The history of Joint Base Lewis-McChord may be a bit of a mystery for those with no affiliation to the military. This 647-square-mile joint base — which supports 40,000 active, Guard, and Reserve service members; 15,000 civilian employees; 60,000 military family members; and 30,000 retirees — dates back more than 100 years.
Retired Maj. Gen. John A. Hemphill is well aware of this. As a U.S. Army veteran who retired in the local area after serving 34 years of distinguished service, he still returns the salute of the gate guards as he passes through Fort Lewis’ front gate. Hemphill is troubled by present-day knowledge of the base’s 100-year history. Even some service members are foggy on the details.
“In 2001, I asked 26 local residents who Fort Lewis was named for,” Hemphill said. “This included two former school teachers that were representatives to the State Legislature. No one knew.”
Hemphill is on a mission to spread awareness of the base’s history and honor its namesake.
Originally known as Camp American Lake, the camp began construction on July 5, 1917. Thirteen days later, on July 18, the post was named Camp Lewis, in honor of Capt. Meriwether Lewis from the Corps of Discovery — later coined the Lewis and Clark Expedition.
In a mere 90 days, more than 1,750 buildings and 422 other structures were built on the post, with a price tag totaling $7,000,723.51, earning the post bragging rights for being built in the shortest time and the lowest cost of any Army camp built during World War I.
McChord Air Force Base was later established in 1947, the same year the Army Air Corps became its own entity, the U.S. Air Force. Years later, JBLM was formally established as one of 12 joint bases worldwide on Oct. 1, 2010, on the order of the 2005 Defense Base Realignment and Closure Commission.
All these years later, Hemphill said, many Fort Lewis service members are unaware they are living and working on streets and housing areas named for members and equipment from the Corps of Discovery.
This motivated Hemphill and his fellow Army retirees to begin fundraising and lobbying to give Meriwether Lewis the recognition he and his fellow soldiers deserved, in the form of detailed, historically accurate bronze statues.
The memorial — located off exit 120 along Interstate 5 in Tacoma and open to the public — memorializes not only Lewis, but his faithful Newfoundland dog, Seaman, in delicate detail and historical accuracy, hand-carved by local artist Dr. John Patrick Jewell.
Additionally, the corps’ first sergeant, John Ordway, is represented by his own 10-foot statue. Ordway’s statue not only represents all American noncommissioned officers, but it was the first statue depicting an NCO in the country.
The look on Hemphill’s face when he talks about these statues is all pride; however, he said he is not happy with the location outside the main gate at Fort Lewis. The park is in a far corner of the visitors center parking lot, too far from the gate, the visitors center, and the vehicles on I-5 to see from a distance.
“Most of the soldiers and working civilians do not know about the statues because they never drive by the location or just do not bother to learn,” Hemphill said.
The hope, Hemphill said, is that the upcoming centennial celebration will be the ideal time to talk about the historical significance of Fort Lewis and its namesake.