I salute you and a job well done.” If his fellow veterans could respond, they would undoubtedly do so in a like manner: “Right back at you, soldier—right back at you,” they would say. Richly-deserved praise, and, for Edward Claplanhoo, all that he would want.